An empirical study of the double bind

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

The purpose of this experiment was to empirically study and document the double bind. Twenty outpatient clinical and twenty matched non-clinical adolescents between the ages of 13 and 19 were studied.

Three research questions were investigated. The first was the nature of the bodily responses in terms of cognitive complexity and emotional stress to inconsistent and consistent messages in the context of a close relationship. Cognitive complexity was measured by Reaction-time, and emotional stress by heart-rate and frequency of non-verbal movement (arm, leg and foot). The consistent and inconsistent messages were presented by the instrument developed by Reilly (in press) consisting of photographs and accompanying taped messages in a mother/child context. The second question studied was the nature of responses (double bound/non-double bound) made by the two groups to inconsistent and consistent messages. Finally, the nature of the attribution of meaning to messages, and the verbal/non-verbal focus used to do so by both groups, was studied.

It was found that the inconsistent messages were more cognitively complex for both groups than consistent ones, and that inconsistent positive messages were the most complex of all. Perhaps this finding about inconsistent positive messages may be explained by their less frequent documentation in the double bind literature, and their not being part of the accepted social norm. Inconsistent messages were also found to be more stressful than consistent messages to both groups. This confirms the speculations in the theory of such communication being associated with subjective distress. In addition, the clinical group was found to make more double bound responses than the non-clinical group, especially in response to inconsistent messages. This is very supportive of the hypotheses of the double bind theory.

Finally, it was found that meaning was correctly and unhesitatingly attributed to consistent messages by both groups. However there was less clarity and consensus in the attribution of meaning to the inconsistent messages by both groups. The non-clinical group tended to focus on non-verbal information in interpreting the messages, which is developmentally age-appropriate. The clinical group tended to focus at times on the non-verbal information, and at other times on the verbal or literal information, indicating a transitional stage between a developmentally younger stage and the age-appropriate stage.