Thinking you can catch mental illness: How beliefs about membership attainment and category structure influence interactions with mental health category members

Abstract

We explored beliefs about mental disorder categories that influence potential interactions with category members. Specifically, we investigated beliefs related to how membership in a mental disorder category is obtained (communicability and causal origin) as well as beliefs related to the underlying reality of disorder categories (essentialism and controllability). In Experiment 1, participants’ interaction-willingness decisions were predicted by their beliefs that a mental disorder category was (1) communicable, (2) psychologically caused, (3) environmentally caused, and (4) possessed all-or-none membership. With fictitious mental disorders, people were less willing to interact with people described as having a communicable mental disorder than with those described as possessing any of the other factors of interest, highlighting the independent influence of these contagion beliefs (Experiment 2). We further explored beliefs about the communicability of mental disorders in Experiment 3 by asking participants to generate descriptions of how mental disorders are transferred between people. Our findings suggest the importance of understanding contagion beliefs in discovering why people distance themselves from people diagnosed with mental disorders. More generally, our findings help in understanding how our basic category knowledge is used to guide interactions with category members, illustrating how knowledge is translated into action.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Notes

  1. 1.

    Essences need not be genetic in nature and can be endorsed without knowing exactly what form they take (for a discussion of essence placeholders, see Gelman, 2003; Medin & Ortony, 1989). The form of essentialism discussed here specifically instantiates an essence as a genetic factor. See the General discussion for more on this issue.

  2. 2.

    As in Ahn et al. (2009), we calculated the mean biological, psychological, and environmental ratings for each disorder and ran correlations over these mean ratings to test the relationship between factors. We replicated Ahn et al. (2009) in that endorsing psychological factors was strongly positively correlated with endorsing environmental factors [r(10) = .87, p < .001], and endorsing biological factors was strongly negatively correlated with endorsing psychological factors [r(10) = –.85, p < .001] as well as environmental factors [r(10) = –.96, p < .001].

  3. 3.

    Following Ahn et al. (2006), we tested whether ratings collapsed across all tested disorders significantly differed from the midpoint of the scale on each of the six essentialism questions. We replicated Ahn et al.’s (2006) findings that participants endorsed the presence of a necessary feature [t(11) = 11.8, p < .001], a sufficient feature [t(11) = 16.4, p < .001], a causal essence [t(11) = 13.1, p = .003], and the need to remove the causal essence to change membership [t(11) = 3.77, p < .001] for mental disorders. We also replicated their finding that participants were agnostic as to whether mental disorder categories possessed all-or-none membership (mean ratings did not differ from the scale’s midpoint (p = .28)). Our findings for the socially constructed question differed from Ahn et al. in that where their participants rated disorder categories as socially constructed, our participants were agnostic as to this distinction (p = .98).

  4. 4.

    As stated previously, not all participants received the sufficient feature, causal essence, or remove the essence questions as a result of their ratings on previous questions. Anyone who did not receive a question was given a rating equivalent to strongly disagree for the purpose of retaining his or her data in these analyses.

  5. 5.

    Our use of a 0 to 100 scale for recoding results in uniformly small fixed-effect estimates. The importance of these values is to interpret them in relation, not by absolute value.

  6. 6.

    This analysis conducted in the baseline condition was not significant (p = .70, η p 2 = .009), providing evidence that participants rated our materials similarly in the absence of a factor.

  7. 7.

    For the act of coding, the social interaction category was split into three subcategories that were then combined into the social category: general social interactions (e.g., hanging out with someone with a disorder), direct observation (e.g., watching someone experience the disorder), and direct communication (e.g., hearing someone talk about her disorder). Of the responses coded into these three subcategories, only 9.7 % fell into observations and 3.4 % into communication. Mechanisms coded into any of the three subcategories all described some form of social interaction, so, for simplicity of results presentation, we combined the three subcategories into one social interaction category.

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Author Note

We thank Andres De Los Reyes, Amanda Brandone, Chris Burke, and Barbara Malt for helpful comments on early versions of this article.

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Marsh, J.K., Shanks, L.L. Thinking you can catch mental illness: How beliefs about membership attainment and category structure influence interactions with mental health category members. Mem Cogn 42, 1011–1025 (2014). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13421-014-0427-9

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Keywords

  • Categorization
  • Contagion
  • Essentialism
  • Causal beliefs
  • Clinical reasoning