Effects of a chemical imbalance causal explanation on individuals' perceptions of their depressive symptoms

Behav Res Ther. 2014 May:56:47-52. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2014.02.009. Epub 2014 Mar 6.


Although the chemical imbalance theory is the dominant causal explanation of depression in the United States, little is known about the effects of this explanation on depressed individuals. This experiment examined the impact of chemical imbalance test feedback on perceptions of stigma, prognosis, negative mood regulation expectancies, and treatment credibility and expectancy. Participants endorsing a past or current depressive episode received results of a bogus but credible biological test demonstrating their depressive symptoms to be caused, or not caused, by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Results showed that chemical imbalance test feedback failed to reduce self-blame, elicited worse prognostic pessimism and negative mood regulation expectancies, and led participants to view pharmacotherapy as more credible and effective than psychotherapy. The present findings add to a growing literature highlighting the unhelpful and potentially iatrogenic effects of attributing depressive symptoms to a chemical imbalance. Clinical and societal implications of these findings are discussed.

Keywords: Chemical imbalance; Depression; Etiology; Prognosis; Stigma.

MeSH terms

  • Depression / psychology*
  • Female
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Psychological Theory*
  • Young Adult