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A cognitive approach to the functioning of the disability models

Abstract

Implicit social cognition is an empirical phenomenon encompassing the effects of experience on judgements and decisions. We evaluate whether the wide range of attitudes towards people with disabilities are attributable to universal and species-specific cognitive constraints. We propose that there is a link between an evolved mechanism of avoidance of disease and contemporary prejudices affecting people with physical disabilities. Using the Implicit Association Test and two questionnaires evaluating sensitivity to perceived disgust and vulnerability to disease, we found strong, implicit associations of the concept, “disability,” with “illness” and “unpleasantness” and a significant positive correlation between disgust and the implicit association between the attributes, “disability/unpleasantness.” The results provide evidence for a domain-specific cognitive mechanism underpinning the cultural construction of the medical model. In addition, the unpleasantness of disability seems grounded in the germs of aversion and the contamination of disgust.
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A cognitive approach to the functioning of the
disability models
Meloni F.
1,2
, Federici S.
1,2
, Bracalenti M.
1
1
Department of Philosophy, Social & Human Sciences and Education, University of Perugia; Perugia, Italy
2
ECoNA, Interuniversity Centre for Research on Cognitive Processing in Natural and Artificial Systems,
Sapienza University of Rome; Rome, Italy
Summary
Implicit social cognition is an empirical phenomenon encompassing the effects of experience on
judgements and decisions. We evaluate whether the wide range of attitudes towards people with disabilities are
attributable to universal and species-specific cognitive constraints. We propose that there is a link between an
evolved mechanism of avoidance of disease and contemporary prejudices affecting people with physical
disabilities. Using the Implicit Association Test and two questionnaires evaluating sensitivity to perceived
disgust and vulnerability to disease, we found strong, implicit associations of the concept, “disability,” with
“illness” and “unpleasantness” and a significant positive correlation between disgust and the implicit association
between the attributes, “disability/unpleasantness.” The results provide evidence for a domain-specific cognitive
mechanism underpinning the cultural construction of the medical model. In addition, the unpleasantness of
disability seems grounded in the germs of aversion and the contamination of disgust.
Introduction
Disability models are categorical representations in which to understand, build and share social
relationships. These models offer social perspectives (GOFFMAN, 1963, p. 138) either as frames, in which
everyone finds his or her own identity, or as scripts, in which identities are represented in a complex system of
defined attributes that lets us make decisions and judgments (BICKENBACH, 2012; FEDERICI and MELONI,
2008, 2009; FEDERICI, MELONI, et al., 2008). Since the late 1960s, scientific literature has gathered various
social perspectives on disability, grouping them into three main theoretical models: medical, social, and
biopsychosocial (BICKENBACH et al., 1999; WHO, 2001). To date, studies of disability models have been
conducted almost exclusively within a sociological perspective (ALTMAN, 2001; BROWN, 2001). This
approach has been influenced by the dominant paradigm in the social sciences known as the Standard Social
Science Model (SSSM; SPERBER and HIRSCHFELD, 2004; TOOBY and COSMIDES, 1992). It has attributed
a purely cultural origin to mental organization and to the processes of categorization. Culture is an external fact,
able to affect individual’s cognitive organization. According to the SSSM, cultural phenomena are completely
acquired during the process of development and socialization, and the innate side of cognitive organization is
limited to procedural or algorithmic features, which are privy to content (SPERBER et al., 2004). The influence
of the SSSM on disability studies is such that the research paradigms take the nature of disability for granted
because of a cultural construction process about diversity and difference, neglecting any element related to the
innate cognitive architecture of humans (e.g., ANTONAK and LIVNEH, 1988, 2000; FEDERICI and MELONI,
2008; FEDERICI et al., 2009; FEDERICI, MELONI, et al., 2008).
The current research was designed to verify whether the wide range of attitudes toward people with
disabilities and disability models are attributable not only to contextual variables but also to universal and
species-specific cognitive constraints. An experimental paradigm was designed to measure the degree to which
disability models, which guide the categorization of reality, are, in whole or in part, referable to universal
cognitive constraints. Previous research has demonstrated people maintain a strong implicit association between
disability and illness (FEDERICI et al., 2009). Furthermore, Park and colleagues (2003) have found a link
between a mechanism evolved to avoid disease and contemporary prejudices affecting people with physical
disabilities. Since infectious disease is often accompanied by abnormal physical characteristics, it was plausible
that humans evolved psychological mechanisms responding heuristically to the perception of those
characteristics. Therefore, physical impairment would trigger specific emotions (disgust and anxiety), cognitions
(negative attitudes) and behaviors (avoidance). This research builds on these previous findings.
The objective of this research was to investigate the cognitive mechanisms related to the medical
disability model. In particular, we investigated the possible correlation of an implicit association between
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dimensional attributes related to the medical model (illness/disability) with the individual’s perception of
vulnerability to disease and the degree of individual sensitivity to disgust.
Materials and Methods
Participants. A total of 89 university students, 37.1% male (N = 33), M age = 23.48, 56.8% claimed to
have a relative or an acquaintance or friend with a disability.
Materials. Following Park and colleagues’ (2003) research, we administered three instruments:
i. The Implicit Association Test (IAT; GREENWALD, MCGHEE, and SCHWARTZ, 1998;
GREENWALD, NOSEK, and BANAJI, 2003) centered on the categories of abled and disabled in a twofold
version, one based on a combination of the dimensional attributes, health/disease, and the second of the
dimensional attributes, pleasant/unpleasant;
ii. The Italian version of the Disgust Scale Revised (DS-R; HAIDT, MCCAULEY, and ROZIN, 1994;
MELLI, 2009) as modified by Olatunji and colleagues (2007); and
iii. The Perceived Vulnerability to Disease Scale (PVD; DUNCAN and SCHALLER, 2009) translated into
Italian by Federici and Meloni for the present research.
Design and procedure. The experiment was administered online using Millisecond Software’s Inquisit
Web Edition™ software. Participants completed a socio-demographic questionnaire and answered two
dichotomous (yes/no) questions concerning their direct or indirect knowledge of people with disabilities.
Respondents were asked: (i) “Do you have immediate family members with disabilities?” and (ii) “Do you have
friends or acquaintances with disabilities?
The experimental design involved the administration of the first three instruments, the questionnaire
master, DS-R, and PVD. Two groups were created concerning both the order of administration of the two IAT
(health/illness and pleasant/unpleasant) and the priming of IAT. The administration of the IATs was preceded by
manipulating the setting: one randomly selected half of the group read five false news articles about the
transmission of contagious diseases; the other half read five false news articles pertaining to non-contagious
health matters. In this way, we obtained four experimental conditions, to present the best possible balance of
participant number and sex (Table 1).
Table 1: Order and methods of test administration
Gr. I° IAT II° IAT
1 (18) healthy/sick pleasant/unpleasant
Infective (40)
3 (22) pleasant/unpleasant healthy/sick
2 (25) healthy/sick pleasant/unpleasant
PRIMING
Neutral (49)
4 (24) pleasant/unpleasant healthy/sick
Results
The PVD and the contact with disability. A t-test shows that participants who did not have a friend or
acquaintance with a disability showed a history of higher hypersensitivity to infectious diseases contagion (Item
6: t(86) = 2.15, p < .05). There are no significant differences in the PVD total scores either related to gender or
between the two groups (with and without acquaintance or friend with a disability).
The strength of the implied powers of disease and unpleasantness disability. The IATs were
administered to detect implicit individual differences in the intensity of the association between the category of
disability and the pairs of health/illness and pleasant/unpleasant attributes. The estimate of this association is
through the development of a measure called d-BIEP that is based on the calculation of the difference in average
reaction time (GREENWALD et al., 2003). The t-test highlights that the associations of “disability/illness” and
of “disability/unpleasant” are significantly stronger than “disability/health” and “disability/pleasant” (p = < .01).
The differences between the two IAT (health/illness and pleasant/unpleasant) scores are significant (p =
< .05): The t-test for paired samples revealed a significantly higher score on the association “health/disease”
compared to “pleasant/unpleasant” (Table 2). The infective and neutral prime does not have any effect on the
IAT scores.
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Table 2: T-test between the two IAT d-BIEP “health/illness” and “pleasant/unpleasant”
Paired Differences t df Sig.
95% Confidence
Interval of the
Difference
M SD
Inf. Sup.
IAT d-BIEP
health/illness
-
IAT d-BIEP
pleasant/unpleasant
.114 .436 .022 .205 2.46 88
.016
A correlation was performed to ascertain whether and to what extent the strength of implicit
associations observed in the previous experiment is connected to the PVD and DS-R scores. The scores of the
two d-BIEP dimensions (disability/illness, disability/unpleasant) were previously processed to make the data
more homogeneous in two 7-point scales, both constructed with the same criterion (1 = strong association
disability/health or pleasant, 7 = strong association disability/illness or unpleasant). The analysis returned a
positive correlation between the IAT pleasant/unpleasant dimension and the two subscales of the two
questionnaires: the scale of aversion to germs of the PVD (r = 228, p < .05) and the scale of the interpersonal
contamination of the DS-R (r = 218, p < .05). The stronger the association between disability and
unpleasantness, the higher was the level of aversion to germs and to the fear of interpersonal contagion (Table
3).
Table 3: Correlations among IAT, PVD, and DS-R
SCALES 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
1) 7-point scale IAT health/illness
2) 7-point scale IAT
pleasant/unpleasant
.371
**
3) PVD perceived infectability .044 -.044
4) PVD germ aversion .163 .228
*
.241
*
5) PVD total .121 .096 .791
**
.764
*
*
6) DS-R core disgust .044 -.029 .053 .185 .146
7) DS-R animal-reminder disgust -.028 -.080 .095 .140 .135 .692
*
*
8) DS-R contamination disgust .029 .218
*
.132 .389
*
*
.324
**
.595
*
*
.356
**
9) DS-R total .016 .007 .094 .241
*
.201 .942
*
*
.847
**
.679
*
*
Conclusions
The implicit association of the category of disability with the dimensions of illness and unpleasantness
is significantly stronger than its association with health and pleasantness. This result confirms those obtained in
previous research (FEDERICI and MELONI, 2008; FEDERICI et al., 2009; PARK et al., 2003). The more
people fear interpersonal contagion and the infection potential of germs, the more strongly they associate
disability with unpleasantness. This suggests the existence of a domain-specific cognitive mechanism that binds
deformity or impairment perceptions to disease unpleasantness by evoking the fear of contagion.
A limitation of this study is the relatively small sample size. For this reason, these findings can be
generalized cautiously and further experiments with a larger number of participants are required. In addition, our
findings only partially confirm the results obtained by Park and colleagues’ (2003). In contrast to their research,
we did not find: (i) differences in the PVD total scores between the two groups (with and without acquaintance
or friend with a disability); (ii) a significant priming effect for health/illness and pleasant/unpleasant when
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administered before the IAT; and (iii) a correlation between the scale, “Germ Aversion” of PVD and the d-BIEP
of IAT “health/illness.” On the contrary, unlike Park et al. (2003), we found a correlation between the d-BIEP of
IAT “pleasant/unpleasant” and the scale “Contamination Disgust” of DS-R. These differences could be due to
the online administration procedure that we performed for both IAT and the PVD and DS-R questionnaires.
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Drawing on evolutionary psychological logic, we describe a model that links evolved mechanisms of disease-avoidance to contemporary prejudices against individuals with physical disabilities. Because contagious diseases were often accompanied by anomalous physical features, humans plausibly evolved psychological mechanisms that respond heuristically to the perception of these features, triggering specific emotions (disgust, anxiety), cognitions (negative attitudes), and behaviors (avoidance). This disease-avoidance system is over-inclusive: Anomalous features that are not due to disease (e.g., limb amputation due to accident) may also activate it, contributing to prejudicial attitudes and behaviors directed toward people with disabilities. This model implies novel hypotheses about contemporary variables that may amplify or reduce disability-based prejudice. We discuss past research within this context. We also present new evidence linking chronic and temporary concerns about disease to implicit negative attitudes toward and behavioral avoidance of disabled others. Discussion focuses on the conceptual and practical implications of this evolutionary approach.
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