News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Think: The Psychology Of Disease


In our culture, people battling certain diseases are seen as brave and heroic, while others can be viewed as weak or morally lacking. Today on Think, Krys Boyd talked to a panel of mental health experts to find out why we’re compelled to judge people based on certain health conditions.

Social psychologists refer to our drive to judge as the Fundamental Attribution Error.

“Namely that we have a tendency, especially in our very individualistic society, to locate the cause of behavior in the individual and in their disposition, rather than in circumstances or their situation," says Dr. Robert Kugelmann, a psychology professor at the University of Dallas. “And so because of that, if someone gets sick, and we can assign a blame to them, there’s a tendency to do that.”

The classic example is someone with lung cancer. It’s easy to assume that person is addicted to cigarettes and lacks the will power to quit smoking.

It’s the opposite reaction we have to, say, a woman with breast cancer – a condition which has causes we know less about.

“Usually we find an immediate sense of sympathy and compassion simply because we do not know any moral causes of what that individual could have done wrong," says Dr. Angelica Tratter, a clinical psychologist practicing in Dallas. "And so people do find it easier to be empathetic.”

Kugelmann says this tendency to judge is rooted in the link we make between healthfulness and a virtuous life.

“For many of us, it’s a way of proving ourselves as good people. We say that things are ‘bad’ for us. Things that are fattening or whatever. We use moral terminology in describing health and illness. So there’s a tendency to see illness as something that is bad and then something that is wrong with you.”

Which creates a double whammy for people suffering from these diseases. Once the illnesses is branded as a personal failing, the road to a cure gets a lot steeper.

Think re-airs tonight at 10, or listen to the podcast.

Stephen Becker is senior producer of the Think show , which airs on more than 25 stations across Texas and beyond. Prior to joining the Think team in 2013, as part of the Art&Seek team, Stephen produced radio and digital stories and hosted "The Big Screen" — a weekly radio segment about North Texas film — with Chris Vognar. His 2011 story about the history of eight-track tapes was featured nationally on NPR's All Things Considered. His works has been recognized with numerous state and national awards.