Imagined contact and its impact on the stigma of mental illness: relationship and secondary transfer effects

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This study aimed to build on existing research on the effects of imagined contact with stigmatized individuals. Specifically, this study examined the effect of imagining contact with a person with depression on attitudes towards other persons with depression. University student participants were randomized into four conditions where relationship to the imagined contact partner was manipulated. It was hypothesized that the closer the relationship, the less stigmatizing the attitudes towards persons with depression. It was also hypothesized that any effects of relationship would transfer to other similarly stigmatized groups via secondary transfer effects. Results showed no significant effects of the relationship condition, nor any secondary transfer effects. However, previous contact with persons with mental illness had significant effects on four out of the five measures of depression stigma and on ratings of three out of five groups of persons with mental illnesses. Reasons for these findings and limitations of the research are discussed. These findings have implications for targeted anti-stigma campaigns and for educating young adults on mental illness.

University of California, Davis
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The following is an excerpt of the intervention methodology. For more information, please see the full text of the article on the publisher's website or through your institution's library.

Participants Three hundred seventy-three students (117 men, 253 women, 3 who identified as “something else”) recruited from introductory psychology courses at a large university in California participated in the study for course credit. Of the participants, 38.6% identified as Asian, 27.8% White, 17.6% Hispanic, 5.1% identified with more than one race, 4.5% identified as Filipino, 4.3% identified as “other,” and 1.9% identified as African American. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 41 years (M = 20.70, SD = 2.76) and were fairly evenly distributed across school year or level (25.4% were first-year students, 21.4% second-year, 28.3% thirdyear, 19.5% fourth-year, 4.5% fifth-year or higher, and 0.5% were graduate students).


Questions about relationship with best friend or acquaintance. Individual items asked how long participants have known their best friend/acquaintance, the gender and ethnicity of the best friend/acquaintance, and whether or not the best friend/acquaintance has ever been diagnosed with depression.

Imagined contact scenarios and reflection prompt. Participants in the experimental conditions were told the following (where the name or initials given for their best friend or acquaintance and the corresponding gender pronoun was piped in): [Verbal Stimulus A]. After this imagined contact, participants were asked a series of questions about their imagined interaction. [...] Participants in the control condition were told the following: [Verbal Stimulus B]. After this prompt, participants were asked a series of questions about their imagined scene. [...]

Intergroup Anxiety Intergroup anxiety was measured using a shortened version of the scale developed by Stephan and Stephan (1985), where participants were asked “If you were to meet a person diagnosed with depression in the future, how do you think you would feel?”. [...] Participants rated how awkward, happy, self-conscious, competent, and relaxed they would feel on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 5 (very). [...]

Depression Stigma The dependent variable, depression stigma, was based on the measurement of stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination separately. [...]

Stereotypes. Two types of stereotypes were measured and assessed separately. Dangerousness was measured using the Dangerousness Scale [...]. participants rated each item on a 6-point scale from 1 (strongly agree) to 6 (strongly disagree) [...]. [...] using Corrigan’s Attribution Questionnaire-27 (AQ-27) as a rough guide, six items measuring endorsement of stereotypes of personal responsibility were created. Each of the six items [...] were rated on a 6-point scale from 1 (strongly agree) to 6 (strongly disagree). [...]

Prejudice. Prejudice was measured using the Affect Scale (AS). [...] Participants rated each item from 1 to 7 [...].

Discrimination. First, willingness to discriminate was measured using a modified version of the Social Distance Scale (SDS) [...]. Participants rated each item on a 4-point scale from 1 (definitely willing) to 4 (definitely unwilling). [...] A questionnaire about intentions for future contact was also used as a measure of discrimination [...]. Participants rated each item from 1 (not at all) to 9 (very) [...].

Procedure After consenting to participate, participants answered demographic questions and then were randomly assigned to the stranger, acquaintance, best friend, or control condition. Participants in the acquaintance and best friend conditions entered the initials or first name of an acquaintance or best friend, answered questions about that person, and were asked if that person has depression. Participants who indicated that the person does have depression were subsequently not asked to imagine contact, but were instead directed to the remainder of the survey. Participants who indicated that the person does not have depression, or those who were not sure, were subsequently prompted to imagine that this peer had developed depression and to imagine having an interaction with this peer. Participants in the stranger condition were asked to imagine having an interaction with a stranger with depression immediately after answering demographic questions. All participants imagining contact were then asked questions about their imagined interaction. Participants in the control condition were prompted to imagine an outdoor scene and were asked questions about that scene. After the imagined prompt, all participants, including those who said that their best friend or acquaintance had depression, answered questions assessing intergroup anxiety and the various components of depression stigma, their previous contact with mental illness, and what terminology they prefer when referring to persons with mental illness. Next, participants rated their attitudes towards various other groups and completed filler measures assessing cultural flexibility, multicultural attitudes, empathy, socially desirable responding, and personality. Finally, participants wrote what they thought the study was about, to check if responses in the survey may have been due to demand characteristics, and were explained the purpose of the study and given the contact information for local mental health resources. [...]

Type of Prejudice/Bias