Double Bind

Gregory Bateson by Savina Hopkins


A double bind is an emotionally distressing dilemma in communication in which an individual (or group) receives two or more conflicting messages, and one message negates the other. This creates a situation in which a successful response to one message results in a failed response to the other (and vice versa), so that the person will automatically be wrong regardless of response. The double bind occurs when the person cannot confront the inherent dilemma, and therefore can neither resolve it nor opt out of the situation.

The classic example given of a negative double bind is of a mother telling her child that she loves him or her, while at the same time turning away in disgust (the words are socially acceptable; the body language is in conflict with it). The child doesn’t know how to respond to the conflict between the words and the body language and, because the child is dependent on the mother for basic needs, he or she is in a quandary. Small children have difficulty articulating contradictions verbally and can neither ignore them nor leave the relationship.

For a double bind to be effective, the subject must be unable to confront or resolve the conflict between the demand placed by the primary injunction and that of the secondary injunction. In this sense, the double bind differentiates itself from a simple contradiction to a more inexpressible internal conflict, where the subject really wants to meet the demands of the primary injunction, but fails each time through an inability to address the situation’s incompatibility with the demands of the secondary injunction. Thus, subjects may express feelings of extreme anxiety in such a situation, as they attempt to fulfil the demands of the primary injunction albeit with obvious contradictions in their actions.

In clinical experiments, double binds are often utilized as a form of control without open coercion—the use of confusion makes them both difficult to respond to as well as to resist. A double bind generally includes different levels of abstraction in the order of messages and these messages can either be stated explicitly or implicitly within the context of the situation, or they can be conveyed by tone of voice or body language. Further complications arise when frequent double binds are part of an ongoing relationship to which the person or group is committed. The theory is more clearly understood in the context of complex systems and cybernetics (the study of control and communication in organisms or machines) because human communication and the mind itself function in an interactive manner similar to ecosystems. Complex systems theory helps us to understand the interdependence of the different parts of a message and provides an ordering in what looks like chaos.

The double bind is often misunderstood to be a simple contradictory situation, where the subject is trapped by two conflicting demands. While it’s true that the core of the double bind is two conflicting demands, the difference lies in how they are imposed upon the subject, what the subject’s understanding of the situation is, and who (or what) imposes these demands upon the subject. Unlike the usual no-win situation, the subject has difficulty in defining the exact nature of the paradoxical situation in which he or she is caught. The contradiction may be unexpressed in its immediate context and therefore invisible to external observers, only becoming evident when a prior communication is considered. Typically, a demand is imposed upon the subject by someone who they respect (such as a parent, teacher or doctor) but the demand itself is inherently impossible to fulfill because some broader context forbids it. For example, this situation arises when a person in a position of authority imposes two contradictory conditions but there exists an unspoken rule that one must never question authority.

Another example is when one is commanded to ‘be spontaneous.’ The very command contradicts spontaneity, but it only becomes a double bind when one can neither ignore the command nor comment on the contradiction. Often, the contradiction in communication isn’t apparent to bystanders unfamiliar with previous communications. Double bind theory was first described by English social scientist Gregory Bateson and his colleagues in the 1950s. Bateson and his colleagues defined the double bind as a situation involving: two or more people, one of whom (for the purpose of the definition), is designated as the ‘subject.’ The others are people who are considered the subject’s superiors: figures of authority (such as parents), whom the subject respects. The double bind is a recurrent theme in the experience of the subject, and as such, cannot be resolved as a single traumatic experience. A ‘primary injunction’ is imposed on the subject (e.g. do this or I will punish you). The punishment may include the withdrawing of love, the expression of hate and anger, or abandonment resulting from the authority figure’s expression of helplessness. A ‘secondary injunction’ is imposed on the subject, conflicting with the first at a higher and more abstract level (e.g. you must do this, but only do it because you want to’). It is unnecessary for this injunction to be expressed verbally. If necessary, a ‘tertiary injunction’ is imposed on the subject to prevent them from escaping the dilemma.

Bateson states that the complete list of features in his definition may be unnecessary, in the event that the subject is already viewing their world in double bind patterns. He goes on to give the general characteristics of such a relationship: When the subject is involved in an intense relationship; that is, a relationship in which he feels it is vitally important that he discriminate accurately what sort of message is being communicated so that he may respond appropriately; And, the subject is caught in a situation in which the other person in the relationship is expressing two orders of message and one of these denies the other; And, the subject is unable to comment on the messages being expressed to correct his discrimination of what order of message to respond to: i.e., he cannot make a metacommunicative statement. Thus, the essence of a double bind is two conflicting demands, each on a different logical level, neither of which can be ignored or escaped. This leaves the subject torn both ways, so that whichever demand they try to meet, the other demand cannot be met. ‘I must do it, but I can’t do it’ is a typical description of the double-bind experience.

The term double bind was first in discussions on complexity of communication in relation to schizophrenia. Gregory Bateson made clear that such complexities are common in normal circumstances, especially in ‘play, humor, poetry, ritual and fiction.’ Their findings indicated that the tangles in communication often diagnosed as schizophrenia are not necessarily the result of an organic brain dysfunction. Instead, they found that destructive double binds were a frequent pattern of communication among families of patients, and they proposed that growing up amidst perpetual double binds could lead to learned patterns of confusion in thinking and communication.

Human communication is complex and context is an essential part of it. Communication consists of the words said, tone of voice, and body language. It also includes how these relate to what has been said in the past; what is not said, but is implied; how these are modified by other nonverbal cues, such as the environment in which it is said, and so forth. For example, if someone says ‘I love you,’ one takes into account who is saying it, their tone of voice and body language, and the context in which it is said. It may be a declaration of passion or a serene reaffirmation, insincere and/or manipulative, an implied demand for a response, a joke, its public or private context may affect its meaning, and so forth. Conflicts in communication are common and often we ask ‘What do you mean?’ or seek clarification in other ways. This is called meta-communication: communication about the communication. Sometimes, asking for clarification is impossible.

Communication difficulties in ordinary life often occur when meta-communication and feedback systems are lacking or inadequate or there isn’t enough time for clarification. Double binds can be extremely stressful and become destructive when one is trapped in a dilemma and punished for finding a way out. But making the effort to find the way out of the trap can lead to emotional growth.

A common double bind for children is when they are told: ‘Speak when you’re spoken to’ and ‘Don’t talk back!’ These phrases have such time-honored status that the contradiction between them is rarely perceived: If the child speaks when spoken to then he cannot avoid answering back. If he does not answer back then he fails to speak when spoken to. Whatever the child does he is always in the wrong. Child-abusers often start the double-bind relationship by ‘grooming’ the child, giving little concessions, or gifts or privileges to them, thus the primary injunction is: ‘You should like what you are getting from me!’ When the child begins to go along (i.e. begins to like what she or he is receiving from the person), then the interaction goes to the next level and small victimization occurs, with the secondary injunction being: ‘I am punishing you! (for whatever reason the child-abuser is coming up with (e.g. ‘because you were bad/naughty/messy,’ or ‘because you deserve it,’ or ‘because you made me do it,’ etc )).

Then the loop starts to feed on itself, allowing for ever worse victimization to occur. For example, a mother may demand her son to: ‘Leave your sister alone,’ while the son knows his sister will approach and antagonize him to get him into trouble. The primary injunction is the command, which he will be punished for breaking. The secondary injunction is the knowledge that his sister will get into conflict with him, but his mother will not know the difference and will default to punishing him. He may be under the impression that if he argues with his mother, he may be punished. One possibility for the son to escape this double bind is to realize that his sister only antagonizes him to make him feel anxious (if indeed it is the reason behind his sister’s behavior). If he were not bothered about punishment, his sister might not bother him. He could also leave the situation entirely, avoiding both the mother and the sister. The sister can’t claim to be bothered by a non-present brother, and the mother can’t punish (nor scapegoat) a non-present son. There are other solutions that are realized through creative application of logic and reasoning.

Bateson also described positive double binds, both in relation to Zen Buddhism with its path of spiritual growth, and the use of therapeutic double binds by psychiatrists to confront their patients with the contradictions in their life in such a way that would help them heal.

In cybernetics double blinds reveal a logical discontinuity between set and element, for example in cases where the set cannot be an element of itself. These types must not be muddled and must be kept separate (e.g. ‘the name of a class cannot also be a member of the class’). A message is made up of words and the context that modifies it. The context is of a higher logical type than the words. For example, the word ‘cat’ cannot scratch you. The real animal and the word cat are of two different logical types. An example involving purely nonverbal communication among animals is two puppies playing by growling and nipping each other gently. The first level of the message could be described as, ‘I am threatening you; I will bite you’ A higher level of the message is, ‘this is play fighting; I won’t hurt you.’ One of the causes of double binds is the loss of feedback systems. Bateson described double binds that have arisen in science that have caused decades-long delays of progress because researchers had defined something as outside of their scope (or ‘not science’).

The Double Bind Theory was first articulated in relationship to schizophrenia, because Bateson hypothesized that schizophrenic thinking was not necessarily an inborn mental disorder but a learned confusion in thinking. It is helpful to remember the context in which these ideas were developed. Bateson and his colleagues were working in the Veteran’s Administration Hospital (1949–1962) with World War II veterans. As soldiers they’d been able to function well in combat, but the effects of life-threatening stress had affected them. At that time, 18 years before Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was officially recognized, the veterans had been saddled with the catch-all diagnosis of schizophrenia.

Bateson didn’t challenge the diagnosis but he did maintain that the seeming nonsense the patients said at times did make sense within context. For example, a patient missed an appointment, and when Bateson found him later the patient said ‘the judge disapproves’; Bateson responds, ‘You need a defense lawyer.’ Bateson also surmised that people habitually caught in double binds in childhood would have greater problems—that in the case of the schizophrenic, the double bind is presented continually and habitually within the family context from infancy on. By the time the child is old enough to have identified the double bind situation, it has already been internalized, and the child is unable to confront it. The solution then is to create an escape from the conflicting logical demands of the double bind, in the world of the delusional system.

After many years of research into schizophrenia, Bateson continued to explore problems of communication and learning, first with dolphins, and then with the more abstract processes of evolution. Bateson emphasized that any communicative system characterized by different logical levels might be subject to double bind problems. Especially including the communication of characteristics from one generation to another (genetics and evolution): ‘…evolution always followed the pathways of viability. As Lewis Carroll has pointed out, the theory [of natural selection] explains quite satisfactorily why there are no bread-and-butter-flies today.’ Bateson used the fictional Bread and Butter Fly (from ‘Through the Looking Glass’) to illustrate the double bind in terms of natural selection.

In Carol’s novel, the gnat points out that the insect would be doomed if he found his food (which would dissolve his own head), and starve if he did not. Alice suggests that this must happen quite often, to which the gnat replies ‘it always happens.’ The pressures that drive evolution therefore represent a genuine double bind. And there is truly no escape: ‘It always happens.’ No species can escape natural selection, including our own. Bateson suggested that all evolution is driven by the double bind, whenever circumstances change: If any environment becomes toxic to any species, that species will die out unless it transforms into another species, in which case, the species becomes extinct anyway.

Most significant here is Bateson’s exploration of what he later came to call ‘the pattern that connects’—that problems of communication which span more than one level (e.g., the relationship between the individual and the family) should also be expected to be found spanning other pairs of levels in the hierarchy (e.g. the relationship between the genotype and the phenotype): ‘We are very far, then, from being able to pose specific questions for the geneticist; but I believe that the wider implications of what I have been saying modify somewhat the philosophy of genetics. Our approach to the problems of schizophrenia by way of a theory of levels or logical types has disclosed first that the problems of adaptation and learning and their pathologies must be considered in terms of a hierarchic system in which stochastic change occurs at the boundary points between the segments of the hierarchy. We have considered three such regions of stochastic change—the level of genetic mutation, the level of learning, and the level of change in family organization. We have disclosed the possibility of a relationship of these levels which orthodox genetics would deny, and we have disclosed that at least in human societies the evolutionary system consists not merely in the selective survival of those persons who happen to select appropriate environments but also in the modification of family environment in a direction which might enhance the phenotypic and genotypic characteristics of the individual members.’

According to philosopher and theologian Alan Watts, the double bind has long been used in Zen Buddhism as a therapeutic tool. The Zen Master purposefully imposes the double bind upon his students (through various ‘skilful means,’ called ‘upaya’), hoping that they achieve enlightenment (‘satori’). One of the most prominent techniques used by Zen Masters (especially those of the Rinzai school) is called the ‘koan,’ in which the master gives his or her students a question, and instructs them to pour all their mental energies into finding the answer to it. As an example of a koan, a student can be asked to present to the master their genuine self, ‘Show me who you really are.’ According to Watts, the student will eventually realize there is nothing they can do, yet also nothing they cannot do, to present their actual self; thus, they truly learn the Buddhist concept of ‘anatman’ (‘non-self’) via reductio ad absurdum (i.e., a statement is true because its denial leads to a false or absurd result). ‘Be genuine’ or ‘Who are you?’ are, according to Watts is the basis of all Zen koans. The more the students try, the phonier they are, and even the ‘act’ of not trying is just another version of trying.

Critic René Girard, in his literary theory of mimetic desire, proposes what he calls a ‘model-obstacle,’ a role model who demonstrates an object of desire and yet, in possessing that object, becomes a rival who obstructs fulfillment of the desire. According to Girard, we borrow our desires from others. Far from being autonomous, our desire for a certain object is always provoked by the desire of another person — the model — for this same object. The ‘internal mediation’ of this mimetic dynamic ‘operates along the same lines as the double bind. Girard found in Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, a precursor to mimetic desire: ‘The individual who ‘adjusts’ has managed to relegate the two contradictory injunctions of the double bind—to imitate and not to imitate—to two different domains of application. This is, he divides reality in such a way as to neutralize the double bind.’ While critical of Freud’s doctrine of the unconscious mind, Girard sees the ancient Greek tragedy, ‘Oedipus the King,’ and key elements of Freud’s Oedipus complex, patricidal and incestuous desire, to serve as prototypes for his own analysis of the mimetic double bind.

Far from being restricted to a limited number of pathological cases, as American theoreticians suggest, the double bind—a contradictory double imperative, or rather a whole network of contradictory imperatives—is an extremely common phenomenon. In fact, it is so common that it might be said to form the basis of all human relationships.

Bateson is undoubtedly correct in believing that the effects of the double bind on the child are particularly devastating: ‘All the grown-up voices around him, beginning with those of the father and mother (voices which, in our society at least, speak for the culture with the force of established authority) exclaim in a variety of accents, ‘Imitate us!’ ‘Imitate me!’ ‘I bear the secret of life, of true being!’ The more attentive the child is to these seductive words, and the more earnestly he responds to the suggestions emanating from all sides, the more devastating will be the eventual conflicts. The child possesses no perspective that will allow him to see things as they are. He has no basis for reasoned judgements, no means of foreseeing the metamorphosis of his model into a rival. This model’s opposition reverberates in his mind like a terrible condemnation; he can only regard it as an act of excommunication. The future orientation of his desires—that is, the choice of his future models—will be significantly affected by the dichotomies of his childhood. In fact, these models will determine the shape of his personality.’

‘If desire is allowed its own bent, its mimetic nature will almost always lead it into a double bind. The unchanneled mimetic impulse hurls itself blindly against the obstacle of a conflicting desire. It invites its own rebuffs and these rebuffs will in turn strengthen the mimetic inclination. We have, then, a self-perpetuating process, constantly increasing in simplicity and fervor. Whenever the disciple borrows from his model what he believes to be the ‘true’ object, he tries to possess that truth by desiring precisely what this model desires. Whenever he sees himself closest to the supreme goal, he comes into violent conflict with a rival. By a mental shortcut that is both eminently logical and self-defeating, he convinces himself that the violence itself is the most distinctive attribute of this supreme goal! Ever afterward, violence will invariably awaken desire.’

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