Sociological Analysis Of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Sociological Analysis Of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Elisia Davis

SOC433 Sociology of Mental Health

July 14, 2020

Sociological Analysis Of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder


There have been numerous biological and psychological explanations of why some people are more likely to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) than others. There has been plenty of research highlighting the biological and psychological vulnerabilities that increase the risk of developing OCD. However, social experience is a key concept in understanding this condition. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a condition as the name suggests where a person has recurring and upsetting thoughts, imagery, and urges that they cannot control (Abramowitz & Reuman, 2020). In response to these recurring and distressful thoughts, people with OCD have compulsions; recurrent behavior and mental acts. These obsessions and compulsions consume a significant amount of time in a day and get severe to the point where it interferes with the functioning of the patient. The paper uses the film The Aviator as a source and a dramatic representation of a person suffering from OCD. The film tells the story of Howard Hughes one of the most successful figures in America; the nation’s first billionaire, accomplished film director, with everything any man would desire but unfortunately he was suffering from OCD simultaneously. However, he never received any competent psychiatric help in his life.

Summary of the source

The Aviator is a film that tells the story of Howard Hughes, who was an American Icon, first billionaire, champion aviator, film director, and investor who made a huge difference in Hollywood. He was a very successful man but simultaneously he had OCD, which was not diagnosed at the time, and the character never received help in his life. His symptoms were demonstrated in his behavior where he had concerns about determination, rechecking, repetition, redoing were those of obsessive-compulsive disorder. He was a genius man who went into detail about germs, how he wanted his lunch delivered, and how soup should be prepared. Hughes sought satisfaction or the feeling of peace by following these rituals or things he needed to play out in his mind.

The biological explanation of the reason why a person is getting these intrusive thoughts and urges is the chemical imbalance in the brain. The vulnerability of Hughes is the fact that he out a huge amount of stress in his own sensual awareness. If he wanted to do something he went ahead and did it. This was an extremely vulnerable set up for developing OCD. About one in 50 people will have OCD.

The Aviator communicates the symptoms experienced by Hughes through the verbalization of Hughes’ mothers’ fear of cholera and typhus as well as her refusing to visit certain places because of the fear of contracting a disease. Leonardo DiCaprio who plays Hughes in the film dramatizes his statements about cleanliness and his thought as to why he avoids the dirt on people’s hands and his expression when he perceives non-existent things and consequently his fear that he is going insane. His repetitive and distressing thoughts expressed by Hughes allow him to satisfy the DSM-5 first criteria of OCD.

Sociological factors

According to Albert Bandura (1977), the man who coined the idea of social learning theory, people learn how to think from how they see others act and observing how they think. Social learning theory suggests that individuals can develop certain behaviors vicariously, without having to experience the situation that warrants or led to the development of such behavior. More specifically, we learn how to respond to a situation by looking at how others respond to it (Mısır, Bora, & Akdede, 2018). The idea that learning can occur without having any direct experience, has crucial associations for the development of OCD. To illustrate, one particular thing about Hughes’ phobia about germs was that his mother was obsessed with germs. She wrote numerous letters to various people and institutions private schools, summer camp leaders, and club masters. The letters were about making sure he never got close to people that had certain diseases and these people kept soliciting about his wellbeing whenever they came across him and so from an early age he realized that germs and bugs were problematic.

Social learning theory proposes that people with OCD may have developed anxiety from contact with another person. This is somehow proven in the life of Howard Hughes whose phobia of germs and contracting diseases was instilled at an early age by watching his mother acting cautiously in the name of avoiding contracting a disease. A parent or guardian may communicate through their actions or instructions given that certain objects, organisms, or situations may cause harm and should be avoided at all costs (Jansen, Overgaauw, & De Bruijn, 2020). The idea that Hughes carries in his mind is that every surface is contaminated with germs without any knowledge that the body is fairly capable of dealing with these germs. Therefore, the way role models from when a child was developing dealt with their anxieties may indirectly or directly be passed to the child making them respond similarly.

This fairly discredits the biological notion that the altered chemical composition of the brain is the cause of OCD. The family is the social surrounding that provides the initial and most important opportunities for learning. Children observe how family members especially adults think and act and emulate them. These observations inform the children’s understanding and show the various ways of responding to life stressors (Nicolini, Salin-Pascual, Cabrera, & Lanzagorta, 2017). This means that an individual’s social environment guides their cognitive appraisals and further highlights the role of social factors in the development of OCD.

Although family plays a central role in influencing an individual’s response, the larger culture also has a significant role. These influences consequently become cultural standards such as pop culture influenced by the entertainment industry. Popular culture contributes to cultural standards about the importance of physical appearance and ensuring the faultlessness of such appearance. This results in positive and negative attention from others about how one looks, which goes on to create beliefs, attitudes, and body perception maintained by oneself. People may experience aversive treatment during childhood involving their appearance such as being teased for acne. With time, these experiences become paired with the physical attribute one experienced aversive treatment as a result and result feeling of shame in the future even in the absence of the teasing, for instance, a phenomenon called evaluative conditioning (James, Lowry, Wallace, & Warkentin, 2017). Evaluative conditioning is a powerful social factor that can influence the development of Obsessive-compulsive disorder.


In conclusion, several sociological factors explain the development of OCD. OCD is a mental condition where one experiences repetitive and distressing thoughts which result in compulsions which are repetitive behaviors and mental acts that respond to the obsessions. The Aviator is a film that illustrates or dramatizes the symptoms of OCD by telling the story of Howard Hughes one of the wealthiest men in the history of the United States who suffers the condition without any proper diagnosis or treatment. Social learning theory explains the development of OCD from social factors. Social learning theory proposes that people with OCD may have developed anxiety from contact with another person. In The Aviator this statement is backed up by the story that Hughes’ obsession with germs and staying away from bugs began with his mother. Children observe how their role models respond to certain thoughts and imitate them. These observations guide how children respond to life stressors.


Abramowitz, J. S., & Reuman, L. (2020). Obsessive compulsive disorder. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences, 3304-3306.

Bandura, A., & Walters, R. H. (1977). Social learning theory (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-hall.

James, T. L., Lowry, P. B., Wallace, L., & Warkentin, M. (2017). The effect of belongingness on obsessive-compulsive disorder in the use of online social networks. Journal of Management Information Systems, 34(2), 560-596.

Jansen, M., Overgaauw, S., & De Bruijn, E. R. (2020). Social cognition and obsessive-compulsive disorder: A review of subdomains of social functioning. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11, 118.

Mısır, E., Bora, E., & Akdede, B. B. (2018). Relationship between social-cognitive and social-perceptual aspects of theory of mind and neurocognitive deficits, insight level and schizotypal traits in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Comprehensive psychiatry, 83, 1-6.

Nicolini, H., Salin-Pascual, R., Cabrera, B., & Lanzagorta, N. (2017). Influence of culture in obsessive-compulsive disorder and its treatment. Current psychiatry reviews, 13(4), 285-292.