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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, in which 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 be automatically wrong regardless of response. The double bind occurs when the person cannot confront the inherent dilemma, and therefore cannot resolve it or opt out of the situation. For example, if your employer tells you to do a job, but doesn't allow enough time for you to do it, and you are in danger of losing your job if you question the situation, you are in a double bind.

Double bind theory was first described by Gregory Bateson and his colleagues in the 1950s.[1]

Double binds are often utilized as a form of control without open coercion—the use of confusion makes them difficult to respond to or resist.

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 arise when frequent double binds are part of an ongoing relationship to which the person or group is committed.[2][3]

Double bind theory is more clearly understood in the context of complex systems and cybernetics because human communication and also the mind itself function in an interactive manner similar to ecosystems. Complex systems theory helps us understand the interdependence of the parts of a message and provides "an ordering of what to the Newtonian looks like chaos."


The double bind is often misunderstood to be a simple contradictory situation, where the victim is trapped by two conflicting demands. While it's true that the core of the double bind is two conflicting demands, the differences lie in how they are imposed on the victim, what the victim's understanding of the situation is and finally, who (or what) imposes these demands upon the victim. Unlike the usual no-win situation, the victim has difficulty defining the exact nature of the paradoxical situation in which he or she is. The contradiction may be unexpressed in its immediate context and therefore is invisible to external observers, only becoming evident when a prior communication is considered. Typically, a demand is imposed upon the victim by someone who they respect (a parent, teacher or doctor), but the demand itself is inherently impossible to fulfill because some broader context forbids it. For example, when a person in a position of authority imposes two contradictory conditions but there is an unspoken rule that one must never question authority.

Gregory Bateson and his colleagues defined the double bind as follows[2] (paraphrased):

  1. The situation involves two or more people, one of whom (for the purpose of the definition), is designated as the "victim". The others are people who are considered the victim's superiors: figures of authority (such as parents), whom the victim respects.
  2. 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.
  3. A "primary injunction" is imposed on the victim by the others in one of two forms:
  • (a) "Do X, or I will punish you";
  • (b) "Do not do X, or I will punish you".
  • (or both a and b)
The punishment may include the withdrawing of love, the expression of hate and anger, or abandonment resulting from the authority figure's expression of helplessness.
  1. A "secondary injunction" is imposed on the victim, conflicting with the first at a higher and more abstract level. For example: "You must do X, but only do it because you want to". It is unnecessary for this injunction to be expressed verbally.
  2. If necessary, a "tertiary injunction" is imposed on the victim to prevent them from escaping the dilemma. See phrase examples below for clarification.
  3. 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:
    1. 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;
    2. 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;
    3. 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. This leaves 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 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 victim 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, victims 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 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.

Complexity in communication

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.


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.[4] (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.

Phrase examples

  • Mother telling her child: "You must love me".
The primary injunction here is the command itself: "you must"; the secondary injunction is the unspoken reality that love is spontaneous, that for the child to love the mother genuinely, it can only be of his or her own accord.
  • Grown-up-in-authority to child: "Speak when you're spoken to" and "Don't talk back!"
These phrases have such time-honoured status that the contradiction between them is rarely perceived: If the child speaks when spoken to then he cannot avoid answering back. If he does not answer back then he fails to speak when spoken to. Whatever the child does he is always in the wrong.
  • Child-abuser to child: "You should have escaped from me earlier, now it's too late - because now, nobody will believe that you didn't want what I have done", while at the same time blocking all of the child's attempts to escape.
Child-abusers often start the double-bind relationship by "grooming" the child, giving little concessions, or gifts or privileges to them, thus the primary injunction is: "You should like what you are getting from me!"
When the child begins to go along (i.e. begins to like what she or he is receiving from the person), then the interaction goes to the next level and small victimization occurs, with the secondary injunction being: "I am punishing you! (for whatever reason the child-abuser is coming up with (e.g. "because you were bad/naughty/messy", or "because you deserve it", or "because you made me do it", etc )).
If child shows any resistance (or tries to escape) from the abuser, then the words: "You should have escaped from me earlier (...)" serve as the third level or tertiary injunction.
Then the loop starts to feed on itself, allowing for ever worse victimization to occur.
  • Mother to son: "Leave your sister alone!", while the son knows his sister will approach and antagonize him to get him into trouble.
The primary injunction is the command, which he will be punished for breaking. The secondary injunction is the knowledge that his sister will get into conflict with him, but his mother will not know the difference and will default to punishing him. He may be under the impression that if he argues with his mother, he may be punished. One possibility for the son to escape this double bind is to realize that his sister only antagonizes him to make him feel anxious (if indeed it is the reason behind his sister's behavior).
If he were not bothered about punishment, his sister might not bother him. He could also leave the situation entirely, avoiding both the mother and the sister. The sister can't claim to be bothered by a non-present brother, and the mother can't punish (nor scapegoat) a non-present son. There are other solutions that are realised through creative application of logic and reasoning.

Positive double binds

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.

Theory of logical types

Cybernetics contains Russell and Whitehead's Theory of Logical Types. 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.[5] 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).

Double binds in science

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 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).

Double binds and schizophrenia

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. Many people have forgotten that 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--Pathology in Relationship (in Steps to an Ecology of Mind). 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.[6]

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 "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.

  • 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 your true self to the roshi (master). The more the students try, the phonier they are, and even the "act" of not trying is just another version of trying.

Girard's mimetic double bind Template:Anchor

René Girard, in his literary theory of mimetic desire,[7] proposes what he calls a “model-obstacle”, a role model who demonstrates an object of desire and yet, possessing that object, has becomes a rival who obstructs fulfillment of the desire.[8] According to Girard, the “internal mediation” of this mimetic dynamic “operates along the same lines as what Gregory Bateson called the ‘double bind’.”[9] Girard found in Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory, a precursor to mimetic desire.[10] “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.”[11] While critical of Freud's doctrine of the unconscious mind, the ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus the King, and key elements of Freud's Oedipus complex, patricidal and incestuous desire, serve as a prototype for his own analysis of the mimetic double bind.[11]


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Neuro-linguistic programming

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,[12] 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.

See also


  1. Bateson, G., Jackson, D. D., Haley, J. & Weakland, J. (1956), Towards a Theory of Schizophrenia. in Behavioral Science, Vol 1, 251-264
  2. 2.0 2.1 Bateson, G., Jackson, D. D., Haley, J. & Weakland, J., 1956, Toward a theory of schizophrenia. (in: 'Behavioral Science', vol.1, 251-264)
  3. Bateson, Gregory (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. University Of Chicago Press.
  4. Koopmans, Mathijs. [1] Schizophrenia and the Family: Double Bind Theory Revisited 1997.
  5. Bateson (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind.
  6. Koopmans, Mathijs (1997). "Schizophrenia and the Family: Double Bind Theory Revisited".
  7. "Introduction—René Girard". 5 November 2010. “The hypothesis”. Version française «L'hypothèse».
  8. Girard, René (1965). Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. p. 101. LCCN 65028582.
  9. Fleming, C. (2004). René Girard: Violence and Mimesis. Key Contemporary Thinkers. p. 20. ISBN 9780745629476. LCCN ocm56438393.
  10. Meloni, Maurizio (2002). "A Triangle of Thoughts: Girard, Freud, Lacan". Journal Of European Psychoanalysis Winter-Spring (14).
  11. 11.0 11.1 Girard, René; Gregory, Patrick (2005). Violence and the Sacred. Continuum Impacts. pp. 187–188, 156–157. ISBN 9780826477187. LCCN 77004539.
  12. Bandler, R., Grinder, J. (1981) Reframing: Neuro-Linguistic Programming and the Transformation of Meaning Real People Press. ISBN 0-911226-25-7


  • Watts, Alan (1999). The Way of Zen. Vintage. ISBN 0-375-70510-4.
  • Bateson, Gregory. (1972, 1999) Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology.Part III: Form and Pathology in Relationship. University of Chicago Press, 1999, originally published, San Francisco: Chandler Pub. Co., 1972.
  • Gibney, Paul (May 2006) The Double Bind Theory: Still Crazy-Making After All These Years. in Psychotherapy in Australia. Vol. 12. No. 3.
  • Koopmans, Matthijs (1998) Schizophrenia and the Family II: Paradox and Absurdity in Human Communication Reconsidered.

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