Mixed Messages and the Double Bind
We left off in the history of Gregory Bateson’s schizophrenia project where he assembled a brilliant team to study family interactions as a possible cause for schizophrenia. The group was convinced that patterns of communication were the reason for schizophrenia in families and so they looked to find these patterns.
They believed that the communication within families was what led to confused patterns of speech noted in patients who were schizophrenic. This theorizing led to Bateson’s famous publication introducing the double bind. The team purposed that schizophrenics were not crazy, but were a product of a crazy family environment.
The double bind was a situation where a person is trapped in a situation where he or she must respond, yet the messages he or she receives are contradictory and on different levels of communication. The double bind is not just contradictory messages, the team elaborated on six points that created a double mind.
These six points were:
That two people or more were in an important relationship with each other
Their experiences had to be repeated not just an isolated activity
The first message had to be a negative one such as don’t do that again or you will be punished
A second level of message (metamessage) also had to instill some kind of fear or intent of punishment such as a grimacing facial expression.
A message that requires a response and does not allow the “victim” to escape is important to the double bind because the victim must feel he or she is bound. An example of this type of message could be, ‘Don’t you look at me that way!” Followed by being grabbed by the person delivering the message and told “look at me when I am speaking to you!”
The set of conditions become complete for a double bind when the “victim” is conditioned to these types of messages and feels threatened enough to go into a panic attack or rage. Any of the parts of the messages conditions could trigger this sort of reaction. For example just seeing the people in the example could trigger a reaction. For example a son could be deathly afraid of his father and if the father enters the room the son panics.
The best example was given by Bateson himself when he gave the illustration of a mother who visited her son in the hospital. The son put his hand on the mother’s shoulder and she stiffened. He understood the metamessage and withdrew and when he did she asked him, “Don’t you love me anymore?” The son blushed and she retorted, “Son you should not be embarrassed by your feeling.” When she left the son was still so riled up he attacked an aid and had to be put in respite (isolation).
In this example we see how the mother has her own issues about intimacy, but will not acknowledge them. She puts all the blame onto her son. There is no way he can be right. A child brought up in an environment like that learns to distrust his or her own feelings and thoughts. He or she has trouble understanding what other people really mean and remains unskilled at effectively communicating with others.