Genetic attributions and mental illness diagnosis: Effects on perceptions of danger, social distance, and real helping decisions

Aaron A. Lee, Sean M. Laurent, Thomas L. Wykes, Katherine A. Kitchen Andren, Katelynn A. Bourassa, Christine L. McKibbin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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. Purpose: To assess the interactive effect of diagnosis and attribution on social distance and actual helping decisions across disorders. Methods: 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. Results: 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. Conclusion: 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)781-789
Number of pages9
JournalSocial Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Essentialism
  • Genetic
  • Helping
  • Mental illness
  • Social distance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Epidemiology
  • Health(social science)
  • Social Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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