Culturally Bound Syndromes: Running Amok in Malaysia

Running amok is a culturally bound syndrome from Malaysia. It occurs almost exclusively in men. It is a brief dissociative and violent episode that often ends with the sufferer’s death. Those who survive usually report amnesia. The Malay people believe that the cause is hantu belian, an evil tiger spirit that enters the person’s body.

Many people are familiar with the term “running amok” as its often used by Westerners to describe a sudden change in behavior that is violent and erratic. The fact that the term can so easily be used in different cultural contexts suggests that the disorder is not, in fact, culturally bound. Instead, it may be a unique manifestation of a common psychological and behavioral experience.

Dr Saint Martin, writing in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, argues this point. He points to examples of spontaneous violence in western cultures, for example mass shootings, as an example of “running amok” in a western culture. He also explores the psychosocial risk factors predisposing one to “running amok.” To me, those seem rather similar to the risk factors for violence in western people. Things like recent loss and a paranoid style of thinking.

This reminds me of the importance to actively avoid “us and them” thinking when working cross-culturally. When someone is from our own cultural group, we tend to understand their actions in the context of external factors. When someone is from another culture, we tend to pathologize and latch on to the more exotic aspects of the presentation.


Further reading:

Running Amok: A Modern Perspective on a Culture-Bound Syndrome by Manuel L. Saint Martin, M.D., J.D. writing in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 1999 Jun; 1(3): 66–70.

Usually I don’t reference Wikipedia in my posts, but I had a hard time finding free articles on the internet. Here’s the Wikipedia article on running amok.


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