Gregory Bateson’s theory of the double bind 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 to explain the psychological causes of schizophrenia, which Bateson associated with inadequate family communication patterns.

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

Gregory Bateson Biography

Gregory Bateson Biography

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

His first wife was Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist who contributed to the sexual revolution of the 1960s through the study of gender roles in the indigenous tribes of the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

He and his collaborators, primarily Donald Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland, were pioneers in the development of family and systemic therapies.

In addition to the theory of 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, as the receiver responds, he will always be making a mistake; in short, he is told that he has to do something but also that he cannot do it.

In the double bind, messages are usually encoded at different levels of abstraction; thus, there is an inconsistency between the digital or content level and the analog or relationship level. The typical example is 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 comply with one without disobeying the other. According to Bateson, many people in positions of authority use double bind as a tool to control others.

If they occur continuously, as in some families, these paradoxes lead the person in a position of subordination to feel anguish regarding the relationship and insecurity about his or her own perspective of reality.

Bateson described five main features that define the double bind. In order for this to happen, these conditions must be met in a given communicative context.

1- Interaction Between Two People

Double bind occur in verbal exchanges between two people. One of the individuals must have respect for the other, which is often defined as a figure of authority.

Although there is usually talk of a double bind in relation to a child’s parent or primary caregiver, it can also occur in teachers, for example.

2- Recurrent Experience

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

3- Primary Negative Command

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

4- Secondary Negative Command

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

5- Third Negative Command

Sometimes there is also a third request that prevents the receiver from escaping the dilemma. The negative third command implies that the subject cannot meta-communicate, that is, talk about the inconsistency between the primary and secondary commands or the levels of content and relationship.

Causes Of Schizophrenia

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 carried out with excessive frequency and sought to delimit the specific patterns.

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

Although Bateson’s theory was very influential, it is certain that it has never been confirmed by the investigations . At present, it is believed that the double bind can be considered a type of stressor of the many that can cause the appearance of psychotic symptoms in biologically predisposed people.

The Contributions To Mental Health

The current theories on the etiology of schizophrenia suggest 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 needed for schizophrenia to appear.

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


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here