Mental health advocates have long pointed to the biological mechanisms that contribute to the development of mental health problems. If people aren’t to blame for their mental health, the theory goes, then doctors and others will treat mental health problems just like diabetes or cancer. According to a Yale University study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, though, biological information could actually reduce empathy.
Biological Details May Reduce Empathy
To test how information about various mental health conditions affects empathy, researchers recruited 343 physicians to read descriptions of mental health conditions. Some of the doctors read descriptions that attributed mental health problems in whole or in part to genes or brain cells. Others received explanations that attributed mental health conditions to environment or childhood.
After doctors read the descriptions, researchers asked a series of questions, including queries about how much empathy they felt for a person whose symptoms matched the diagnosis the doctor read. Doctors who read biological explanations expressed less empathy for people with mental health conditions. They also believed that psychotherapy was less likely to work in those cases, even though psychotherapy is a highly effective treatment for mental health difficulties.
Why Does Biological Information Reduce Empathy?
Matthew Lebowitz, the Yale graduate student who lead the study, argues that emphasizing biological causes can be dehumanizing. Previous research published by the same authors suggests that biological data can also affect how people feel about a diagnosis. According to that study, people with depression felt less hopeful about their ability to recover if they believed depression was primarily caused by biological factors.
Though biological details can alleviate the guilt and shame people with mental health conditions sometimes experience, biological explanations can also make a condition seem permanent and hard-wired.
Cohen, R. (2014, December 05). Biological psychiatric problems garner less empathy. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/12/05/us-empathy-psychology-patients-idUSKCN0JJ27G20141205
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