Biblical hero Samson may have been sociopath as well as strongman, according to new research

February 20, 2001

Samson, the Israelite hero and judge who was undone by the temptress Delilah, exhibited almost all of the symptoms of a person with Antisocial Personality Disorder, known in the psychology trade as ASPD.

According to Dr. Eric Altschuler, Samson exhibited six out seven criteria for diagnosis of ASPD (as identified by the American Psychiatric Association in its diagnostic bible, the DSM-IV) and a person need only manifest three of the seven criteria to be diagnosed with the disorder. Altschuler, a physician and research fellow in the Dept. of Psychology at the University of California, San Diego, is the lead author of the research paper, "Did Samson Have Antisocial Personality Disorder?" published in this month's Archives of General Psychiatry.

"Appreciation of the diagnosis of ASPD for Samson may not only help us to better understand the Biblical story, but it also may increase our understanding and awareness of instances when a leader has ASPD " said Altschuler, Also, we hope these findings encourage interest in the history of ASPD because the study of the history of a disease can provide clues to its pathogenesis."

Although credited with extraordinary strength and remarkable exploits -- such as the slaying of a lion and moving the gates of Gaza - Samson also, apparently, was a bully, a thief, and a liar. Altschuler and his co-authors cite a number of questionable acts as evidence of his ASPD diagnosis including: his failure to conform to social norms by torching the Philistines fields and then refusing arrest; his repeated lying to his parents, including not telling them that he had killed a lion; his impulsivity as evidenced by his burning of the Philistine fields; his repeated involvement in physical fights, bullying, and cruelty to animals; his reckless disregard for the safety of others - he was reported to have taken on and killed no less than a 1000 Philistines; and his lack of remorse, as evidenced by his gloating after the killing of 1000 men.

"It should be noted that Samson also displayed many of the behaviors listed in the criteria for conduct disorder," added Altschuler, "such as fire setting, cruelty to small animals, bullying, initiating physical fights, using a weapon (jawbone of ass), and stealing from a victim. If his conduct disorder did not start when he was younger than fifteen, Samson was quite young."

Although Samson showed no signs of schizophrenia, some of his behaviors, for example not telling his parents that the honey he gave them originated from the carcass of a lion, were done in a non-manic state, according to the researchers.

In the end, Samson's poor behavior, brutal and bloodthirsty even for those days, was not acceptable to his fellow Israelites. In Chapter 15, Verse 12 (Old Testament Book of Judges), some 3000 Israelites - Samson's own people - captured Samson and delivered him to the Philistines.

Altschuler first noticed that Samson might meet the criteria for ASPD when he happened to be reading the story of Samson in Judges 1, Chapters 13-16. This reading prompted Altschuler, who works on stroke rehabiltation at UCSD's Brain and Perception Laboratory, to investigate further.

University of California - San Diego

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