The psychology of Filipinos and the deep roots of authoritarianism and gender inequality



WHAT makes Filipinos tick? What core values do Filipinos cherish? According to the late Jesuit priest Father Jaime C. Bulatao (1922-2015), the answers lie in the family and the way children are raised. Family is all-important to Filipinos. Therefore, it’s argued, family shapes Filipino values, character and behavior.

A few, well-known generalizations have been made about the personality of the Filipino adult. Some desirable and undesirable traits include politeness, loyalty, hospitality, personal cleanliness, respect for elders, hiya, a sense of community or the bayanihan spirit, as well as a lack of discipline, extravagance, fatalism or bahala na, ningas cogon, which might be rendered in English as short-lived enthusiasm, mañana habits, and a tendency to remain indifferent.

Bulatao’s investigations into Filipino psychology focused on family life. He found that because family takes priority for Filipinos, individual interests were relegated to secondary importance. This was achieved at an early age through authoritarian-style parenting aimed at producing obedient and submissive children. Parents scolded, shouted at, used verbal persuasion, the silent treatment, spanking, pinching and other forms of corporal punishment, and played favorites, with their toddlers. Parents were both indulgent and autocratic. Children learned to seek the protection and approval of important people. They learned not to take unnecessary risks, and that antagonizing people was wrong.

Parents of girls in particular, he observed, overprotected and molly coddled daughters, but also strictly disciplined them “by whipping” and “frightening” them. Women are primarily valued as mothers and housekeepers. They are expected to sacrifice themselves for the well-being of the family. They are expected to be meek and “undemanding”, “love once and only one” and keep a marriage intact no matter what the husband might do. An unfaithful husband is forgiven. Marriage to a “simple Filipino” is preferred over a foreigner.

In the early 1960s, when Father Bulatao was writing, married women in Britain could, for the first time, access the contraceptive pill, and US President John F. Kennedy talked about lifting the status of women in American society. Such initiatives coincided with a feminist movement that was gathering momentum and would eventually change the Western world and beyond. Studying at the University of Philippines at Diliman (UP Diliman), my father was being taught English Literature by Virginia Moreno, who wore to class jaw-dropping clothing– thigh-grazing mini-skirts and breezy wide-legged pants were her wardrobe favorites. She projected a kind of mind-blowing brash femininity that was unforgettable. As my dad recalled, she liked to sit perched on the edge of a table with one leg on a chair, a position that gave students eyefuls of leg and more.

Awarded degrees in experimental and clinical psychology from Fordham University in New York, Bulatao returned to the Ateneo de Manila University in 1960 where he established the psychology department. The Pambansang Samahan sa Sikolohiya Pilipino, the National Association of Filipino Psychology, founded by Virgilio Enriquez at UP Diliman, was still 10 years in the future. Enriquez would transform the field by abandoning the English language and junking Western psychology. But his revolutionary use of Filipino and kapwa, an idea about the Filipino’s sense of self-hood and others, would not make their mark until at least 1970.

Bulatao belonged to a line of US-educated Filipino psychologists who, beginning in the late 1930s, taught and wrote in English, and thought deeply about what being a Filipino means. Names such as Tirona Benitez, who attempted to link Philippine society and social progress with the Filipino personality, Delfin Batacan who published Looking at Ourselves (1941), and Jovita Varias de Guzman who produced several works on raising Filipino children and child psychology, are now forgotten.

There were also those who tried to apply American concepts of mental health to the Filipino setting. In vogue in the 1950s was the concept of “mental hygiene,” a “scientific system of principles, rules and procedures promoting mental health”. Graduating from the UP College of Medicine in Manila, Rodolfo R. Varias used his Fulbright award in 1955 to train in the US, at the Connecticut State Hospital, where he specialized in psychiatry. After taking further degrees at Johns Hopkins, Varias returned to the Philippines where he pioneered Filipino “mental hygiene”. Among the characteristics of people with good mental health, he wrote, was tolerance toward others, a sense of responsibility to their neighbors and fellowmen, the ability to welcome new experiences and new ideas, and to plan ahead without fear of the future. “Through studying yourself,” he wrote, “you will become acquainted with the basic principles which affect the behavior of all human beings.” Despite Varias’ efforts, the American mental hygiene movement did not make the same dramatic inroads in the Philippines as it did elsewhere.

In Indonesia, mental hygiene, as advocated by Western-trained Indonesian doctors, influenced the resurgence of traditional and indigenous medical practices. As the Australian-based scholar Hans Pols found, the movement reshaped ideas about the so-called “nature of the native mind” that Dutch colonial psychiatrists had, for decades, laid expert claim on.

Bulatao’s observations indicate that conservatism and a traditional mindset were and remained deeply entrenched in the Filipino psyche. Authoritarian is mand deference toward authority figures, was a hardcore value of Filipinos. “Authority figures are feared and served with awe,” he wrote. “One looks to authority figures for help in obtaining a job. Benefits come by way of patronage and gift. Tradition must be followed. The authority figure must be followed even when insisting on old-fashioned ideas.”

For thinkers like Bulatao, the sacrifice of one’s individual needs for the interests of the group, or the family, deference to authority, and favoritism, were defining features of the “psychology of Filipinos”. While many of the 1960s ideas of Filipino psychology are now considered outdated, and have been replaced by more radical views, some aspects have deep and tenacious roots.

Such core values–the acceptance of authoritarianism and gender inequality–were learned in childhood. Sometimes, and quite literally, beaten into Filipino children.
Twitter @RachelAurea


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  1. Hay naku Miss Rachael you expect us to believe the scholarly pronouncements of these duplicitous Jesuits, kaya nga the Filipino word ” Switik or Heswitik” came about to describe them.

    All they are interested in how they can get close to the corridors of power. That’s why even the pope once banished them for a century, these Jesuits have so much talent for political intrigue and meddling, to the extent of psycho analytic manipulation of the Filipino sheeple.

  2. I don’t agree with the findings. The mere fact is that Filipinos most of them are not reason oriented. How many of them knows the corelation of metaphysics into epistemology thereby knowing how to exercise ethics as guidance in politics and aesthetic? Nobody, even all the psychologist in the country are not for innovation. They are following the “altruistic” type of philosophy thereby weakening the individual mind. It is a fact we have to innovate our existing philosophy which religion a very primitive type of philosophy going hand in hand with “altruism” resulting to a robotic population! I’m not sure if you knew Ayn Rand the founder of objectivism this is the key note in changing our childrens philosophy to fortify their mental capacity to resist authoritarian rule in any kind and to always abide with reason not on faith and emotions because this two has no proven output to be reasonable. To all psychologists and educators in the country start innovation because the car is not moving at all!

  3. If you want to understand the Filipino’s mental hygiene, do not limit yourself to the Filipinos’ indigenous core values only. Study too the effect of hundreds of years of abuse by our western colonizers and you will begin to understand the broken psyche that you are witnessing today. I believe one westerner referred to it as our damaged culture. However, given how you seem to have been so irreversibly immersed in the western culture, are you prepared to admit that we were indeed severely abused by the West? “Through studying yourself, you will become acquainted with the basic principles that affect all human beings.” This is a universal truth, you can know other people only if you know yourself, and the best time to start is now.