Biological explanations of psychopathology can reduce the extent to which people with mental disorders are blamed for their symptoms but can also yield prognostic pessimism—the belief that psychiatric conditions are relatively immutable. However, few studies have examined whether these effects occur among persons who actually have psychiatric symptoms. This study sought to address this question.
Adults living in the United States (N=351) were recruited online in January and February 2012 and assessed for symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. The participants were randomly assigned to two groups: a biological condition, in which participants (N=176) were provided a description of generalized anxiety disorder and a biological explanation of the etiology of the disorder, and a control condition, in which participants (N=175) were provided the same description without any explanation of etiology. Dependent measures of treatability, duration of symptoms, and responsibility for symptoms were used to gauge beliefs regarding the prognosis and personal responsibility of a typical person with generalized anxiety disorder.
Among participants with and without symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, the biological condition was associated with decreased ascriptions of personal responsibility for anxiety (p=.02) and expectations of increased duration of symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (p=.01).
This finding has important social and clinical implications, especially because biological conceptualizations of psychopathology are increasingly prevalent. By causing prognostic pessimism about generalized anxiety disorder, including among those with symptoms of the disorder, biological explanations could negatively affect treatment seeking and outcomes. Efforts to dispel the link between biological explanations and prognostic pessimism are needed.