Lay beliefs of anxiety etiology as a cause of perceived anxiety controllability : an experimental evaluation.


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Perceived controllability over the symptoms of anxiety is a key determinant of anxiety severity and an important target in the treatment of clinically severe anxiety. Perceived controllability of anxiety symptoms appears to be shaped partially through verbal persuasion; however, little is known about the origins of these beliefs. Extant findings indicate that the perceived controllability of other mental health concerns can be caused by exposure to etiological explanations. Specifically, exposure to biological and genetic explanations causes lower perceived symptom controllability, whereas exposure to psychological and social explanations does not impact perceived mental health controllability in this way. Despite these findings, this causal relationship remains unexamined with regard to anxiety. The present study aimed to provide the first test of the potentially causal relationship between exposure to biogenetic and psychosocial etiological explanations and perceived anxiety controllability. Participants were randomized to view one of two presentations about the etiology of anxiety and completed a self-report measure of anxiety controllability. Any relationship between etiological beliefs and perceived anxiety controllability was impossible to determine due to failure of the experimental manipulation to produce statistically significant differences between groups on a manipulation check. A model of naïve theory formation, perseverance, and change is used to compare methods of the current study with those of studies that effectively manipulated lay beliefs about mental health. Factors negatively impacting motivation for processing naïve theories and biases in processing of novel information are identified as potential causes of the manipulation failure in the present study. Future studies may successfully manipulate participants’ beliefs by motivating naïve theory processing, establishing an environment conducive to naïve theory processing, and presenting content likely to overcome biases in information processing.



Anxiety. Lay beliefs. Mental health etiology. Anxiety controllability.