The more that physicians are persuaded by biological explanations of mental illnesses, the less empathy they feel for patients who are experiencing psychological difficulties, according to a study from Yale University in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“In a series of studies, U.S. clinicians read descriptions of patients whose symptoms were explained using information that focused on either genetics and neurobiology or on childhood experiences and stressful life circumstances,” explained a Yale University press release. “Among other questions, the clinicians were asked how much compassion they felt for the individual, an essential element of therapy. The clinicians consistently expressed less empathy and compassion for the patient when his or her symptoms were explained using biological factors.”
“Biological explanations are like a double-edged sword,” lead author Matthew Lebowitz said in the press release. “They tend to make patients appear less blameworthy, but the overemphasis on biology to explain psychopathology can be dehumanizing by reducing people to mere biological mechanisms.”
“Clinicians also viewed psychotherapy as less likely to be effective when provided biological explanations for illness rather than psychosocial ones,” stated the press release. Meanwhile, “depressed individuals tend to be more pessimistic about their prognoses the more they attribute their symptoms to biological causes.”
(Abstract) Effects of biological explanations for mental disorders on clinicians’ empathy (Lebowitz, Matthew S. and Ahn, Woo-kyoung. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Published online before print December 1, 2014. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1414058111)
For docs, more biology info means less empathy for mental health patients (Yale University Press Release on EurekAlert!, December 1, 2014)