Search TESS:


The Role of Gender Stereotypes in Mental Illness Stigma

Download data and study materials


Principal Investigator(s):

Galen V. Bodenhausen
Northwestern University
Home page:

James Wirth
University of North Florida
Home page:

Sample size: 379
Field period: 04/07/2004 - 04/25/2004

Sample size: 379
Field period: 04/07/2004 - 04/25/2004


The stigma of mental illness imposes substantial costs on both the individuals who experience mental illness as well as on society at large. Understanding the psychological underpinnings of this stigma is therefore a matter of practical as well as theoretical significance. In a national, web-based survey experiment, we investigated the role played by gender in moderating mental illness stigma. Respondents read a case summary in which the gender of the person was orthogonally manipulated along with the type of disorder; the cases reflected either a male-typical disorder or a female-typical disorder. Results indicated that when cases were gender-typical, respondents felt more negative affect, less sympathetic, and less inclined to help, compared to when cases were gender-atypical. This pattern can be explained by the fact that gender-typical cases were significantly less likely to be seen as genuine mental disturbances.


The focal research question is -- do people stigmatize persons with mental illness to a greater or lesser degree when their symptoms are gender atypical?

Two competing hypotheses:

1. greater punitiveness for gender-typical behavior -- predicts that reactions to counterstereotypical behavior will be more sympathetic (less stigma) than reactions to stereotypic behavior.

2. greater punitiveness for gender deviance -- predicts that reactions to counterstereotypical (gender-deviant) behavior will be less sympathetic (more stigma) than reactions to stereotypic behavior.

Experimental Manipulations:

Target sex (male 'Brian" vs. female 'Karen')
Target age (adult vs. child/adolescent)
Symptom profile
Male typical vs. Female typical
Adult male disorder --> alcoholism
Adult female disorder --> depression
Adolescent male disorder --> ADHD
Adolescent female disorder --> anorexia

Key Dependent Variables:

Affective responses
Anger, irritation, annoyance, disgust, dislike
Sympathy, concern, pity
Helping inclinations
Likelihood that the disorder is a genuine mental disturbance
Likelihood that the disorder has a biological cause
A variety of potential moderating variables were assessed, including previous contact experience with persons with mental illness, gender role ideology, and Protestant work ethic

Summary of Findings:

Results for the adult cases conformed to the hypothesis that there would be greater stigma (more anger, less sympathy, less helping) for gender-typical disorders. These results generalized across male and female respondents, except that the helping results were evident only among male respondents -- female respondents were relatively more likely to help regardless of experimental condition. No moderating effects of ideology or contact experience were found. As a possible window on the underlying reason for these results, responds were significantly more likely to view gender-atypical cases as genuine mental disturbances than gender-typical cases, and they were marginally more likely to view then as having a biological cause.
Results involving the child/adolescent cases were not consistent and the particular disorders (ADHD and anorexia nervosa) involved may have been less familiar to many respondents and therefore less relevant to gender stereotyping concerns.


Wirth, J. H., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2009). The role of gender in mental illness stigma: A national experiment. Psychological Science, 20, 169-173.

Copyright © 2014, TESS