Willingness to interact with someone with a mental health diagnosis may be tied to the misperception that disorders can be transferred from one person to another, according to a new study published in the Journal of Memory & Cognition.
The researchers, Jessecae Marsh and Lindzi Shanks, point out that the way we categorize subjects in our experience impacts how we interact with those subjects. For example, “at a grocery store we do not just categorize these things as apples and these things as pears; rather, we make this categorization to then make a decision about which to buy.”
In their study, they aim to explore how beliefs about categories guide real-world interactions. Specifically, they set up three different experiments to explore how beliefs about mental disorders affect one’s willingness to interact with people diagnosed with such a disorder.
In the first experiment, they surveyed 45 undergraduate students about their beliefs about the communicability, causal origin, essentialism, and controllability of various mental disorder categories. They then compared the findings with participants reported willingness to interact with members of those same categories. They found, “the more a disorder was believed to be communicable, the less willing people were to interact with its members.”
To assess whether or not a participant’s willingness to interact is tied to perceived communicability, rather than other preexisting notions about mental disorder categories, the researchers set up a second experiment. This time they came up with artificial mental disorders and surveyed participants reactions to the varying descriptions. Participants’ willingness to interact with members of the artificial disorders was, again, found to be influenced by the disorder’s perceived communicability.
For the third experiment, Marsh and Shanks had 122 undergraduates answer a questionnaire, rating the degree to which they thought various mental and physical illnesses were communicable. They were also asked to give an estimated length of contact time needed to catch the disorder and describe in detail how they believed it could pass from one person to another. Medical illnesses, like chickenpox and measles, were described as being transmitted very rapidly through physical contact. But mental disorders, they found, “were predominantly described as having a general social transmission mechanism” and as being contracted through extended exposure.
Participants rarely identified a specific mechanism by which a mental disorder could be transmitted rather, mental disorder category membership was often described as “a ‘slippery slope,’ where emulating dysfunctional behavior is the first step toward being a member of a disorder category.”
This study is suggestive of the need for general education around mental health issues to reduce stigma and decrease social distancing.
See New Hampshire Public Radio’s coverage of this study here →
Marsh, J. K., & Shanks, L. L. (2014). Thinking you can catch mental illness: How beliefs about membership attainment and category structure influence interactions with mental health category members. Memory & cognition, 42(7), 1011-1025. (Abstract)