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Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche 1

Summarized, Synthesized, and Evaluated

Kiana McKenna
December 9, 2015
PSYC 318-Research Paper

For thousands of years, globalization has been taking place around the world

in various shapes and sizes. Globalization, described to be a process of interaction

and integration among the people, companies, and governments of different nations,

has the power to effect the environment, cultures, political systems, economic

development, and so much more (Watters, 2010). Today however, one would say

that there is a leader in this process, that leader being Western culture, but

specifically America. In Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche,

Ethan Watters claims that the most devastating consequence of this globalization of

American culture around the world is how it is homogenizing mental illness, or as

he puts it, the way that the world goes mad (Watters). This is not just changing the

way that mental illnesses like anorexia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),

schizophrenia, and depression are talked about either, but the mental illnesses,


There are over six billion people currently on Earth, and between these

people, hundreds of thousands of different kinds of cultures and societies exist.

Since the start of these cultures, peoples local beliefs have shaped mental illness

into endless varieties, relevant to that time and place. Over the past couple of

decades though, mental illnesses popularized in America, or in other words,

molded for our culture specifically, have been spreading around the world and to

thousands of cultures like a plague. As these Americanized ways of treating mental

illnesses spread though, the diseases themselves are spreading too, and even
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appearing in places where they werent before. The most disturbing part though, is

that America and its people are the pathogen that has led to these epidemics and

outbreaks, and they are the currents that these illnesses have traveled on (Watters).

America is a virus and in result, we are unintentionally making the rest of the world

crazy like us.

In Hong Kong, China, social issues and confusions of female body image,

sexuality, youth, beauty, and aging are present. In fact, their beauty industry at one

point in time was even outspending every other business sector in advertising. In

America, where these social issues are also present, most well-educated Westerners

understand that these cultural cues contribute to, and even spark, anorexia. With its

attendant fear of fatness and body dimorphic disorder, Westerners believe that it is

born of a peculiar modern fixation with a slender, female body type, and that

popular culture transmits this fetish to young women (Wyatt). However, in earlier

times, Chinese anorexia was unlike that found in the West, and displayed a

completely different cluster of symptoms. In fact, Chinese anorexics denied any fear

of being fat and desired to get back to their normal body weight. They reported

having no appetite and other physical symptoms like literal blockages in their

throats or stomach pains, which were found in multiple cases to be in result of some

mental stress that they had experienced, whether it was losing a loved one or feeling

too much pressure to do well in school. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of

Mental Disorders (DSM) was quickly becoming the worldwide standard at this time,

though and it stated that someone suffering from anorexia not only obtains a low

rigidly body weight and disturbed self image, but also an intense fear of becoming
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obese even when underweight (Wyatt). The professional and popular press began

to create a kind of feedback loop for this standard, changing the nature of

adolescents as well as the accepted symptom pool of the time, or the culturally

recognized signal of suffering, which in turn made the illness grow exponentially in

its Western form. In this time and place, Western assumptions actually

overpowered local variations and acted as a vector, both shaping and spreading this

illness and its expression.

About a decade after anorexia went mainstream in China, a tsunami hit Sri

Lanka and the region surrounding it, launching Westerners into action with their

fears of a second tsunami of psychological trauma and PTSD that they thought were

sure to come. Since the assumption is that the Western world, particularly the U.S.,

is equipped with far more and better resources, this commenced what has been

claimed to be the largest international psychological intervention of all time.

Westerner psychologists, therapists, and other helpers went to Sri Lanka as aid,

believing that the psychological reaction to traumatic events is universal and

unaffected by culture, and therefore the treatment for these people would be the

same offered for people with PTSD in America. What they didnt know though, was

that Sri Lankans actually turn to their rich cultural traditions in times of hardship

with a wide variety of healing and religious customs. These customs were

interpreted and misunderstood as practices of denial and avoidance by Western

psychologists though, stages that are categorized by the DSM in their diagnosis of

PTSD. In these interpretations, their effort to help and encouragement to heal

actually inadvertently trampled local expressions of grief, suffering, and healing

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(Wyatt). What needed to be understood among psychologists at this period of time

was that psychic damage after traumatic events and their symptoms are actually a

reflection of cultural beliefs in a particular time and place, like those cultural

symptoms of distress that were recognized as legitimate for Vietnam veterans after

the war in the 1960s, for example. The meaning of an event matters as much as the

event itself, and therefore no one event should be handled with as though it was the

same as a completely different event that has occurred in the past.

Farther east of Sri Lanka, over in Zanzibar, Africa, one particular psychologist

sat puzzled as research results showed people diagnosed with schizophrenia in

developing nations, like Zanzibar, having a better prognosis over time than those

living in the most industrialized countries in the world, like America. Surprisingly,

the clue to this puzzle was actually found to lie in the emotional tenor and

involvement of the family of the schizophrenic. In Zanzibar, the idea that

schizophrenia sprang from chemical imbalances in the brain had not been accepted

by most of the population, but the belief in spirit possession and the permeability of

the human consciousness by magical forces was (Wyatt). These beliefs actually

shaped the experience not only for the patient, but also for the family in the way that

they treated and understood the illness. Researchers found that schizophrenics

living in regions of the world with the most resources devote to the illness were the

most troubled and socially marginalized because of the intense, critical, and

intrusive emotional tenor that their family members showed for them. In the West, a

schizophrenics diagnosis carries the assumption of a chronic condition, one that

often comes to define a person, also leading to social marginalization and increased
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stress in the patient. Interestingly enough, because of the tone of the tolerance that

was found in families in less developed countries, patients had better prognoses.

Unfortunately, these traditional beliefs eventually began to mix with biomedical and

Western explanations of schizophrenia, leading to prognoses among schizophrenics

going from better to worse. These Western explanations may be appealing because

they are scientific and unemotional, but early results show that these explanations

are actually detrimental to the health of the schizophrenic. The West might

reconsider their own interventions into parts of the world that appear to have

better outcomes than can be managed in the industrialized world (Watters).

Interventions, unfortunately, were not reconsidered in Japan when

GlaxoSmithKline who make the antidepressant pill Paxil, wanted to penetrate

Japans pharmaceutical market, a market that was not even driven by the Japanese

consumers need or want for an antidepressant medication. They, however, saw this

as an unexplored opportunity, not a way of bulldozing over Japans psyche and

cultural beliefs. At this time in Japan, depression was thought of as a mental illness

as devastating as schizophrenia is to Americans. It was considered a rare disorder,

and therefore a very small pharmaceutical market existed for it. GlaxoSmithKlines

objective was to influence, at the most fundamental level, the Japanese

understanding of sadness and depression, changing Japans experience of it, and

they were going to do this by mega-marketing the disease along with their drug

(Watters). This cultural puzzle ended up being worth 400 million dollars within two

years of Paxil hitting the market in Japan, but costing Japan its deep-rooted cultural

beliefs about sadness and depression. Before Paxil was introduced, sadness was
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thought to be an ordinary part of life that makes you stronger by the Japanese. It

was not ever meant to be chronic illness. By marketing the idea that depression is a

cold of the soul though, and exploiting the vulnerable economic and social times

that Japan was in at the time, GlaxoSmithKline was able to sell this disease along

with their drug to Japanese people all over the country, where depression was never

problematic before. They marketed depression as a mental illness that anybody

could acquire and instilled a sense of urgency in people by comparing it to a ticking

alarm clock that would go off if not taken care of soon enough. Not only was Paxil

found later to only work in very particular patients, but also the side effects that

came with its use were discovered to be very dangerous. The landscape for Japans

psyche was now flattened because of an antidepressant that didnt necessarily work

and a drug company that didnt realize its overstepping.

In regards to globalization in a more broad sense, it actually can be found

beneficial to a point, especially from an economic and political standpoint.

Globalization has the power to increase economic growth and generate a wide range

of products and services to consumers, effectively satisfying needs and wants of

people all over the world. It also supports the idea of an interdependent global

economy, which can especially favor developing countries and help in their

advancements. Lastly, depending on ones viewpoint, globalization can help

advocate for capitalistic and democratic political systems. These are the points that

people advocate with when things like what happened with GlaxoSmithKline in

Japan occur. What people are sometimes unaware of though, which is showcased in

many Westerners that are oblivious to the unhelpful measures that they take when
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trying to help, is that these benefits also come with costs. This cost is the remarkable

diversity once seen among cultures conceptions of various topics, like mental

illness (Watters). Some see this as an easy price to pay. Others see this as a global

crisis and a devastating loss for mankind.

America has indeed, been a world leader of some sort in generating new

health treatments and modern theories of the human psyche. This biomedical

knowledge is exported then, to other countries in hopes that it will relieve mental

suffering and stigma of mental illness (Watters). What Americans need to

understand is that culture can only be understood in the particular though.

Developing countries like Zanzibar, for instance, have not yet separated the mind

from the body in understanding diseases and epidemics. This does not make them

right or wrong in their understanding of mental illness, just different. Crazy Like Us

concludes that maybe Westerners should reconsider their generosity of this

knowledge then, and gain an appreciation for these differences in light of the

contentment and psychological health that our cultural beliefs have brought on

home soil.
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Watters, E. (2010). Crazy like us: the globalization of the American psyche. New York,

NY: Free Press.