. As clinical neuroscience rapidly progresses, mental disorders are increasingly explained in terms of biological mechanisms (e.g., depression is caused by chemical imbalances). The proposed project will examine (i) whether laypeople and practicing clinicians are open to such biological explanations, (ii) how biological explanations impact opinions about mental disorders among clinicians and those who display symptoms, and (iii) how negative effects of biological accounts can be reduced. (i) Is mental health literacy in state to readily accept new neurobiological accounts of mental disorders? Both laypeople and clinicians will read about patients and rate biological or non-biological causes with respect to convincingness, or usefulness in clinical practice. The proposed project will test preliminary data suggesting that biological accounts are more convincing when a mental disorder is already viewed as more biologically rooted (e.g., schizophrenia), but not when a disorder is considered to be more psychological (e.g., social phobia). Identifying such obstacles for improving mental health literacy among clinicians and laypeople is imperative in finding ways to effectively disseminate new biological explanations to them. (ii) What are the effects of biological accounts of mental disorders? Although biological attributions of mental disorders were initially thought to decrease prejudice against mental disorders by reducing the blame placed on patients, recent studies reported that biological accounts can make those with disorders appear more dangerous and unchangeable, leading to increased prejudice. Unlike previous studies, the proposed project will investigate the effects of biological attributions of mental disorders in clinicians and in people with mental disorder symptoms. For instance, the proposed project will validate alarming preliminary results indicating that when people with depressive symptoms attribute their symptoms to biological factors, they become more pessimistic about their prognoses and feelings of control over their symptoms. Also, preliminary results in practicing clinicians show that biological explanations can make them less empathetic toward hypothetical clients with mental disorders. These results highlight perils in blindly disseminating biological information. (iii) How can we combat negative effects of biological explanations in disseminating such information to the general public and clinicians? Recently, we found that providing treatability information was effective in reducing social distance when a mental disorder was described as caused by biological factors but not when caused by non- biological ones. The proposed project will further examine whether information on the efficacy of medications may be more effective in reducing prejudice against biologically rooted mental disorders, and information on efficacy of psychotherapy in reducing prejudice against non-biologically rooted ones. In addition, the proposed project will examine whether pessimistic prognoses associated with biological explanations could be reduced by teaching laypeople with depressive symptoms about neural plasticity (e.g., brains are malleable) and epigenetic (e.g., genes do not predetermine one's condition).

Public Health Relevance

Mental illnesses are increasingly described as disorders of the brain, caused by biological factors, such as chemical imbalances or genes. While such portrayals can reduce the extent to which mentally ill people are blamed for their condition, biomedical accounts of mental illness can be associated with pessimism about prognoses as well as a greater desire to distance oneself from people with a mental illness (Deacon &Baird, 2009;Pescosolido et al., 2010). The proposed project will examine whether similar negative effects are present among practicing clinicians and people who show signs of mental disorders, and also to devise strategies to combat such negative effects.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI)
Research Project (R01)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1-RPHB-P (50))
Program Officer
Mcewen, Jean
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Yale University
Schools of Arts and Sciences
New Haven
United States
Zip Code
Lebowitz, Matthew S; Ahn, Woo-Kyoung (2016) Using Personification and Agency Reorientation to Reduce Mental-Health Clinicians' Stigmatizing Attitudes Toward Patients. Stigma Health 1:176-184
Lebowitz, Matthew S; Rosenthal, Jessica E; Ahn, Woo-Kyoung (2016) Effects of Biological Versus Psychosocial Explanations on Stigmatization of Children With ADHD. J Atten Disord 20:240-50
Kim, Nancy S; Ahn, Woo-Kyoung; Johnson, Samuel G B et al. (2016) The influence of framing on clinicians' judgments of the biological basis of behaviors. J Exp Psychol Appl 22:39-47
Johnson, Samuel G B; Ahn, Woo-kyoung (2015) Causal Networks or Causal Islands? The Representation of Mechanisms and the Transitivity of Causal Judgment. Cogn Sci 39:1468-503
Lebowitz, Matthew S; Ahn, Woo-kyoung (2015) Emphasizing Malleability in the biology of depression: Durable effects on perceived agency and prognostic pessimism. Behav Res Ther 71:125-30
Lebowitz, Matthew S; Ahn, Woo-Kyoung; Oltman, Kathleen (2015) Sometimes more competent, but always less warm: Perceptions of biologically oriented mental-health clinicians. Int J Soc Psychiatry 61:668-76
Lebowitz, Matthew S; Ahn, Woo-kyoung (2014) Effects of biological explanations for mental disorders on clinicians' empathy. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 111:17786-90
Lebowitz, Matthew S; Pyun, John J; Ahn, Woo-kyoung (2014) Biological explanations of generalized anxiety disorder: effects on beliefs about prognosis and responsibility. Psychiatr Serv 65:498-503
Lebowitz, Matthew S; Ahn, Woo-Kyoung; Nolen-Hoeksema, Susan (2013) Fixable or fate? Perceptions of the biology of depression. J Consult Clin Psychol 81:518-27
Ahn, Woo-kyoung; Taylor, Eric G; Kato, Daniel et al. (2013) Causal essentialism in kinds. Q J Exp Psychol (Hove) 66:1113-30