Chapter 1: Defining & Classifying Abnormal Behaviour

1.2 Cultural Expectations

Rose M. Spielman, Kathryn Dumper, William Jenkins, Arlene Lacombe, Marilyn Lovett, & Marion Perlmutter

Section Learning Objectives

  • Understand the cultural problems inherent in defining the concept of psychological disorder

 

What is Clinical Assessment?

Violating cultural expectations is not, in and of itself, a satisfactory means of identifying the presence of a psychological disorder. Since behavior varies from one culture to another, what may be expected and considered appropriate in one culture may not be viewed as such in other cultures. For example, returning a stranger’s smile is expected in the United States because a pervasive social norm dictates that we reciprocate friendly gestures. A person who refuses to acknowledge such gestures might be considered socially awkward—perhaps even disordered—for violating this expectation. However, such expectations are not universally shared. Cultural expectations in Japan involve showing reserve, restraint, and a concern for maintaining privacy around strangers. Japanese people are generally unresponsive to smiles from strangers (Patterson et al., 2007). Eye contact provides another example. In the United States and Europe, eye contact with others typically signifies honesty and attention. However, most Latin-American, Asian, and African cultures interpret direct eye contact as rude, confrontational, and aggressive (Pazain, 2010). Thus, someone who makes eye contact with you could be considered appropriate and respectful or brazen and offensive, depending on your culture.

A photograph shows two people making eye contact during a conversation.c
Eye contact is one of many social gestures that vary from culture to culture. (credit: Joi Ito)

Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not physically present) in Western societies is a violation of cultural expectations, and a person who reports such inner experiences is readily labeled as psychologically disordered. In other cultures, visions that, for example, pertain to future events may be regarded as normal experiences that are positively valued (Bourguignon, 1970). Finally, it is important to recognize that cultural norms change over time: what might be considered typical in a society at one time may no longer be viewed this way later, similar to how fashion trends from one era may elicit quizzical looks decades later—imagine how a headband, legwarmers, and the big hair of the 1980s would go over on your campus today.

The Myth of Mental Illness

In the 1950s and 1960s, the concept of mental illness was widely criticized. One of the major criticisms focused on the notion that mental illness was a “myth that justifies psychiatric intervention in socially disapproved behavior” (Wakefield, 1992). Thomas Szasz (1960), a noted psychiatrist, was perhaps the biggest proponent of this view. Szasz argued that the notion of mental illness was invented by society (and the mental health establishment) to stigmatize and subjugate people whose behavior violates accepted social and legal norms. Indeed, Szasz suggested that what appear to be symptoms of mental illness are more appropriately characterized as “problems in living” (Szasz, 1960).

In his 1961 book, The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct, Szasz expressed his disdain for the concept of mental illness and for the field of psychiatry in general (Oliver, 2006). The basis for Szasz’s attack was his contention that detectable abnormalities in bodily structures and functions (e.g., infections and organ damage or dysfunction) represent the defining features of genuine illness or disease, and because symptoms of purported mental illness are not accompanied by such detectable abnormalities, so-called psychological disorders are not disorders at all. Szasz (1961/2010) proclaimed that “disease or illness can only affect the body; hence, there can be no mental illness” (p. 267).

Today, we recognize the extreme level of psychological suffering experienced by people with psychological disorders: the painful thoughts and feelings they experience, the disordered behavior they demonstrate, and the levels of distress and impairment they exhibit. This makes it very difficult to deny the reality of mental illness.

However controversial Szasz’s views and those of his supporters might have been, they have influenced the mental health community and society in several ways. First, lay people, politicians, and professionals now often refer to mental illness as mental health “problems,” implicitly acknowledging the “problems in living” perspective Szasz described (Buchanan-Barker & Barker, 2009). Also influential was Szasz’s view of homosexuality. Szasz was perhaps the first psychiatrist to openly challenge the idea that homosexuality represented a form of mental illness or disease (Szasz, 1965). By challenging the idea that homosexuality represented a form a mental illness, Szasz helped pave the way for the social and civil rights that gay and lesbian people now have (Barker, 2010). His work also inspired legal changes that protect the rights of people in psychiatric institutions and allow such individuals a greater degree of influence and responsibility over their lives (Buchanan-Barker & Barker, 2009).

References

Barker, P. (2010). The legacy of Thomas Szasz. Retrieved from http://www.centerforindependentthought.org/SzaszLegacy.html.

Bourguignon, E. (1970). Hallucinations and trance: An anthropologist’s perspective. In W. Keup (Ed.), Origins and mechanisms of hallucination (pp. 183–190). New York, NY: Plenum Press.

Buchanan-Barker, P., Barker, P. (2009, February). The convenient myth of Thomas Szasz. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 16(1): 87–95. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2850.2008.01310.x.

Oliver, J. (2006, Summer). The myth of Thomas Szasz. The New Atlantis13. Retrieved from http://www.thenewatlantis.com/docLib/TNA13-Oliver.pdf.

Patterson, M. L., Iizuka, Y., Tubbs, M. E., Ansel, J., Tsutsumi, M., & Anson, J. (2007). Passing encounters east and west: Comparing Japanese and American pedestrian interactions. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 31, 155–166.

Pazain, M. (2010, December 2). To look or not to look? Eye contact differences in different cultures [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.examiner.com/article/to-look-or-not-to-look-eye-contact-differences-different-cultures

Spielman, R. M., Dumper, K., Jenkins, W., Lacombe, A., Lovett, M., & Perlmutter, M. (2019). What Are Psychological Disorders? In Psychology. Open Stax. Retrieved from https://opentextbc.ca/psychologyopenstax/. 

Szasz, T. S. (1960). The myth of mental illness. American Psychologist, 15, 113–118.

Szasz, T. S. (1965). Legal and moral aspects of homosexuality. In J. Marmor (Ed.), Sexual inversion: The multiple roots of homosexuality (pp. 124–139). New York, NY: Basic Books.

Szasz, T. S. (2010). The myth of mental illness: Foundations of a theory of personal conduct. New York, NY: HarperCollins (Original work published 1961).

Wakefield, J. C. (1992). The concept of mental disorder: On the boundary between biological facts and social values. American Psychologist, 47, 373–388.

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1.2 Cultural Expectations by Rose M. Spielman, Kathryn Dumper, William Jenkins, Arlene Lacombe, Marilyn Lovett, & Marion Perlmutter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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