Graduation Year


Date of Thesis Acceptance

Spring 5-9-2018

Major Department or Program



Thomas Armstrong


While there is plenty of research on how to remedy and rehabilitate people with disabilities, there remains scant research on the stigma they experience. Behavioral immune system theory argues that people with disabilities evoke a disgust reaction from non-disabled individuals because their physical and behavioral traits may be misidentified as markers of contagious disease. Stereotype content model theory complicates behavioral immune system theory by suggesting that although adults with disabilities may elicit a disgust reaction, the perceived warmth of childhood causes children with disabilities to elicit a pity reaction instead. To uncover the reason behind disability stigma we showed participants (N = 80) images of children and adults with and without disabilities and measured the participants’ reactions using self-report scales and eye-tracking. We hypothesized that participants would show a disgust reaction towards adults with disabilities and a pity reaction towards children with disabilities. Instead, our eye-tracking measure found no evidence of disgust and our self-report measure suggested that both children and adults with disabilities are seen as high-warmth and low-competence, indicating pity reactions. The implications of these findings could point to new ways to combat disability stigma.

Keywords: disability, stigma, behavioral immune system, stereotype content model

Page Count


Subject Headings

Down syndrome‚ Disabilities‚ Stigma (Social psychology)‚ Stereotypes (Social psychology)‚ Evolutionary psychology -- Behavioral immune system‚ Social psychology -- Stereotype content model‚ Aversion‚ Sympathy‚ Eye tracking -- Experiments -- Analysis‚ Social sciences‚ Whitman College 2018 -- Dissertation collection -- Psychology Department

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Document Type

Whitman Community Accessible Thesis



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