Genetic essentialism suggests that beliefs in genetic causes of mental illness will inflate a desire for social distance from affected individuals, regardless of specific disorder. However, genetic contingency theory predicts that genetic attributions will lead to an increased desire for social distance only from persons with disorders who are perceived as dangerous.
To assess the interactive effect of diagnosis and attribution on social distance and actual helping decisions across disorders.
Undergraduate students (n = 149) were randomly assigned to read one of the six vignettes depicting a person affected by one of the three disorders (i.e., schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression) with either a genetic or environmental causal attribution for disorder. Participants completed measures of perceived dangerousness, social distance, empathic concern, familiarity with mental illness, and actual helping decisions.
When provided with genetic attributions, participants’ desire for social distance was greater for targets with schizophrenia relative to targets with depression or bipolar disorder. This effect was mediated by perceived dangerousness. The indirect effect of diagnosis on helping decisions, through social distance, was significant within the genetic attribution condition.
Consistent with genetic contingency theory, genetic attributions for schizophrenia, but not affective disorders, lead to greater desire for social distance via greater perceived dangerousness. Further, results suggest that genetic attributions decrease the likelihood of helping people with schizophrenia, but have no effect on the likelihood of helping people with affective disorders. These effects are partially accounted for by desired social distance from people with schizophrenia.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Conrad P (2001) Genetic optimism: framing genes and mental illness in the news. Cult Med Psychiatry 25(2):225–247
Dar-Nimrod I, Heine SJ (2011) Genetic essentialism: on the deceptive determinism of DNA. Psychol Bull 137(5):800–818. doi:10.1037/a0021860
Nelkin D, Lindee MS (1995) The DNA mystique: the gene as cultural icon. WH Freeman and Company, New York
Haslam N (2011) Genetic essentialism, neuroessentialism, and stigma: commentary on Dar-Nimrod and Heine (2011). Psychol Bull 137(5):819–824. doi:10.1037/a0022386
Phelan JC (2005) Geneticization of deviant behavior and consequences for stigma: the case of mental illness. J Health Soc Behav 46(4):307–322
Phelan JC (2002) Genetic bases of mental illness—a cure for stigma? Trends Neurosci 25(8):430–431
Jorm AF, Griffiths KM (2008) The public’s stigmatizing attitudes towards people with mental disorders: how important are biomedical conceptualizations? Acta Psychiatr Scand 118(4):315–321. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0447.2008.01251.x
Read J, Harré N (2001) The role of biological and genetic causal beliefs in the stigmatisation of ‘mental patients’. J Ment Health 10(2):223–235. doi:10.1080/09638230123129
Rusch N, Todd AR, Bodenhausen GV, Corrigan PW (2010) Biogenetic models of psychopathology, implicit guilt, and mental illness stigma. Psychiatry Res 179(3):328–332. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2009.09.010
Dietrich S, Matschinger H, Angermeyer MC (2006) The relationship between biogenetic causal explanations and social distance toward people with mental disorders: results from a population survey in Germany. Int J Soc Psychiatry 52(2):166–174
Schnittker J (2008) An uncertain revolution: why the rise of a genetic model of mental illness has not increased tolerance. Soc Sci Med 67(9):1370–1381. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2008.07.007
Breheny M (2007) Genetic attribution for schizophrenia, depression, and skin cancer: impact on social distance. N Z J Psychol 36(3):154–160
Angermeyer MC, Dietrich S (2006) Public beliefs about and attitudes towards people with mental illness: a review of population studies. Acta Psychiatr Scand 113(3):163–179. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0447.2005.00699.x
Boysen GA, Gabreski JD (2012) The effect of combined etiological information on attitudes about mental disorders associated with violent and nonviolent behaviors. J Soc Clin Psychol 31(8):852–877. doi:10.1521/jscp.2012.31.8.852
Elgie R, Morselli PL (2007) Social functioning in bipolar patients: the perception and perspective of patients, relatives and advocacy organizations—a review. Bipolar Disord 9(1–2):144–157. doi:10.1111/j.1399-5618.2007.00339.x
Perlick DA, Rosenheck RA, Clarkin JF, Sirey JA, Salahi J, Struening EL, Link BG (2001) Stigma as a barrier to recovery: adverse effects of perceived stigma on social adaptation of persons diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder. Psychiatr Serv 52(12):1627–1632
Vazquez GH, Kapczinski F, Magalhaes PV, Cordoba R, Lopez Jaramillo C, Rosa AR, Sanchez de Carmona M, Tohen M (2011) Stigma and functioning in patients with bipolar disorder. J Affect Disord 130(1–2):323–327. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2010.10.012
Hinshaw SP, Stier A (2008) Stigma as related to mental disorders. Annu Rev Clin Psychol 4:367–393. doi:10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.4.022007.141245
Stier A, Hinshaw SP (2007) Explicit and implicit stigma against individuals with mental illness. Austral Psychol 42(2):106–117. doi:10.1080/00050060701280599
Lauber C, Nordt C, Falcato L, Rossler W (2004) Factors influencing social distance toward people with mental illness. Commun Ment Health J 40(3):265–274
Link BG, Yang LH, Phelan JC, Collins PY (2004) Measuring mental illness stigma. Schizophr Bull 30(3):511–541
Corrigan PW (2000) Mental health stigma as social attribution: implications for research methods and attitude change. Clin Psychol Sci Pract 7(1):48–67. doi:10.1093/clipsy/7.1.48
Mehta S, Farina A (1997) Is being ‘sick’ really better? Effect of the disease view of mental disorder on stigma. J Soc Clin Psychol 16(4):405–419. doi:10.1521/jscp.19126.96.36.1995
Joinson A (1999) Social desirability, anonymity, and Internet-based questionnaires. Behav Res Methods Instrum Comput 31(3):433–438
Link BG, Cullen FT (1983) Reconsidering the social rejection of ex-mental patients: levels of attitudinal response. Am J Commun Psychol 11(3):261–273
Holmes EP, Corrigan PW, Williams P, Canar J, Kubiak MA (1999) Changing attitudes about schizophrenia. Schizophr Bull 25(3):447–456
Batson CD, Eklund JH, Chermok VL, Hoyt JL, Ortiz BG (2007) An additional antecedent of empathic concern: valuing the welfare of the person in need. J Pers Soc Psychol 93(1):65–74. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.52
IBM SPSS Statistics for Windows (2010), 19th edn. IBM Corp, Armonk
Preacher KJ, Hayes AF (2008) Asymptotic and resampling strategies for assessing and comparing indirect effects in multiple mediator models. Behav Res Methods 40(3):879–891
Schomerus G, Matschinger H, Angermeyer MC (2013) Causal beliefs of the public and social acceptance of persons with mental illness: a comparative analysis of schizophrenia, depression and alcohol dependence. Psychol Med, 1–12. doi:10.1017/S003329171300072X
Feldman DB, Crandall CS (2007) Dimensions of mental illness stigma: what about mental illness causes social rejection? J Soc Clin Psychol 26(2):137–154. doi:10.1521/jscp.2007.26.2.137
Sears PM, Pomerantz AM, Segrist DJ, Rose P (2011) Beliefs about the biological (vs. nonbiological) origins of mental illness and the stigmatization of people with mental illness. Am J Psychiatr Rehabil 14(2):109–119. doi:10.1080/15487768.2011.569665
Jorm AF, Oh E (2009) Desire for social distance from people with mental disorders. Austral N Z J Psychiatry 43(3):183–200. doi:10.1080/00048670802653349
Read J, Haslam N, Sayce L, Davies E (2006) Prejudice and schizophrenia: a review of the ‘mental illness is an illness like any other’ approach. Acta Psychiatr Scand 114(5):303–318. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0447.2006.00824.x
Batson CD, Chang J, Orr R, Rowland J (2002) Empathy, attitudes and action: can feeling for a member of a stigmatized group motivate one to help the group. Pers Soc Psychol Bull 28(12):1656–1666. doi:10.1177/014616702237647
Corrigan P, Markowitz FE, Watson A, Rowan D, Kubiak MA (2003) An attribution model of public discrimination towards persons with mental illness. J Health Soc Behav 44(2):162–179. doi:10.2307/1519806
Bessenoff GR, Sherman JW (2000) Automatic and controlled components of prejudice toward fat people: evaluation versus stereotype activation. Soc Cogn 18(4):329–353. doi:10.1521/soco.2000.18.4.329
Joseph J (1999) The genetic theory of schizophrenia: a critical overview. Ethical Hum Sci Serv 1(2):119–145
Page S (1995) Effects of the mental illness label in 1993: acceptance and rejection in the community. J Health Soc Policy 7(2):61–68
Stuart H (2006) Mental illness and employment discrimination. Curr Opin Psychiatry 19(5):522–526. doi:10.1097/01.yco.0000238482.27270.5d
This project was supported in part by grants from the National Center for Research Resources (P20RR016474) and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (P20GM103432) from the National Institutes of Health. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.
Conflict of interest
On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.
Imagine a person named Jamie. Usually Jamie gets along well with his family and coworkers. He enjoys reading and going out with friends. About a year ago Jamie started thinking that people were spying on him and trying to hurt him. Jamie became convinced that people could hear what he was thinking. He also heard voices when no one else was around. Sometimes he even thought people on TV were sending messages especially to him. Jamie began to isolate himself because he believed that many people were out to get him. Jaime’s friends and family became extremely worried about his increasingly odd behavior. After living this way for about 6 months, Jamie was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
Imagine a person named Jamie. Usually Jamie gets along well with his family and coworkers. He enjoys reading and going out with friends. About a year ago Jamie started feeling very down and unhappy. Jamie found it very hard to get out of bed, get dressed, and go to work, or do anything. Jamie just did not get any pleasure out of anything the way he normally would. He often did not feel like eating and he had trouble sleeping. Jamie also felt completely worthless and even had thoughts about killing himself. After having these problems off and on for about 6 months, Jamie was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
Imagine a person named Jamie. Usually Jamie gets along well with his family and coworkers. He enjoys reading and going out with friends. About a year ago Jamie started to experience significant changes in his mood. He experienced periods where his mood became very elevated. During these periods, Jamie slept very little and spent many hours on school work and other projects. Additionally, during these periods, Jamie’s friends said he became so talkative and hyper that he was difficult to understand. At other times Jamie would feel so down that he lost interest in everything and avoided friends and family. During these periods, Jamie had thoughts about killing himself. After having these mood swings for about 6 months, Jamie was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
About this article
Cite this article
Lee, A.A., Laurent, S.M., Wykes, T.L. et al. Genetic attributions and mental illness diagnosis: effects on perceptions of danger, social distance, and real helping decisions. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 49, 781–789 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-013-0764-1
- Mental illness
- Social distance