Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Psychology

Genetic Attribution for Schizophrenia, Depression, and Skin Cancer: Impact on Social Distance

Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Psychology

Genetic Attribution for Schizophrenia, Depression, and Skin Cancer: Impact on Social Distance

Article excerpt

Genetic explanations for mental and physical illness are increasingly common in both scientific research and in media reports generated from such research, however, the social impact of these explanations are less well understood. In this study it was predicted that both genetic attribution for illness and type of illness would be related to a desire for social distance. Participants were provided with a description of Jamie, who suffered from skin cancer, major depression, or schizophrenia. This illness was described as either having a strongly genetic basis, no genetic basis, or no causal explanation was provided. Participants then indicated their willingness to interact with Jamie using the Social Distance Scale. Type of illness described did significantly influence social distance score, with participants more willing to interact with Jamie when he was described as having skin cancer than schizophrenia or major depression. There was a significant interaction between illness type and genetic attribution for illness, with an increase in willingness to interact when schizophrenia was described as genetically caused and a decrease in willingness to interact when major depression was described as genetically caused. Genetic explanations may be suggested to reduce the stigma associated with mental illnesses, however, these explanations work in complex ways and may not uniformly reduce illness related stigma.


The role o f genetics in determining health and wellbeing is increasingly discussed in scientific research (de Jong, 2000) and in media reports of such research (Conrad, 2001). The genetic component of complex traits is often investigated (de Jong, 2000), including the contribution of genetics to criminality (see Lowenstein, 2003; Martens, 2002; Retz, Retz-Junginger, Supprian, Thome & Rosler, 2004), and mental illness (see Thompson, Watson, Steinhauer, Goldstein & Pogue-Geile, 2005). Media representations contribute to lay explanations, and genetic factors are commonly identified as causing mental illness. Around two thirds of an Australian community sample attributed schizophrenia and depression to genetic causes (Jorm, Christensen & Griffiths, 2005). However, the impact of a claim of a genetic basis for complex psychological traits has received relatively little attention (Lemke, 2004), and may be a useful framework for understanding public attitudes towards those with mental illnesses (Zissi, 2006).

Genetic Attribution

Genetic explanations may influence understandings of human behaviour and the stigma associated with these behaviours (Phelan, 2005). Reframing mental illness as a brain disease with a genetic component has been suggested to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness; however, conversely, this may exacerbate experience of stigma (Bag, Yilmaz, Kirpinar, 2006; Corrigan & Watson, 2004). In support of this, Dietrich, Matschinger and Angermeyer (2006) found that biological or genetic causes of schizophrenia were associated with greater fear and reduced willingness to interact with people with schizophrenia. Phelan (2005) also found that genetic causes were associated with greater seriousness, persistence, and transmissibility of deviance. Research has found less blame attributed to those with genetically caused schizophrenia (Phelan, 2002), and less stigma associated with causes beyond the patients control, including genetic transmission (Martin, Pescosolido & Tuch, 2000; van't Veer, Kraan, Drosseart, & Modde, 2006). Phelan (2005) found some participants reported both reduced blame and increased associative stigma for genetically caused mental illnesses. Genetic causes for mental illness may have complex effects, ameliorating the blame associated with mental illness, bur increasing stigma.

Social Distance

Stigma is an attribute that discredits an individual, reducing them from a whole person to a discounted person in the eyes of others (Major & O'Brien, 2005). …

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