Biogenetic explanations and public acceptance of mental illness: systematic review of population studies

Br J Psychiatry. 2011 Nov;199(5):367-72. doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.110.085563.


Background: Biological or genetic models of mental illness are commonly expected to increase tolerance towards people with mental illness, by reducing notions of responsibility and blame.

Aims: To investigate whether biogenetic causal attributions of mental illness among the general public are associated with more tolerant attitudes, whether such attributions are related to lower perceptions of guilt and responsibility, to what extent notions of responsibility are associated with rejection of people who are mentally ill, and how prevalent notions of responsibility are among the general public with regard to different mental disorders.

Method: A systematic review was conducted of representative population studies examining attitudes towards people with mental illness and beliefs about such disorders.

Results: We identified 33 studies relevant to this review. Generally, biogenetic causal attributions were not associated with more tolerant attitudes; they were related to stronger rejection in most studies examining schizophrenia. No published study reported on associations of biogenetic causal attributions and perceived responsibility. The stereotype of self-responsibility was unrelated to rejection in most studies. Public images of mental disorder are generally dominated by the stereotypes of unpredictability and dangerousness, whereas responsibility is less relevant.

Conclusions: Biogenetic causal models are an inappropriate means of reducing rejection of people with mental illness.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Attitude to Health*
  • Dangerous Behavior
  • Guilt
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / etiology
  • Mental Disorders / genetics
  • Mental Disorders / psychology*
  • Population Surveillance*
  • Prejudice*
  • Public Opinion
  • Rejection, Psychology*
  • Stereotyping