Third International Conference on the Teaching of Psychology
Sergei Tsytsarev,
Hofstra University,
Hempstead, New York, USA

Presentation (ppt)


The cultural revolution in teaching psychology courses seems to be a reaction to historical challenges the world educational system has been experiencing in recent years. The globalization has influenced the cultural context of education in a number of ways, and it is a particularly difficult problem for rather conservative subfields of psychology such as psychology in the law, and its most practice oriented branch – forensic psychology.

In this presentation, we will compare the perspectives in graduate educational systems of United States, Russia and Japan on teaching about “crimes of passion”. The three countries have significantly different legal systems and cultures. In addition, there are psychological diagnoses that may be accepted by the justice system in one country, but could be completely unacceptable in another.

The perfect example is teaching about the history and present state of a defense of the so-called “insanity” and “diminished capacity” that is commonly used in most Western cultures since the 17th century. If an expert witness (such as a psychiatrist or psychologist) can establish a mental disease or defect, then there is a high likelihood that the defendant will be found “insane”, and, in such instance, the defendant will be placed in a forensic psychiatric institution for a long-term treatment rather than being sent to prison. In most American forensic psychology doctoral programs, this approach is considered to be the only right one, whether in other cultures, another intermediate form of psychological disturbance is legitimately used to explain the reasons for the behavior when a person commits a crime in the heat of passion.

In Russia, not only professionals and students, but also a general public are quite familiar with the concepts of “pathological affect” and “physiological affect” of anger that can explain the nature of impulsive behavior of someone who experienced sudden accumulation of emotional tension in response to real or perceived threat for his/her life and/or dignity, and then explodes to the extent that severe aggressive behavior takes place and serious cognitive problems such as amnesia might occur. If the “affect” state can be established by an expert witness, the same may be a major mitigating factor during sentencing and might lead to a short probation in lieu of a long prison term. And again, the teaching about this matter would be very ethnocentric, usually ignoring cross-cultural differences in emotional reactions to certain events (e.g., an adultery, vendetta, etc.) although forensic psychologists are well trained to assess “the affect” of anger.

In Japan, the situation is quite different. The Japanese do not use such conceptualization as an “affect” since it is assumed that everyone who is involved in killing another person must be overexcited, and therefore it is not perceived as a mitigating factor. As a result, their teaching curricula do not contain the very definition of the “affect of anger” that might lead to a crime of passion. Therefore, psychologists are rarely trained to assess and diagnose such mental states.

On the other hand, even more interesting is the fact that almost universally, the plea of “insanity” is very rarely applied to so called “serial killers.” In most cultures the judicial system finds a support and understanding in general public if all kinds of psychological or psychiatric diagnoses are denied by the courts and the perpetrators receive the most severe punishment (usually – capital punishment). It is probably a good example of one of the universal cultural taboos relevant in most cultures. Based on out experience of studying and teaching in both USA, Russia, and Japan it would be fare to say that it is the right time for teaching about cultural differences and universal prejudices in forensic psychology. It will help students understand the complexity of the relationships between the culture, the law, and forensic psychology.

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© 2008 Victor Karandashev