Double Bind: Communication with Conflicting Messages

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What is Double Bind?

A double bind is a dilemma in communication in which a person receives two or more conflicting messages and one message denies the other. These messages can be stated by body language or tone of voice. Double binds can be extremely stressful; one is trapped in dilemma, seemingly with no way out.

Human communication is complex. Communication consists of the words said, and how these words are modified by tone of voice or body language, and the environment in which the words are said. A classic example of double bind is when a mother tells her child that she loves him, while at the same time she turns her head away in disgust (Koopmans, 1997, Schizophrenia and the Family: Double Bind Theory Revisited, para.13). The child receives two conflicting messages from his mother, one expressing her love verbally, while another expressing animosity non-verbally. The non-verbal message denies the verbal one. The child does not know whether to respond to the words or the body language. The messages confuse him.

Despite receiving conflicting messages in communication, double bind can also be considered as a situation in which no matter what a person does, he cannot “win” at all. Here is another example of double bind when a person is being asked “Who do you love most, your father or your mother?” The person has an impossible choice to make. Showing favor to either one will anger the other one. The options in the question are painful and the person cannot give an answer which will satisfy both.

Double bind can be used as a hypnosis technique where two suggestions are given in a message, and one is stronger than the other. In this case, people will most often respond to the stronger suggestion. Here is the example of the technique: I know my daughter does not like to eat orange or drink orange juice. If I ask her to eat orange, she will try to find a way out of it. And if I ask her to drink orange juice, she will...
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