Gregory Bateson (1904 – 1980)

Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) was an anthropologist, social scientist, linguist and cyberneticist whose work intersected that of many other fields. Some of his most noted writings are to be found in his books, Steps To An Ecology of Mind, 1973, and Mind and Nature, 1980. Bateson is most famous for developing the "Double Bind" theory of psychology, and for being Margaret Mead's husband. One of the threads that connected the work of Bateson (a Regent of the University of California system) was an interest in systems theory and cybernetics.



Gregory Bateson originally defined the term double bind as “communication in the context of an emotionally important relationship in which there is unacknowledged contradiction between messages of different logical levels.”                         (quote from ‘Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred’, co-authored by Bateson and his daughter)

In Steps To An Ecology of Mind - 'Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia' Bateson wrote that...We hypothesize that there will be a breakdown in any individual's ability to discriminate between Logical Types whenever a double bind situation occurs. The general characteristics of this situation are the following:

(1) When the individual 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 individual 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 individual 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 meta-communicative statement.

Bateson gave the following example, which is often cited as a good example of a double bind situation in action. The brief encounter described involves all the necessary ingredients of the double bind phenomena. Situations similar to these are observable daily in relationships, let alone on psychiatric wards. What makes double binds successful is that most of them are invisible to those involved in them. Most originate from the paradoxes presented when trying to help another person, such as a therapist trying to teach a person to be more independent: -

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 anymore?" 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 more and following her departure he assaulted an aide and was put in the tubs.                                         

THE DOUBLE BIND (from Steps To an Ecology of Mind - 'Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia')

 The necessary ingredients for a double bind situation are:

1. Two or more persons. Of these, we designate one, for purposes of our definition, as the "victim." We do not assume that the double bind is inflicted by the mother alone, but that it may be done either by mother alone or by some combination of mother, father, and/or siblings.

2. Repeated experience. We assume that the double bind is a recurrent theme in the experience of the victim. Our hypothesis does not invoke a single traumatic experience, but such repeated experience that the double bind structure comes to be an habitual expectation.

3. A primary negative injunction. This may have 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."

Here we select a context of learning based on avoidance of punishment rather than a context of reward seeking. There is perhaps no formal reason for this selection. We assume that the punishment may be either the withdrawal of love or the expression of hate or anger - or most devastating - the kind of abandonment that results from the parent's expression of extreme helplessness.

4. A secondary injunction conflicting with the first at a more abstract level, and like the first enforced by punishments or signal which threaten survival. This secondary injunction is more difficult to describe than the primary for two reasons. First, the secondary injunction is commonly communicated to the child by nonverbal means. Posture, gesture, tone of voice, meaningful action, and the implications concealed in verbal comment may all be used to convey this more abstract message. Second, the secondary injunction may impinge upon any element of the primary prohibition. Verbalization of the secondary injunction may, therefore, include a wide variety of forms; for example, "Do not see this as punishment"; "Do not see me as the punishing agent"; "Do not submit to my prohibitions"; "Do not think of what you must not do"; "Do not question my love of which the primary prohibition is (or is not) an example"; and so on. Other examples become possible when the double bind is inflicted not by one individual but by two. For example, one parent may negate at a more abstract level the injunctions of the other.

5. A tertiary negative injunction prohibiting the victim from escaping from the field. In a formal sense it is perhaps unnecessary to list this injunction as a separate item since the reinforcement at the other two levels involves a threat to survival, and if the double binds are imposed during infancy, escape is naturally impossible. However, it seems that in some cases the escape from the field is made impossible by certain devices which are not purely negative, e.g., capricious promises of love, and the like.

6. Finally, the complete set of ingredients is no longer necessary when the victim has learned to perceive his universe in double bind patterns. Almost any part of a double bind sequence may then be sufficient to precipitate panic or rage. This pattern of conflicting injunctions may even be taken over by hallucinatory voices.

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Another excerpt (which appeals to me as a retired banker) from Steps To an Ecology of Mind:

·         Capital is our precious stock of stored flexibility for performing an orderly transition to adapt to new conditions, just as a chrysalis uses its stored energy to turn itself into a butterfly.

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Bateson, in his brilliant introduction to ‘Perceval’s Narrative: A Patient’s Account of His Psychosis’, said this:

“It would appear that once precipitated into psychosis the patient has a course to run. He is, as it were, embarked upon a voyage of discovery which is only completed by his return to the normal world, to which he comes back with insights different from those of the inhabitants who never embarked on such a voyage. Once begun, a schizophrenic episode would appear to have as definite a course as an initiation ceremony – a death and rebirth – into which the novice may have been precipitated by his family life or by adventitious circumstances, but which in its course is largely steered by endogenous process.

In terms of this picture, spontaneous remission is no problem. This is only the final and natural outcome of the total process. What needs to be explained is the failure of many who embark on this voyage to return from it. Do these encounter circumstances either in family life or in institutional care so grossly maladaptive that even the richest and best organized hallucinatory experience cannot save them?” 


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FromA Sacred Unity


First and foremost, that which is characteristic of the natural history of families which contain schizophrenic or near-schizophrenic individuals is a very tough stability which Jackson has referred to as ‘to feel well, homeostasis’. ... When the identified patient begins this phase we observe all sorts of subtle pressure being exerted to perpetuate his illness. However, it is well known that there are many cases in which, as the patient gets well, some other member of the family starts to show symptoms of psychiatric stress. It follows that these families are not simply homeostatic around the invalid status of the particular identified patient. It would seem then that the variables which must at all costs be kept constant are somewhat more abstract or more secret in nature. It is not that at all costs the identified patient must be kept confused; rather it seems as if the patient himself is an accessory - even a willing sacrifice - to the family homeostasis. If he ceases to play this role, there is a likelihood that some other member of the family will assume it in his place. Like many complex homeostatic systems, the pathogenic family seems to be able, like a newt, to regenerate a missing limb.....


Analogous phenomena also occur in many biological systems. If, for example, the apical shoot of a Christmas tree is cut off, one of the first whorl of branches below the cut will bend upward and replace the lost apex. This branch will then lose its former bilateral symmetry and become radially symmetrical like any other apical shoot. Such systems are perhaps best thought of as, in some sense, competitive. The various individuals [in this case branches] of which the system is composed would seem to be so mutually related, that, by their interactions, one will always be selected as the ‘winner’ or as the ‘loser’. This individual then becomes specialized in the functions of this position and in performing these functions actively prevents the other individuals from taking over this specialized role.                                           


Think of traffic. There are too many cars on the roads and too many restless people; and too much pollution of the atmosphere by the cars. Altogether that makes up what the doctors call a ‘syndrome’, a nest of symptoms. Of course this syndrome has its roots in overpopulation and unwisely applied engineering skills, and in medical victories over epidemics. Public health, just like individual medicine, is symptom-activated. We all share in the pathology which we would blame on the doctors. At the social level, what happens is simple: Somebody gets paid to make the pathological trend more comfortable. We treat the symptoms - we make more roads for the more cars, and we make more and faster cars for the restless people; and when people [very properly] die of overeating or pollution, we try to strengthen their stomachs or their lungs. [Insurance companies hate death]. For overpopulation, we build more houses. And so on. That is the paradigm: Treat the symptom to make the world safe for the pathology. But, it’s a little worse that that: We even look into the future and try to see the symptoms and discomforts coming. We predict the jamming of traffic on the highways and invite bids for government contracts to enlarge the roads for cars that do not yet exist. In this way, millions of dollars get committed to the hypothesis of future increase in pathology. So, the doctor who concentrates upon the symptoms runs the risk of fostering the pathology of which the symptoms are parts.                                                                                                            


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From “Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity”


 Context >>> meaning.

1.      A mind is an aggregate of interacting parts or components;

2.      The interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference (difference is a non-substantial phenomenon not located in space or time, but is related to entropy/ negentropy rather than to energy).

3.      Mental process requires collateral energy [usually metabolic]

4.      Mental process requires circular (or more complex) chains of determination.

5.      In mental process, the effects of difference are to be regarded as transforms (i.e. coded versions) of events which preceded them. The rules of such transformation must be comparatively stable (more stable than the content) but are themselves subject to transformation.

6.      The description and classification of these processes of transformation disclose a hierarchy of logical types immanent in the phenomena.



·         Entropy           - the degree to which relations between the components of any aggregate are mixed up, unsorted,

undifferentiated, random and unpredictable (the opposite is negentropy). In physics, certain sorts of ordering are related to the quantity of energy available.

moves relative to the objects.

certain outcomes of the random are allowed to endure, that system is said to be stochastic.

doubted. The truth of the propositions is not claimed. (An example is Euclidean geometry).


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From ‘Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred’, co-authored by Bateson and his daughter:



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