Gregory Bateson and Choosing Your Assumptions Wisely

gregory_bateson_steps_to_an_ecology_of_mindSo I’ve been surveying brief therapy techniques and advanced modalities, and what do I find? Most of them seem to have a direct connection with one man, Gregory Bateson: brief therapy, hypnotherapy, NLP,  Hakomi, sensorimotor psychotherapy, family therapy, and many more.

Wait, what? Gregory Bateson wasn’t a therapist, he was an anthropologist. He studied cultures in New Guinea. (He was married to Margaret Mead, another famous anthropologist.) But maybe that’s the point. Big changes tend to be started  by outsiders who bring a new perspective. Typically they’re from a related field. Freud wasn’t a psychiatrist: he was a neurologist. Louis Pasteur wasn’t a physician: he was a chemist.

Being an anthropologist gets you out of the office and into the field, watching people interact with each other in ways that seem weird to you but (mostly) work for them. You can’t understand it you never see it!

Compare this to typical therapy, where you never see a client in his normal environment at all. (That’s not a criticism: I work with people one-on-one in an office, too! It’s just a fact.) So it makes sense that an anthropologist like Bateson might have something to add.

And he added a lot. He talked about the mind, the body, and social groups as being self-regulating systems, with a tendency to seek stability: “homeostatis.” This concept is called systems theory . Bateson started The Bateson Project in 1953, where, he and his colleagues searched out the most effective therapists to find out what they actually did in therapy sessions to achieve superior results. For the rest of his life, Bateson encouraged both established and up-and-coming superstar therapists to learn from each other, which resulted in an explosion of new therapeutic modalities and the dissemination of techniques that had previously not been well-known.

But I need to rein myself in and focus on just one of Bateson’s concepts: presuppositions.

The central role of basic assumptions (presuppositions)

In anything we do, we make basic assumptions that both guide and limit our actions, and even guide and limit our perceptions. These presuppositions may take the form of unconscious beliefs or they may be fully conscious.

For example, if I believe that healing is a long, painful, and often unsuccessful process, I won’t be looking for ways to speed things up and make them more comfortable and certain. It would be outside my belief system.

On the other hand, if I assume that healing is a natural process that is sometimes speedy and complete if conditions are right, then I will be alert for chances to make the conditions right!

Even if these favorable conditions don’t even exist half the time, being on the lookout lets me be more successful.

The value of a presupposition is not whether it’s 100% true, but whether it’s useful.  Most of our assumptions are little more than guesses and predictions anyway. And, as human beings, our guesses and predictions aren’t super accurate at the best of times. But it’s best to stay alert for both upside and risks, and act accordingly.

Good therapeutic presuppositions

One good list of presuppositions that foster therapeutic change comes from NLP (neurolinguistic programming). Inevitably, the founders of NLP, John Grinder and Richard Bandler, knew Gregory Bateson well: it was Bateson who introduced Bandler and Grinder to Milton Erickson, the developer of modern medical hypnosis and an early pioneer of brief therapy. This list NLP presuppositions clearly shows Bateson’s influence. I’m showing it to you not to convince you that this is the best list, but just so you can see how a similar list could adjust someone’s therapeutic mindset:

  • The map is not the territory. We don’t respond to the world directly, or even to our perceptions directly. We respond to our interpretation of what’s going on. Our brains are funny that way. We respond to our map, not to the territory. Sometimes our map is accurate, sometimes it’s inaccurate but still useful, and sometimes it’s harmfully inaccurate. Differences between two people’s maps can limit communication — a lot of comedy is based on this! Maps can be updated.
  • No one is broken. All behavior, however weird, has a structure. Some structures work better than others in a given context. Structures can be altered, and one structure can be substituted for another.
  • People make the best choice available at any given time. If they’re making bad choices, that just means that better ones are not truly available to them in that context. If you know what to do, and you don’t do it, you’ve got some kind of block. When a better choice becomes truly available, you’ll use it. Thus, there’s no need to extinguish the problem behavior, but to make better choices more fully available in the context where they’re needed.
  • People have all the resources they need. Problems resolve when you connect resources you already have to the context of the problem, such as a person who is bold and confident on the basketball court but not when doing public speaking. The necessary resources are there, but disconnected from the context.
  • The meaning of your communication is the response you get. If someone responds to your communication in a way you didn’t expect, that’s because they responded as if they were themselves, not you! That’s not them being dumb, and it’s not you being a bad communicator. It’s information.
  • You can’t NOT communicate. We’re always communicating non-verbally, even when we’re not speaking. Even silence, though ambiguous, carries a message. We all communicate far more than we realize, and respond more than we realized to others. Because you also can’t NOT respond.
  • Every behavior has a positive intention in some context. Fear alerts us to danger. Anger prepares us to defend ourselves or others. Ritualized behavior brings comfort (think of a child being tucked in at night). The problem is that behaviors sometimes spill over into contexts where they produce negative outcomes. Intentions, methods, and outcomes can become disconnected — and also reconnected.
  • There is no failure, only feedback. Every result provides information and informs your next move, if only to say, “don’t do that again!” But many “failures” provide insight, if you don’t allow yourself to be blinded by disappointment.
  • Mind and body are connected. Every thought affects your body. Your body affects every thought. Emotions are accompanied with feelings somewhere in your body. Change the body, change your mind. Change your mind, change your body.
  • If it’s possible for anyone, it’s possible for you. In the absence of severe physical or brain damage, if someone else can do it, you can, too, by using the same mental and physical processes that caused their success.

You can see that each of these assumptions is empowering. There’s an underlying assumption that failure is temporary and success is possible. After all, to assume anything else is to fail before you’ve even started!

Contrast this to one common interpretation of the medical model, which is to assume that most problems are biologically based: a gene for schizophrenia, a gene for anxiety, a gene for smoking, and so on. This implies that (a) all your problems carry a life sentence, and (b) real help will probably come only from a physician, often via drugs.

It’s not clear to me what’s left for talk therapists to do, if you believe this model. DNA does not respond to talk therapy!

Imagine standing front of a college class full of eager young people who want to become therapists, who want to really help people, and watch the life just drain out of their eyes as you convince them that it’s all just biology.

And it’s not like it’s true, anyway. Talk therapy has been proven effective so often that no researcher doubts it anymore.

So be careful about your presuppositions!

Henry Ford said: “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t — you’re right.”

I like to think we can.

One thought on “Gregory Bateson and Choosing Your Assumptions Wisely

  1. Hello,
    I would like to know if you have the reference where Bateson wrote about the healing process within the body and “mind and body are connected”, and the role of presuppositions.

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