Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Exploring Gregory Bateson's Impact on Systemic Thinking

Bateson's work connects anthropology, cybernetics, and communication theory.

Key points

  • Gregory Bateson shaped systemic thinking using insights from anthropology and psychology.
  • He developed the concept of the double bind, linking communication and schizophrenia.
  • He critiqued the Western obsession with control and advocated for ecological thinking.

"The schizophrenic has ‘learned’ to ‘live in a universe where the sequences of events are such that his unconventional communication habits will be in some sense appropriate’. His ‘disorder’ is part of a larger system." —Bateson, 1956

Gregory Bateson was a pioneering thinker whose work has left an indelible mark on systemic thinking, communication theory, psychology and anthropology. Born in 1904, Bateson's intellectual lineage was steeped in genetics, and his father, William Bateson, coined the term ‘genetics’. Despite this scientific heritage, Bateson carved a distinct path that challenged the prevailing paradigms of his era. His intellectual journey, which began amid personal tragedy with the death of his brother to suicide in 1922, led to a paradigm shift that shaped a generation of thinkers in multiple disciplines. He blended concepts from anthropology, cybernetics, psychotherapy, and communication theory to create a comprehensive framework for understanding the intricate interplay of systems that shape our lives (Bateson, 1972).

Formative Years and Early Influences

The suicide of Bateson's brother Martin profoundly impacted him, setting him on a quest to understand the complexities of human behaviour. The expectations imposed by his family after Martin's death placed Gregory under immense pressure, but he ultimately used these challenges as a key driver for his intellectual pursuits. Although his parents expected him to pursue zoology, Gregory's fascination with human behaviour led him to anthropology at Cambridge University, where he began developing the holistic and systemic approach that would later define his work.

Seminal Works

Bateson's seminal works, Naven (1936) and Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), epitomise his eco-systemic thinking. In Naven, Bateson introduced the concept of schismogenesis, which explained how social behaviours can exacerbate differences among groups or individuals. He also observed this phenomenon among the Iatmul people of New Guinea, where ritualistic practices served as a corrective mechanism to stabilise the group's dynamics. By allowing temporary role reversals, these rituals ensured that the society maintained equilibrium (Bateson, 1970).

In Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Bateson expanded his scope to critique the Western obsession with power and control, arguing that technology-driven solutions often perpetuated the problems they sought to solve, typical of many ironic patterns we observe in systems thinking. Bateson believed that nature operated as an interconnected system where "the major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think" (Bateson, 1972). This observation highlighted the necessity of a paradigm shift toward seeing humanity as part of a greater ecological system.

Double Bind Theory and Family Therapy

By the 1950s, Bateson's interest shifted toward psychotherapy and communication theory (Jackson et al., 1967). Having secured a grant to study schizophrenia at the Palo Alto Medical Research Foundation, where he developed the concept of the double bind, he continued working with several colleagues, including Jay Haley and John Weakland, to create the theory of communication patterns in which verbal and nonverbal messages conflict, leading to confusion and psychological distress. In Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia, Bateson and his colleagues illustrated how a mother’s conflicting signals could cause significant distress in her son, ultimately leading to mental illness (Bateson, Jackson, Haley, & Weakland, 1956).

Bateson emphasized that schizophrenia could be a form of systemic correction, with the family sustaining itself by assigning a child the role of the "ill" member. This double bind theory had a lasting influence on family therapy, shifting the focus from blaming individuals to understanding the family unit as an interconnected communication system Bateson et al., (1957). Bateson was careful not to blame parents but rather to frame the issue as a systemic challenge that affected all family members.

Critique of Western Culture

In his later work, Bateson expanded his critique to encompass Western culture's relationship with nature. He argued that placing humanity outside and against nature leads to exploitative behaviours that harm both the environment and society a legacy that we are still to fully embrace in the modern world. As he wrote in Form, Substance and Difference, "If you put God outside and set him vis-à-vis his creation... you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you" (Bateson, 1970). This dualistic mindset perpetuates a power struggle that fuels environmental degradation and social conflict.

Bateson's call for an ecological approach was prescient, as it anticipated the need for integrated solutions to the world's ecological and societal challenges. He argued that by understanding patterns and connections across disciplines, from tribal dances to planetary orbits, we could identify the principles governing diverse phenomena and create more systemic and sustainable approaches.

Legacy and Contemporary Relevance

Gregory Bateson's multidisciplinary and maybe even non-disciplinary, approach to systemic thinking remains relevant in today's efforts to address most global challenges we face. His recognition of interconnectedness across disciplines—whether in anthropology, psychotherapy, or ecology—offers a blueprint for strategic problem-solving. His concepts of schismogenesis, double bind, and ecological thinking have transcended their original contexts, influencing diverse fields such as organizational management, environmental studies, and communication theory. Bateson's work reminds us that survival depends on reimagining our interactions with each other and the natural world. His call for a paradigm shift still resonates, urging us to rethink our relationship with technology, power, and control and his legacy is a testament to the potential power of systemic thinking which should inspire us all to look beyond linear solutions and instead embrace the complexity and interconnectedness of the world around us.


Bateson, G. (1970). Form, Substance and Difference.

Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind.

Bateson, G., Jackson, D. D., Haley, J., & Weakland, J. (1956). Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia.

Jackson, D., Watzalwick, P., Bavelas, J., (1967). Pragmatics of Human Communication. Norton Books.

More from Padraic Gibson D.Psych
More from Psychology Today