Double Bind

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Gregory Bateson coined the term double bind in 1956. In trying to understand the characteristic effects of communication in schizophrenics' families, Bateson and his collaborators identified a specific constraining interaction, the paradoxical injunction that they called the double bind.

The double bind fits into one of the three types of paradox, the pragmatic paradox. The effects of the paradox in human interactions were first described by Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John H. Weakland in a document entitled Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia, published in 1956. Bateson and his collaborators were looking for sequences of interpersonal experience that could lead to a type of behavior that would justify the diagnosis of schizophrenia.

This is one of the typical cases constructed by Paul Watzlawick from real clinical facts: A mother buys two neckties for her little boy, one green and one blue. The next day the child is in a hurry to sport the green necktie. The mother: "So you don't like the blue tie I gave you?" The next day the boy puts on the blue tie and draws the symmetrical response: "So you don't like the green tie I gave you?" So, on the third day, the child tries to find a compromise solution in order to satisfy his mother's two demands: he puts on the two ties together. And his mother comments: "You poor boy, you're out of your mind. You're going to drive me crazy." This paradoxical injunction, where the double bind mechanism is particularly obvious, clearly shows the annihilating effects on the person at the receiving end.

Antonio J. Ferreira (1960) described one particular form of double bind, the split double bind, observed in the families of young delinquents. The expression "prescribe the symptom" was first introduced in Bateson's group's work on family therapy in schizophrenia. The group showed the paradoxical nature of this technique: the therapeutic double constraint. From a structural point of view, a therapeutic double constraint is the mirror image of a pathogenic double con straint. The therapist formulates an injunction of such a structure that it reinforces the behavior that the patient expects to see disappear. A patient presenting persistent headaches (in-depth medical examinations revealed nothing) transmitted the following message through her symptoms and her earlier relations with doctors: "Help me but I won't let you help me." The therapist understood that given the history of physicians' "failures," any allusion to the help that psychotherapy could provide would predestine the treatment to fail. The patient therefore had to face the fact that her state was incurable. All that the therapist could do was help her learn to live with her pains.

In the nineteen-seventies the notion of paradox was introduced into clinical and theoretical psychoanalysis from several different directions, largely due to Didier Anzieu's article on Transfert paradoxal (Paradoxical transfer) (1975) and Paul-Claude Racamier's work on humor and madness (1973), and later on schizophrenics' paradoxes (Congress of Romance-Language Psychoanalysts, 1978).

Jean-Pierre Caillot

See also: Paradox; Schizophrenia; System/systemic.


Anzieu, Didier. (1975). Le transfert paradoxal. Nouvelle revue de Psychanalyse, 12, 49-72.

Bateson, Gregory; Jackson, Don D.; Haley, Jay; and Weak-land, John (1956). Toward a theory of schizophrenia. Behavioral Science, 1, 251-254.

Ferreira, Antonio J. (1980). Double lien et délinquance. Changements systémiques en thérapie familiale. Paris: E.S.F. (Original work published 1960)

Racamier, Paul-Claude (1992). Le génie des origines. Psychanalyse et psychoses. Paris: Payot.

Watzlawick, Paul; Beavin, Janet Helmick; and Jackson, Don D. (1967). Pragmatics of human communication. New York: W.W. Norton.