CULTURE: Provo-Bound Syndromes: The Many Culture-Bound Syndromes of BYU

Written by Kristin Clift on . Posted in Local

Culture-bound syndromes (CBS) are cultural-specific acute behavioral disorders that are familiar as a disease or a mental condition in that population, but are not typically recognized outside of that society. What is crazy in one culture is not necessarily crazy in another.

CBS’s often display neurophysiological symptoms — both psychiatric and somatic responses. Arctic hysteria is one that is frequently studied, or a more well-known example of a CBS in the United States is anorexia nervosa or bulimia.1 Culture-bound syndromes are reputed to be induced by stress that occurs when there is an incongruity between role expectations and how a person feels they measure up to those expectations.

As a participant-observer in the bizarre culture that is Provo, I’ve often heard people describe students at BYU as “the cream of the crop.” Granted, any student at any university probably feels pressure to excel from parents, peers and teachers — but BYU students have the added pressure of a common religion in which strict moral standards are known and enforced.

There are certain side effects resulting from this situation that spur a cultural epitome of lifestyle.2 In reality, fluctuations from the norm are bound to happen in such a population. However, the bar has already been set and many people find themselves falling short of rigid cultural envisages. Such high expectations are the perfect recipe for mass neuroses of cataclysmic proportions.

Now that we have some of the anthropological mumbo-jumbo out of the way, let’s examine a few of the syndemic nuances limited to the BYU/Provo culture , or Provo-bound syndromes:

Obsessive Dating Compulsion Disorder: If you observe Provo City itself, you will notice that many of the surrounding retail businesses are marketed towards facilitating courtship rituals. An outsider might consider Provo obsessed with dating and completely fixated on marriage as the end goal.

From my time as a participant-observer, I can’t remember a single BYU devotional in which dating/marriage was not mentioned. I’ve had professors encourage students to date and even offered extra credit to do so. The pressure to participate in courtship rituals is so palpable it’s impossible to ignore.

Old Maid Stigma: A product of the Obsessive Dating Compulsion Disorder, the Old Maid Stigma arises from feelings of inadequacy or guilt for not being married or not dating as frequently as expected. This stigma occurs in the young female population in Provo.

Typically the Old Maid Stigma is expressed at a comparatively young age — I’ve heard females as young as 19 express their feelings of insufficiency for being single. The Old Maid Stigma is sometimes self-inflicted, although informants discussed with me the interrogations they receive pertaining to their marital status on a constant basis.

Pedestrian Deviancies: Pedestrians at BYU have a reputation for being oblivious to traffic, so much so that they have been dubbed “Zoodestrians.” This behavior can mostly be attributed to general distractions and absent-mindedness; However, I’ve heard it conjectured that it comes from the feeling of invincibility — being protected by God.

RM Adjustment Syndrome: Adjusting to life after a mission can be extremely difficult for some people.  Essentially, missionaries are prescribed a certain role with rigorous duties to fulfill, and transitioning to another role (that of a returned missionary) is sometimes an arduous process. Returned missionaries cope with the adjustment in various ways. Some find laborious door-knocking reminiscent of their mission days and become salesmen.

BYU Big Brother Paranoia: Like unto Orwell’s 1984, students and professors are paranoid of BYU Big Brother. One line in the school’s Honor Code (“Encourage others in their commitment to comply with the Honor Code”) certainly doesn’t help ease this paranoia. I’ve seen professors look around suspiciously while they whisper opinions to their class in fear of an eavesdropping institution. This paranoia is rumored to have come from the Wilkinson era where purported “spies” were placed in classrooms to ensure that professors were not teaching heretical ideas.

Suppressed Rage Against University Parking Enforcement: Here, here, here and here. Enough said.

The discordance between role performance and role expectations is the basis of these neuroses, which is subsequently compounded by the dialectal relationship of the religion, the institution, and the people. These are just some of the many culture-bound syndromes that inflict the idiosyncratic culture that is Provo. And that’s why I love it.


1 You wouldn’t find anyone in Ethiopia barfing up meals on purpose.
2 Quintessential checklist: go to BYU, go on a mission, get married immediately thereafter, and reproduce like rabbits.


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