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Abnormal as Norm

Actions deemed odd, psychotic or even barbaric by one culture may be perfectly acceptable to another


CERTAIN MEN in Malaysia are driven by a fear that their genitals could retract up into their bodies. They even believe that the perceived condition, called koro, can be deadly. To prevent it, the men apply weights to their penises or take other extreme measures. The fear, and the uncomfortable antidote, is not common, yet it is accepted in this long-standing culture. But in a Western country, an adult male who acted on such a belief would certainly be labeled as emotionally disturbed.

This contradictory assessment and many others that arise between distant cultures put in sharp relief a strongly influential yet rarely discussed fact of psychology: cultural norms and values determine which behaviors are socially acceptable. In setting these standards, each society determines which mind-sets and actions may constitute a psychological disorder. And societies do not necessarily agree.

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