When Mental Health Issues Are Biological, Empathy Diminishes

A woman listens to her doctorMental 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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  • carlos


    December 18th, 2014 at 3:57 AM

    So I am a little confused:
    if someone was born with all of these issues then we don’t feel as bad for them as we would for someone who was living life just fine until a traumatic event dealt the a tragedy that they are struggling to cope with? I don’t like to believe that this is true, I think that both people deserve equal empathy but I do see your point.

  • Georgia


    December 18th, 2014 at 11:17 AM

    Very sad to think that this is something that a person genuinely cannot help and yet they are still made to feel such shame because if it.

  • Laurence


    December 19th, 2014 at 11:59 AM

    If even doctors are thinking this then how can anyone else be expected to think any differently?

  • Chris


    December 20th, 2014 at 6:27 PM

    Sad. I was Definitely born with it. You would think if you’re going to be a Doctor, THEY WOULD TEACH YOU ABOUT BEDSIDE MANNER !!

  • Turner


    December 25th, 2014 at 11:27 AM

    It’s kind of like if you have always believed this one thing about yourself, then no matter what anyone else says I would bet that this is what you will continue to believe. Those things are often rooted very deeply and difficult to change.

  • chadd


    December 27th, 2014 at 3:56 PM

    I have a hard time believing that we are so self involved that when someone has a true biological issue that causes them to be different from what we perceive to be the norm that we shut down and fail to empathize with them. How is it even possible that we are taking care of the lest of us when we are so concerned only about the things that make all of us different, and never quite so much on the things that lead us to sameness?

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