Reading eclectically is like reading tealeaves. With both you learn something from the randomly juxtaposed constellation of leaves you throw down. These days I seem to be leafing through books on change what works and what doesn’t work to motivate it.

There was Barbara Ehrenreich’s Brightsided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, a book after my own naturally curmudgeonly heart. It is a glorious expose’ of ways in which the power of positive thinking can make us passive, oblivious, docile and dangerously myopic. Read it for a fascinating history of how the U.S., which started so dour and puritanical, became the positive thinking capital of the world. The pivot point was Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science. From Christian Science to The Secret, both with their preposterous idea that you can change anything—cure cancer or make multi-millions–if you just put your positive mind to it. Ehrenreich counsels that to bring about real change we have to analyze and identify what’s really wrong.

Then there was Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath, a book after my own progressivist heart. It argues in favor of positive thinking as a way to compensate for our naturally curmudgeonly hearts. Negativity hinders. You can’t bring about change by analyzing and identifying what’s wrong. Instead, you must identify and build on successes and set passion-fueled positive yet concrete goals.

Both books are quite convincing. They tease out my ambivalence about positivity and negativity—carrots and sticks–in producing change, a dilemma after my own inconsistency-probing heart.

In between, I’ve been reading a 34-year-old book called Double Bind: The Foundation of the communicational approach to the family. This book is a retrospective on 20 years of research into a 1956 concept developed by Gregory Bateson, one of my mentors. Bateson hypothesized that schizophrenia might develop in children who are repeatedly subjected to inconsistent parental messages of a particular kind he called the double bind. A double bind is a double message and a bind that keeps you from saying it is a double message. It’s a three-way, no-win situation that amounts to you’re damned if you do; you’re damned if you don’t, and you’re damned also if notice that you’re damned either way. In other words, “By jerking you around, I’ll make you feel powerless and if you try to escape my jerking, I’ll make you feel even more powerless.”

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Bateson came to his hypothesis through case-study evidence and through an abiding fascination with the logic of paradoxes (a fascination I share). The case studies included situations like this:

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

Bateson identified the double bind’s three necessary and sufficient conditions:

1. 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 each 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.

The mother’s words say “I love you,” but her body language says, “I don’t love you.” The boy withdraws in response to her mixed message. She blames him for withdrawal.

Bateson probably wouldn’t have developed double bind theory if it weren’t for his interest in paradoxes, and a discovery made by Bertrand Russell that paradoxes arise from confusion over levels of analysis or, highlighted in the quotes above, orders of message. To get a sense of orders of message, take my all-time favorite riddle:

Q: What do you get when you cross and elephant with a rhino?

A: Elephino.

The answer works at two levels or orders of message at once. Elephino is either a lower-order answer to the question (the offspring would be an animal called an Elephino) or a higher-level answer about the question (hell if I know what you’d get when you cross and elephant with a rhino). This level-splitting engenders the same tickle we get in the classic Abbott and Costello Who’s on first routine, in which there’s the lower-order answer: “Mr. Who is the guy on first base,” and a higher-order question “Who is the guy on first base?”

To logicians this level splitting is more than a tickle. Level-ambiguity is a fundamental problem, a problem after my own ambigamist heart.

I and other researchers see double binds in lots of situations. For example, I see them in Palinism today and McCarthyism back in the 1950s. To paraphrase both:

· We are pro-American. We would do anything to preserve America’s liberty and freedom of speech.

· We know with absolute certainty who is anti-American and we will deal with them severely.

· If you question whether we know who is anti-American, you are clearly anti-American.

The higher order message is “We are in favor of freedom of speech in general.” The lower order message is “You may not speak out here or you will be punished. Furthermore, if you identify that our messages are conflicting or hypocritical, you are anti-America and instantly pre-disqualified to speak. In the name of free speech, you are barred from pointing out that you have been put in a bind.”

The way such double bind messages limit our options can drive us crazy, though probably more figuratively than literally. Bateson’s hypothesis that Double Binds cause schizophrenia has not been supported by research.

It’s too bad double-bind theory started out so narrowly focused on schizophrenia, because double binds are interesting in their own right. They are a feature of many of our most stable and venerated institutions. Religions often make an argument that amounts to this:

· We know you are drawn to a variety of behaviors. We are the authority on which behaviors will get you rewarded in heaven and punished in hell.

· Question our authority and you will be punished in hell.

Double binds may be instrumental in helping to bring about the personal change and self-discipline necessary to stabilize good, long-lasting, happy marriages. Try something like this.

· Darling, we are intimate partners, which means that we’re totally honest with each other and can talk about anything.

· We are intimate because we share an appreciation of the same high moral standards.

· If you want to talk about anything that might challenge these high moral standards, you’ll break my heart and our intimacy. Broaching certain topics would pre-disqualify you in my eyes.

I know that might sound tyrannical, especially in the context I’ve set with schizophrenia and McCarthyism. So let’s try a gentler, more familiar version to see if we can warm to the virtues of double binding.

· We’re an intimate monogamous couple.

· We believe in fidelity to each other, because it makes it safe to share our feelings.

· If you decided to share your feeling of desire to sleep with someone else, I wouldn’t feel safe so, though we can talk about anything, it’s best if you don’t talk about that.

Like all binds, this one is either a cozy container or a claustrophobic prison, depending.

Depending on what? Depending on how things turn out. If your partner’s double-bind message keeps you from opening cans of worms that ten years from now, you would have regretted opening, then you’ll look back on the double bind as a cozy container. If instead it keeps you from broaching something that ten years from now you will regret having not broached, then you’ll look back on it as a prison.

We generally don’t look at couples joyously celebrating their 50th anniversary and say, “wow, those pitiful prisoners, unable for all these years to open all the cans of worms.” We say, “How did they manage to make it work so amazingly long?” and the answer might be with some healthy double binds.

The Zen and Taoist philosopher Alan Watts got interested in double binds. He notes that the Zen Master’s injunction to Zen students is something like “You should be spontaneous.” Similarly, a case discussed in the double bind literature is “an injunction from a parent to a child about brushing his teeth: “You must brush your teeth” coupled with “to want to brush your teeth is an adult attitude.”” In other words, “to be more grown up, be more childish and do what you’re told.” Maybe such mixed message drive Zen students and children a little crazy.

Richard Rabkin, a Columbia psychiatry professor argues that such injunctions aren’t bad, aren’t real double binds, and are exactly what is needed in order change our ambivalent hearts.

In this he echoes Aristotle who noted that doing virtuous things isn’t fun at first but can become fun once you get in the habit. To get in the habit you have to push yourself first. It’s like kick starting a car (though oddly, Aristotle doesn’t draw that analogy). Push the car manually, get it rolling down the road, and eventually the engine turns over. You push, the hill provides some secondary momentum, and eventually the car has momentum of its own. In parallel, with people you need a little push (“don’t be childish—do what you’re told”), some secondary momentum (“besides it will be fun once you get going”) and sometimes the engine turns over. In other words, a little carrot/a little stick; a little outside incentive to get the inside incentive to turn over a new leaf.