Interpreting suffering from illness: The role of culture and repressive suffering construal

Qian Yang, Shi Liu, Daniel Sullivan, Shengdong Pan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Rationale: Mental and physical illnesses are among the most prominent forms of suffering. Cultural worldviews provide tools for making sense of and coping with suffering. In this research, we examine how culture influences both experts' and laypeople's interpretation of suffering from illness. Objective: We focus on one type of interpretation of suffering- repressive suffering construal-an interpretation that frames suffering both as the result of immorality on the part of the sufferer and as having the function of maintaining social order by curtailing deviance. We sought to test whether this type of suffering interpretation is more common in cultural ecologies (e.g., urban vs. rural; higher vs. lower status) traditionally associated with collectivist values. Methods: Study 1 used data from the General Social Survey to examine variation in suffering interpretation in a representative sample of the U.S. population. Study 2 examined variation in suffering interpretation with a survey completed by a subsample of Chinese health-care professionals. Results: Study 1 found that U.S. citizens living in a rural environment are more likely to interpret illnesses as being the fault of the sufferer. Study 2 found that those from a lower-SES background are more likely to interpret illnesses in a repressive fashion. In these studies, family size mediates the effect of ecological conditions on RSC. Conclusion: Our research highlights how ecological variables associated with collectivism may bias both laypeople and professionals to interpret suffering from illness in a more repressive way.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)67-74
Number of pages8
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
StatePublished - Jul 1 2016


  • Culture
  • Mental illness
  • Repressive suffering construal
  • Suffering

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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