3.2.3 Double Bind Theory

The schizophrenogenic mother was only one of a number of possible complications in the childhoods of schizophrenics that might account for the disorder. The search for a distortion in family experience that could be described in finite terms, measured, and positively connected with schizophrenics was something of a holy grail for psychiatrists in the decades following World War II. Perhaps the most seductive idea that arose from this quest was the ‘double bind’ theory.

In 1956 Gregory Bateson and his colleagues at Stanford University published a ‘report on a research project which has been formulating and testing a broad, systematic view of the nature, etiology, and therapy of schizophrenia’.[71] The double bind theory which arose from this research was based in communications theories. Although many relationships have double bind potential Bateson preferred to illustrate the theory by depicting the mother/child relationship:

we hypothesise that the mother of a schizophrenic will be simultaneously expressing at least two orders of message. These orders can be roughly characterised as (a) hostile or withdrawing behaviour that is aroused whenever the child approaches her, and (b) simulated loving or approaching behaviour which is aroused when the child responds to her hostile and withdrawing behaviour, as a way of denying she is withdrawing.[72]

Bateson gave an example of the double bind situation taken from observations made during clinical practice. This example is much cited and has been frequently used by other writers to illustrate in summary the mechanism of double bind.

A young man who had fairly well recovered from an acute schizophrenic episode was visited in the hospital by his mother. He was glad to see her and impulsively put his arm around her shoulders, whereupon she stiffened. He withdrew his arm and she asked, ‘Don’t you love me any more?’ He then blushed, and she said, ‘Dear you must not be so easily embarrassed and afraid of your feelings.’ The patient was able to stay with her only a few minutes and following her departure he assaulted an aide and was put in the tubs.[73]

Bateson’s view was that the inner turmoil experienced by schizophrenics is associated with a habit of routinely communicating in metaphorical language without first flagging that a metaphor was being used: ‘The peculiarity of the schizophrenic is not that he uses metaphors, but that he uses unlabelled metaphors. He has special difficulty in handling signals of that class whose members assign Logical Types to other signals’.[74]

The ‘Logical Types’ referred to are derived from a theory of Bertrand Russell which argues that there is a discontinuity between a class and its members. Bateson had adapted Russell’s theory to the realm of ideas and to the communication of ideas.[75] Bateson argued that there are numerous classes of ideas used in human communication which each dictate different modes of communication within their fields of influence. Examples given of these classes of ideas are play, non-play, fantasy, sacrament and metaphor. According to the theory it is imperative that a discontinuity prevails between the class and the members: that is, between a meta-idea such as ‘play’ and the communication of playful ideas:

Although in formal logic there is an attempt to maintain this discontinuity between a class and its members, we argue that in the psychology of real communications this discontinuity is continually and inevitably breached and that a priori we must expect a pathology to occur in the human organism when certain formal patterns of the breaching occur in the communication between mother and child. We shall argue that this pathology at its extreme will have symptoms whose formal characteristics would lead the pathology to be classified as a schizophrenia.[76]

Unlike the somewhat obscure reasoning of the theoretical packaging of Logical Types, the description of the double bind situation, from which schizophrenics were assumed to contract their mental pathology, was persuasive and logical. Six ingredients were specified for a double bind situation:

  1. The ‘victim’, that is, the schizophrenic person, must have had a childhood relationship with one or more family members whose communication techniques induced inner conflict.
  2. The double bind communications were a repeated rather than a single traumatic experience. The repetition is necessary in order to induce in the victim a habitual expectation of double bind forms of communication.
  3. The double bind communication first takes the form of a primary negative injunction. ‘This may take either of two forms: (a) “Do not do so and so, or I will punish you”, or (b) “If you do not do so and so, I will punish you”.’ The punishment that is threatened might take the form of either withdrawal of love or the expression of anger.
  4. The primary negative injunction is followed by a secondary injunction which conflicts with the first. The secondary injunction is on a more abstract level and, although like the first it is enforced by an implication of punishment, it is usually communicated in a more subtle fashion which might involve nonverbal means such as posture, gesture or tone of voice.
  5. A tertiary negative injunction prevents the victim from escaping from the situation.
  6. When the victim has learned to anticipate double bind patterns in all communications the complete set of ingredients is no longer necessary and ‘almost any part of the double bind sequence may then be sufficient to precipitate rage or panic. The pattern of conflicting injunctions may even be taken over by hallucinatory voices.’[77]

The simplicity of the double bind argument was very appealing, but, while many schizophrenics appeared to have a history of some kind of double bind situation,[78] so did many non-schizophrenics. In fact, the popularity of the idea might be attributable to the fact that most people have experienced the frustration of a double bind relationship with a person of authority at some time in their lives, and can easily recognise the problem. This only begs the question: if the double bind is a factor in the aetiology of schizophrenia, why are only some people vulnerable? The answer to this question proved to be elusive,[79] and by the end of the 1970s researchers had largely moved on to focus on other hypotheses.

 Next: Family Stress

[71] Gregory Bateson et al., ‘Towards a Theory of Schizophrenia’.

[72] Ibid., p. 15.

[73] Ibid., p. 18.

[74] Ibid., p. 8.

[75] Leena Roy and Suby Roy, ‘Does the theory of logical types inform a theory of communication?’, pp. 519–25.

[76] Bateson et al., op.cit., p. 6

[77] Ibid., pp. 9, 10.

[78] Susan L. Jones, ‘The “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” concept: The double bind as a tested theoretical formulation’, pp. 162–9.

[79] David M. Dush and Marvin Brodsky, ‘Effects and implications of the experimental double bind’, pp. 895–900.