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How Causal Attributions Influence Attitudes about Affirmative Action

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Principal Investigator(s):

Patrick Corrigan
Illinois Institute of Technology
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Sample size: 815
Field period: 4/6/2006 - 4/13/2006



The success of supported employment programs will partly depend on eschewing stigma in communities in which the programs operate. In this project, we examine two models of stigma -- responsibility attribution and dangerousness -- and their relationship to components of supported employment -- help getting a job and help keeping a job. Eight hundred and fifteen people from a stratified and randomly recruited sample completed responses to a vignette about “Chris,” a person who is alternately described with mental illness, drug abuse, or in a wheel chair. Research participants completed items that represented responsibility and dangerousness models. They also completed items representing two fundamental aspects of supported employment: help getting a job or keeping a job. Data were analyzed using manifest factor, structural equation models. Results showed that when participants viewed “Chris” as responsible for his condition (e.g., mental illness), they reacted to him in an angry manner, which in turn led to lesser endorsement of the two aspects of supported employment, help getting or keeping a job. In addition, people who viewed Chris as dangerous, feared him and wanted to stay away from him, including settings where people with mental illness might work. Implications for understanding supported employment, and for addressing the stigma that may hinder these kinds of programs, are discussed.


(1) People with psychiatric disabilities are viewed with more pity than those with physical disabilities.

(2) The public endorses affirmative actions and reasonable accommodations more for physical disabilities than for psychiatric disabilities.

(3) People with psychiatric disability compared to physical disability are going to be blamed for slow offset.

Experimental Manipulations:

This is a 3 (Health Condition) x 2 (Controllability of the health condition) fully crossed, between-subjects design. The independent variables were manipulated by changing the wording of the vignette.

Health condition was manipulated by changing the condition in the vignette (mental illness, drug addiction, or being in a wheel chair).

Controllability was manipulated by changing the doctor's explanation for the illness (biological/genetic, caused by moral weakness).

Key Dependent Variables:

Viewing the person with disability as responsible for the disability, pitiful, and worthy of angry. Also proxies of affirmative action (i.e., hiring a person for a job and providing reasonable accommodations) were assessed.

Summary of Findings:

The purpose of this study was to determine how various proxies of stigma predict two fundamental elements of supported employment: helping a person find a job and helping a person keep a job. One factor we hypothesized as relevant to these elements was health condition; namely, how do public attitudes about components of rehabilitation change across psychiatric and physical conditions. We tried to make better sense of the effects of health conditions by examining path models that explain constructs thought to “cause” these conditions. Two path models examined in previous research (Corrigan et al., 2002; Corrigan et al., 2003) were the focus of this study: responsibility attributions and perceptions of dangerousness. Previous research suggests that responsibility attributions predict helping behavior (in the supported employment case, helping people find and keep a job) via the emotional mediators -- pity and anger -- between responsibility and help. Although three indicators failed to support a goodness of fit for the model; associations among model elements suggested candidate pairs that might be supported in future research.

Consistent with attribution theory, we expected help finding and keeping a job to be associated with pity and anger. Anger yielded significant and direct effects on finding a job, and on keeping a job. Pity also showed significant effects on finding a job but poor effects with keeping a job. Further challenging pity’s role in the attribution model, the relationship between responsibility and pity failed to reach significance. Negative findings of pity may reflect an alternative perspective; namely, that viewing people with psychiatric disorders sympathetically leads to less personal empowerment (Rogers, Chamberlin, Ellison, & Crean, 1997). As one advocate put it, people with mental illness and drug addiction want parity not pity. Pity produces pathetic perceptions which lead to disrespect, not a positive perspective when a person is seeking work.

Findings for the dangerousness model seemed more robust compared to the attribution model. Fit indicators were significant for both the comprehensive model and the original model where the exogenous variables were removed. Not helping to keep a job was significantly associated with the prior event of not helping to find a job. Fear was not found to be significantly associated with “helping to keep a job” but was significant with “helping to find a job.” These findings suggest that the construct of “not helping to find a job” mediates the role of fear in the construct of “not helping to keep a job.” As shown in previous research (Corrigan et al., 2003) and replicated here, dangerousness was highly associated with fear. Health and controllability conditions were found to predict dangerousness, with both mental illness and drug addiction higher than the wheel chair group. This finding is consistent with previous research that shows psychiatric conditions are associated with dangerousness. These findings suggest that perceiving a construct as blame worthy may also yield perceptions or beliefs of dangerousness.


What implications do these findings have for diminishing stigma’s impact on supported employment? The relationship between stigmatizing attributions, discriminatory intentions and supported employment may be understood in terms of “pubic stigma.” Public stigma represents the impact of the general public’s attitudes on policies that promote the rights and opportunities of people with psychiatric disorders. The variables -- responsibility, pity, anger, dangerousness, and fear -- are one set of stigmatizing attitudes. The results show that the greater the stigma, the less the willingness to help, and the greater the avoidance shown by the group. Research has examined methods for addressing public stigma (Corrigan & Penn, 1999). They include protest, framing public stigma as a social injustice and instructing people to suppress these kinds of thoughts; education, contrasting the myths and facts of psychiatric disorders with the assumption that more knowledge about these conditions will diminish endorsement of stigma; and contact, enhancing interactions between people with psychiatric disorders and the public. Briefly, contact seems to yield the strongest effects on stigma with education and protest significantly less so (Corrigan et al., 2002). Thus, these findings suggest one way to enhance endorsement of supported employment is to use contact and other forms of stigma change. Stigma change strategies are most effective when targeting a discrete power group rather than the general public (Fiske, 1993). Hence, advocates are more likely to advance aspects of supported employment when targeting the group for which endorsement is most important. With regards to obtaining work, that group is employers.


Corrigan, P. W., J. E. Larson, and S. A. Kuwabara. 2007. "Mental illness stigma and the fundamental components of supported employment." Rehabilitation Psychology 52:451-457.

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