15 March 2004


Ever heard the expression "running amok". Amok is one of the best known culture-bound syndromes.

One of the best known culture-bound syndromes is amok.

If you had visited a police station in Malaya not too long ago, you might have seen a curious instrument of law and order called sanggamara. It looked a little like a six foot high trident, with the top or ‘head’ a bit rounded and the middle prong missing. It had one specific use – to pin a certain type of violent and homicidal man against a wall so he could be subdued. Without this instrument and a convenient wall, this man had to be disabled or killed; he did not give himself up (Tseng & McDermott, 1981, p.48-9).

This type of homicidal man is displaying amok. Typically a person who ‘runs amok’ will have suffered some severe loss or shame or public insult. He will become quiet and depressed for a while and then suddenly seize a dangerous weapon (axe, sword, gun, hand grenade), run into a public place and start killing people.

A similar phenomenon has been reported from Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Laos, Puerto Rico and among the Native American Navajo.

Amok is a culture-bound syndrome because its occurrence is particularly frequent in certain countries, and it takes a particular recognisable form. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) describes an impulse control disorder called intermittent explosive disorder. This diagnosis is given to people who lose control of aggressive impulses, unpredictably, on repeated occasions. However, typically people do not run amok more than once (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).

Extract from Psychology: An Introduction for Students in Southern Africa by Louw, DA and Edwards, DJA (1997) Heinemann: Johannesburg.

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