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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.
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.
Double bind theory is more clearly understood in the context of complex systems and cybernetics 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.
Gregory Bateson and his colleagues defined the double bind as follows (paraphrased):
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.
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.
The term double bind was first used by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson and his colleagues (including Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley and John H. Weakland) in the mid-1950s in their discussions on complexity of communication in relation to schizophrenia. Bateson made clear that such complexities are common in normal circumstances, especially in "play, humor, poetry, ritual and fiction" (see Logical Types below). 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.
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Human communication is complex (see Albert Mehrabian) 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.[body language and double-bind see ()]
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.
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.
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. One of Bateson's consultants, Milton H. Erickson (5 volumes, edited by Rossi) eloquently demonstrated the productive possibilities of double binds through his own life, showing the technique in a brighter light.
Cybernetics contains Russell and Whitehead's Theory of Logical Types: there is a logical discontinuity between set and element and the set cannot be an element of the set. These types must not be muddled and must be kept separate. For example "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. Another example—this one of purely nonverbal communication among animals is: two puppies are playing and they growl at each other and nip 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." (See chapters: A Theory of Play and Fantasy and Towards a Theory of Schizophrenia--subsection The Base in Communications Theory, both in Steps to an Ecology of Mind).
One of the causes of double binds is the loss of feedback systems. Gregory Bateson and Lawrence S. Bale describe double binds that have arisen in science that have caused decades-long delays of progress in science because science (who is this 'science' fellow?) had defined something as outside of its scope (or "not science")--see Bateson in his Introduction to Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972, 2000), pp. xv-xxvi; and Bale in his article, Gregory Bateson, Cybernetics and the Social/Behavioral Sciences (esp. pp. 1–8) on the paradigm of classical science vs. that of systems theory/cybernetics. (See also Bateson's description in his Forward of how the double bind hypothesis fell into place).
The Double Bind Theory was first articulated in relationship to schizophrenia, but Bateson and his colleagues 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, and he gives numerous examples in section III of Steps to an Ecology of Mind, "Pathology in Relationship". For example, a patient misses an appointment, and when Bateson finds him later the patient says 'the judge disapproves'; Bateson responds, "You need a defense lawyer" see following (pp. 195–6) 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 (see in Towards a Theory of Schizophrenia — Illustrations from Clinical Data).
One solution to a double bind is to place the problem in a 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 so that ways around it can be found.
Bateson's double bind theory was never followed up by research into whether family systems imposing systematic double binds might be a cause of schizophrenia. This complex theory has been only partly tested, and there are gaps in the current psychological and experimental evidence required to establish causation. The current understanding of schizophrenia takes into account a complex interaction of genetic, neurological as well as emotional stressors, including family interaction and it has been argued that if the double bind theory overturns findings suggesting a genetic basis for schizophrenia then more comprehensive psychological and experimental studies are needed, with different family types and across various family contexts.
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 emphasised 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, and What Alice Found There) to illustrate the double bind in terms of natural selection. 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".
An example from zoology might be the Rhinoceros horn. This appendage evolved as a 'defensive weapon'. But the Rhino is now almost extinct because its horn - the very thing which gave it an evolutionary advantage against lions and other predators - is imagined to be a powerful supernatural medicine by some humans. The horn protects the individual, which in evolutionary time has helped to prevent the species from becoming extinct, and at the same time, the horn threatens the species with extinction. The horn therefore has a contradictory role in Rhinoceros survival (and evolution), exactly as a schizophrenic symptom has a contradictory role in the psychological development of the identified patient - it simultaneously protects and threatens.
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.
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, the “internal mediation” of this mimetic dynamic “operates along the same lines as what Gregory Bateson called 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...—René Girard, Violence and the Sacred “From Mimetic Desire to the Monstrous Double”, pp.156–157
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—although both options have the same outcome at a higher level of intention. This is called a "double bind" in NLP terminology, and has applications in both sales and therapy. In therapy, the practitioner may seek to challenge destructive double binds that limit the client in some way and may also construct double binds in which both options have therapeutic consequences. In a sales context, the speaker may give the respondent the illusion of choice between two possibilities. For example, a salesperson might ask: "Would you like to pay cash or by credit card?", with both outcomes presupposing that the person will make the purchase; whereas the third option (that of not buying) is intentionally excluded from the spoken choices.
Note that in the NLP context, the use of the phrase "double bind" does not carry the primary definition of two conflicting messages; it is about creating a false sense of choice which ultimately binds to the intended outcome. In the "cash or credit card?" example, this is not a "Bateson double bind" since there is no contradiction, although it still is an "NLP double bind". Similarly if a salesman were selling a book about the evils of commerce, it could perhaps be a "Bateson double bind" if the buyer happened to believe that commerce was evil, yet felt compelled or obliged to buy the book.
Double binds have also been called Crazy-Making. see below in the Reference section—Paul Gibney (May 2006)The Double Bind Theory: Still Crazy Making After All These Years.