Gregory Bateson’s Double Bind Theory

Gregory Bateson’s Double Bind Theory is framed in the systemic model, a conceptual framework focuses on the interrelationship and interdependence between the members of a system, such as a family, rather than on the characteristics of the components themselves.

This theory was developed with the aim of explain the psychological causes of schizophreniawhich Bateson associated with inadequate family communication patterns.

Although the double bind hypothesis has become obsolete in this sense, it was determinant for the evolution of systemic therapy.

Gregory Bateson Biography

Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) was an English anthropologist who made important contributions to fields as varied as linguistics, epistemology and cybernetic sciences. This was due to his focus on systems theory, a multidisciplinary scientific framework.

His first wife was Margaret Meadthe celebrated anthropologist who contributed to the sexual revolution of the 1960s by studying gender roles in indigenous tribes of the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

Bateson belonged to the Palo Alto School during its initial stage. He and his collaborators, mainly Donald Jackson, Jay Haley and John Weakland, were pioneers in the development of family and systemic therapies.

In addition to the theory of the double bind, Bateson studied the evolution of organisms, the concept of homeostasis applied to psychology and anthropology, and scientific methodology, among other topics.

The double bind theory

Double binds are communicative dilemmas due to the contradiction between two or more messages. This means that, no matter how the receiver responds, they will always be making a mistake; In short, he is told that he has to do something but also that he cannot do it.

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In the double bind, messages are usually encoded at different levels of abstraction; Thus, there is a incongruence between the digital or content level and the analog or relationship. The typical example is that of a mother who says “I love you” to her daughter or son, but whose body language conveys rejection.

This means that two simultaneous requests or orders are carried out, but it is impossible to fulfill one of them without disobeying the other. According to Bateson, many people in positions of authority use double binds as a tool to control others.

If they occur continuously, as happens in some families, these paradoxes lead the person in a position of subordination to feel Relationship distress and insecurity about their own perspective of reality.

Bateson described five main characteristics that define the double bind. For this to occur, these conditions must be met in a given communicative context.

1. Interaction between two people

Double binds occur in verbal exchanges between two people. One of the individuals must feel respect for the other, who is usually defined as an authority figure.

Although usually there is talk of the double bind in relation to parents or primary caregivers of a child, it can also occur in teachers, for example.

2. Recurring experience

The double bind should not be understood as a one-time situation but rather as a recurring experience for the individual. For this to happen, most of the time it is enough for one of the parents to use double binds on a regular basis.

3. Primary negative command

At the digital or content level of the message a primary negative command takes place; this means that the sender refers to a punishment What will happen if the subject carries out (or does not) a certain behavior. In the family context, this punishment usually involves the deprivation of affection or an expression of hatred and contempt.

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4. Secondary negative command

The secondary negative command occurs at the analogical or relational level of communication. It consists of an abstract, possibly non-verbal, order that contradicts the primary negative command.

5. Tertiary negative command

Sometimes a third request also appears that prevents the recipient from escaping the dilemma. The tertiary negative command implies that the subject cannot metacommunicate, that is, talk about the incongruence between the primary and secondary commands or the levels of content and relationship.

The causes of schizophrenia

Bateson developed the double bind theory to explain the psychological causes of schizophrenia. He believed that in his time the diagnosis of this disorder was made too frequently and he sought to define the specific patterns by which it developed.

According to this author, the alterations in thought and language that characterize schizophrenia are due to the person’s adaptation to a family context in which incongruent interactions occur. In such cases the contradictory logic of the double bind is internalizedleading the individual to escape reality through delirium.

Although Bateson’s theory was very influential, the truth is that has never been confirmed by research. It is currently believed that the double bind can be considered one of the many types of stressors that can cause the appearance of psychotic symptoms in biologically predisposed people.

Your contribution to mental health

Current theories on the etiology of schizophrenia propose a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Psychotic symptoms have a high heritability, but an environmental component (such as substance abuse or family stress) is also necessary for schizophrenia to appear.

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Despite its lack of solidity as a hypothesis about the development of schizophrenia, Bateson’s double bind theory brought to the table the relevance of communication and family patterns in mental health. It was also one of the first psychopathological explanations that were based on General Systems Theory.