Effects of biological explanations for mental disorders on clinicians' empathy

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Dec 16;111(50):17786-90. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1414058111. Epub 2014 Dec 1.


Mental disorders are increasingly understood in terms of biological mechanisms. We examined how such biological explanations of patients' symptoms would affect mental health clinicians' empathy--a crucial component of the relationship between treatment-providers and patients--as well as their clinical judgments and recommendations. In a series of studies, US clinicians read descriptions of potential patients whose symptoms were explained using either biological or psychosocial information. Biological explanations have been thought to make patients appear less accountable for their disorders, which could increase clinicians' empathy. To the contrary, biological explanations evoked significantly less empathy. These results are consistent with other research and theory that has suggested that biological accounts of psychopathology can exacerbate perceptions of patients as abnormal, distinct from the rest of the population, meriting social exclusion, and even less than fully human. Although the ongoing shift toward biomedical conceptualizations has many benefits, our results reveal unintended negative consequences.

Keywords: biological explanations; dehumanization; empathy; essentialism; mental disorders.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Comprehension
  • Counseling
  • Empathy*
  • Health Personnel / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders*
  • Psychiatry
  • Psychology
  • Social Perception*
  • Social Work
  • United States