A double bind is a dilemma in communication in which an individual (or group) receives two or more conflicting messages and one message denies the other--a situation in which the person will be put in the wrong however they respond--and the person can't comment on the conflict, or resolve it, or opt out of the situation. A double bind generally includes different levels of abstraction in orders of messages, and these messages can be stated or implicit within the context of the situation, or conveyed by tone of voice or body language. Further complications exist when frequent double binds are part of an ongoing relationship to which the person or group is committed.
Human communication is complex, 90% of it is "nonverbal" and context is essential to human communication. Communication consists of the words said and how they relate to what has been said in the past, what isn't said but is implied, and how these are modified by nonverbal cues, 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. (Is it a declaration of passion or a serene reaffirmation, is it public or private, is it insincere and manipulative, does it sound as if they are saying "Please pass the salt" or are they saying it jokingly even if they're annoyed at you?)
Conflicts in communication are common, and often we ask, "What do you mean?" or ask for clarification in other ways. This is called metacommunication--communication about the communication. But sometimes asking for clarification isn't possible. Communication difficulties are common in ordinary life and most often occur when metacommunication and feedback systems are lacking or inadequate or there isn't time.
The classic example given of a double bind is when a mother tells her child that she loves him, while at the same time turning her head away in disgust. The child doesn't know if to respond to the words or to the body language and, because he is dependent on his mother for his basic needs, is in a quandary. He can't ignore it or leave the relationship.
Another example is when one is commanded to "be spontaneous". The very command contradicts the spontaneity, but it only becomes a double bind when one can't ignore the command or comment on the contradiction.
Double binds can be extremely stressful and become destructive when one is trapped in a dilemma and is punished for finding a way out--but finding the right way out of the trap can lead to emotional growth.
The term Double Bind was first used by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson and his colleagues in their discussions on complexity of communication and schizophrenia. They were proposing that schizophrenia isn't always an organic brain dysfunction, but that the confused communication typical of schizophrenia is sometimes just that: they found destructive double binds were a frequent pattern of communication among families of patients and were proposing that growing up amidst perpetual double binds could lead to learned patterns of confusion in thinking and communication. But Bateson made it clear that these complexities in communication also exist in normal circumstances, especially in "play, humor, poetry, ritual and fiction". (re Logical Types).
Bateson also described positive double binds in relation to Zen Buddhism and spiritual growth and the use of therapeutic double binding by psychiatrists to help their patients heal.
One of Bateson's consultants, Milton H. Erickson (5-volumes edited by Rossi) eloquently demonstrates the positive possibilities of double-binds and puts the technique in a bright light.
Double bind theory can be more clearly understood in the context of complex systems and cybernetics/systems theory.
A double bind is a communicative situation where an individual, or group, receives contradictory messages, but where the contradiction is not present or obvious in the immediate context (or 'logical level') of each message. The Double Bind Theory, proposed by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson and his colleagues (including Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley and John H. Weakland), attempts to account for the development and "maintenance" of schizophrenia without simply assuming an organic brain dysfunction. Today, it is more importantly understood as an example of Bateson's approach to the complexities of communication, epistemology and evolution.
The double bind is often misunderstood to be a simple contradictory situation, where the victim is trapped by two conflicting demands. While it is true that at the core of the double bind are two conflicting demands, the difference lies in how they are imposed upon the victim, what the victim's understanding of the situation is, and who (or what) imposes these demands upon the victim. Unlike the usual no-win situation
, the victim is largely unaware of the exact nature of the paradoxical
situation he or she is in. The contradiction may be entirely invisible in the immediate context in which it is made (and therefore invisible to external observers). It only becomes evident when some broader context is considered. Typically, a demand is imposed upon the victim by someone they regard with respect (a parent, teacher or doctor), but the demand itself is inherently impossible to fulfill, because some broader context forbids it. Bateson and colleagues defined the double bind as follows: (paraphrased):
- The situation involves two or more people, one of whom, for the purpose of definition, is designated the "victim". The others are people who are, in some way, in a higher position relative to the victim: a figure of authority, such as a parent, whom the victim respects.
- Repeated experience. The double bind is a recurrent theme in the experience of the victim, and as such cannot be resolved as a single traumatic experience.
- A primary injunction is imposed upon the victim by the other person in one of two forms: (a) Do "X" or I will punish you. (b) Do not do "X" or I will punish you. The punishment is assumed to be either the withdrawing of love, the expression of hate and anger, or abandonment, resulting from the authority figure's expression of extreme helplessness.
- A secondary injunction is imposed upon the victim that conflicts with the first at a higher and more abstract level. For example, "Do what I told you, but only do it because you want to." It is not necessary for this injunction to be expressed verbally.
- If necessary, a tertiary injunction is imposed upon the victim to prevent them from escaping the dilemma.
- Finally, Bateson states that the complete list of the previous requirements may be unnecessary - in the event that the victim is already viewing their world in double bind patterns. Bateson goes on to give the general characteristics of such a relationship:
- When the victim 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 victim 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 victim 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, which leave the victim 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.
For a double bind to be effective, the victim doesn't see that the demand placed on them by the primary injunction is in direct conflict with the secondary injunction. In this sense, the double bind differentiates itself - from a simple contradiction to a more inexpressible internal conflict, where the victim vigorously wants to meet the demands of the primary injunction, but fails each time, because the victim fails to see that the situation is completely incompatible with the demands of the secondary injunction. Thus victims may express feelings of extreme anxiety in such a situation as they attempt to fulfill the demands of the primary injunction, but are met with obvious contradictions in their actions.
The double bind was originally presented as a situation that could possibly lead to schizophrenia if imposed upon young children, or simply those with unstable and weak personalities. Creating a situation where the victim could not make any comment or "metacommunicative statement" about their dilemma would, in theory, escalate their state of mental anxiety. Today, it is more important as an example of Bateson's approach to the complexities of communication.
One solution to a double-bind is to place the problem in an even larger context, a state Bateson identified as Learning III, a step up from Learning II, which requires only learned responses to reward/consequence situations. In Learning III, the double bind is contextualized and understood as an impossible, no-win scenario. Bateson maintained that in the case of the schizophrenic, the double bind is presented continually and habitually within the family context. 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.
Usage in Zen Buddhism
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 "skillful means", called upaya
) in hopes 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 that there's nothing they can do, and also nothing they can not
do, to present their true self, and thus they truly learn the Buddhist concept of anatman
(non-self) via reductio ad absurdum
- Mother telling her son: "You must love me."
- The primary injunction here is the command itself; the secondary injunction is the unspoken demand that the child must love the mother genuinely, of its own accord.
- Zen koan: "Be genuine" or "Who are you?"
- Argued by Watts to be the underlying theme of all Zen koans, the idea here is to present to the roshi (master) your true self. The more the student tries, the phonier they are, and even the act of not trying is just another version of trying.
- Freedom is the ability to be spontaneous and do whatever you want; to be told that you must do this means that you are conforming to a commandment that orders you to express a state of freedom. (An extreme example of this is the New Hampshire state slogan, "Live Free Or Die," which also veers into the realm of Hobson's choice).
- Mother to son: "Show your relatives how you play."
- Child play is a spontaneous process that the child does of its own accord; to be forced to play is not play. This is very similar to the double bind: "You must be free."
- Child-molester to child: "You should have escaped from me on a previous occasions, now it's too late - because now nobody will believe you that you didn't consent to whatever I have done to you" while at the same time preventing any previous child's attempts to escape by various means.
- "You should enjoy playing with the children, just like other fathers"
- Same as the double bind between the mother and son.
's double bind theory is very complex and has only been partly tested; there are gaps in the current psychological
and experimental evidence that is required to establish causation
. Current subjective assessments of individuals, faced with making a serious decision while exposed to conflicting messages, report feelings of anxiety
. It is argued that, if the double bind theory is indeed to overturn findings that point to a genetic basis for schizophrenia
, more comprehensive psychological and experimental studies are needed, with different family types and across various family contexts. The current understanding of schizophrenia takes into account a complex interaction of genetic, neurological as well as emotional stressors including family interaction.
The field of neuro-linguistic programming
also makes use of the expression "double bind". Grinder and Bandler (both of whom had personal contact with Bateson) asserted that a message could be constructed with multiple messages, whereby the recipient of the message is given the impression of choice - even though both options have the same outcome at a higher level of intention. This is called a "double bind" in NLP terminology. This has application in both sales and therapy. A salesperson might ask "Would you like to pay cash or by credit card?" Both outcomes presuppose that the person will make the purchase, whereas the third option, that of not buying, is intentionally excluded from the list of choices. Strictly speaking, "cash or credit card?" is not a double-bind because there is no contradiction involved.
If the salesman was selling a book about the evils of commerce, then it could perhaps be a 'true' double bind, but only if the buyer already believed that commerce was evil, and felt compelled or obliged to buy the book.
- Watts, Alan (1999). The Way of Zen. Vintage. ISBN 0-375-70510-4.
- Bateson, Gregory. "Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia," in Part III, Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. University of Chicago Press, 1999, originally published, San Francisco: Chandler Pub. Co., 1972.
- Reference in Encyclopedia of NLP