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Pragmatics of Human Communication
Pragmatics of Human Communication
Updated March 1, 2023 - A Lesson on the Watzlawick, Bavelas, and Jackson book - The Pragmatics of Human Communication. Adds new thinking about Information and Cognitive Science to this seminal and highly influential work.

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Last Updated March 1, 2023

Pragmatics of Human Communication
A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies, and Paradoxes
Chapter: Psychotherapy

Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas, and Donald D. Jackson
Published by W. W. Norton and Co/NY in 1967
Based on a Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2007

I was introduced to Watzlawick, Bavelas, and Jackson’s, “Pragmatics of Human Communication” in the middle 70’s.

I was just beginning my formal study of Communications, Cognitive Science, and Linguistics at UCLA and this book help put me on the right track.

This book helped me begin to identify all the tricks and traps set for us by the very nature of our language structures and other means of human communication.

When one became aware of those tricks and traps [interactional patterns, pathologies, and paradoxes], one was better chance to have effective communication.

Here was my first exposure to meta-communication, or communication about communication.

As you read on, I caution you that you are entering a “Meta-Zone” which, not unlike the “Twilight Zone,” may leave your head swimming at times and the rest of your body trying to catch up.

Enjoy the swim — you may just come out better able to handle the dizzying array of everyday communication by those unconsciously competent experts in meta-communication, those who are or should be seeking counseling for their problems.

Frame of Reference

If one examines the fox population in northern Canada, one finds a four-year cycle of peaks and valleys, a situation that is unexplainable by just examining the fox population.

When one expands one’s purview to include the local rabbit population, one finds an inverse relationship of the population between the two species, which suddenly becomes explainable since the fox population lives off of the rabbit population.

Next, the authors tell of a man who collapses and is rushed to a hospital. They find basically nothing wrong with the man and no reason for the collapse.

Then someone informs them that the man had just returned from mining copper for two years in the Andes at 15,000 feet.

In the final anecdote, a bearded man is observed crawling around an open meadow in circles on his hands and knees and quacking like a duck — a totally crazy behavior in anybody’s book.

Well, anybody but Konrad Lorentz’s book, King Solomon’s Ring (page 43), where he described how he went about imprinting ducklings to take him for their mother. [paraphrased from pages 19 and 20]

Inside one frame, a behavior is meaningless or seemingly crazy, inside another frame, the behavior makes imminently good sense. No amount of studying the physiology of the foxes who were dying out every four years would have helped explained the cause. No amount of studying the Andes miner’s physiology would have explained the cause of his collapse. No amount of studying Lorentz’s mind would have explained his curious behavior in the meadow (except asking him what he was doing and why). Studying the mental structures of mental patients will often come to the same end: no answer because there is basically no difference in their mental structures from a normal person.

The three examples cover the subtitles triad of interactional patterns (fox-rabbit), pathologies (man’s collapse), and paradoxes (Lorentz’s crawling in the meadow).

On page 26 the authors invoke the concept of memory by including a story by Ross Ashby in which he was at a friend’s house when a car went by. His friend’s dog rushed to a corner and cringed there. The friend explained the strange behavior by saying, “He was run over by a car six months ago.” The car incident was unobservable to Ashby, but the dog’s behavior was. We might say the dog has a memory of the car accident, but Ashby says that memory “is a concept that the observer invokes to fill in the gap caused when part of the system is unobservable.”

Next topic covered is feedback and the authors give this brief description of positive and negative feedback:

[page 31] Feedback is known to be either positive or negative; the latter will be mentioned more frequently in this book since it characterizes homeostasis (steady state) and therefore plays an important role in achieving and maintaining the stability of relationships. Positive feedback, on the other hand, leads to change, i.e., the loss of stability or change.

Both types of feedback involve re-introducing the output back into the system. In positive feedback, an amplification occurs as a positive signal results in a positive increase of the signal. In negative feedback, a positive deviation from the system norm results in a negative signal or decrease and results in the system moving to back to the system norm. An electric motor heating up is an example of positive feedback: as the motor ages, insulation breaks down, increased current heats up the windings, more insulation breaks down, causing greater current flow and more heat – eventually the motor burns up. A home thermostat is an example of negative feedback: as the room heats up, the thermostat reduces the heat applied to the room so that the room cools down once more.

In addition the authors cover the black box concept, the consciousness and unconsciousness, present vs. past, effect vs. cause, the circularity of communication patterns and the relativity of normal and abnormal. All this material in Chapter 1 is but prologue to what follows.

Chapter 2 contains “Some Tentative Axioms of Communication” and I will cover a few of these to give you, dear Reader, a flavor of the book

Axiom: One Can Not Not Communicate. “Behavior has no opposite; one cannot not behave,” the authors say, “if it is accepted that all behavior in an interactional situation has message value, i. e., is communication, it follows that no matter how one may try, one cannot not communicate.” (from page 48) One need only watch the police psychiatrist on the tv program Law & Order interview reluctant suspects as to their state of mind during a criminal act to confirm that one cannot not communicate. Whatever the suspects do or say during the interview, the psychiatrist develops a diagnosis of their state of mind during the act in question.

[page 50,51] The impossibility of not communicating is a phenomenon of more than theoretical interest. It is, for instance, part and parcel of the schizophrenic “dilemma.” If the schizophrenic behavior is observed with etiological considerations in abeyance, it appears that the schizophrenic tries to not communicate. But since even nonsense, silence, withdrawal, immobility (postural silence), or any other form of denial is itself a communication, the schizophrenic is faced with the impossible task of denying that he is communicating and at the same time denying that his denial is a communication.

Meta-communication is something that I was quite familiar with in my early career as a computer programer and system analyst. It was like computer code which could be described as meta-communication about what to do with the computer data. Computer code during execution by the computer is a process and computer data at any time is a content. If you allow the computer to confuse its code with its data, the result will be a computer crash or meaningless results. The authors give the example of a sign in a restaurant that illustrates a con-fusion of the content of how the manager acts to the process of talking to the manager about a problem:


[page 54] As we shall see in the chapter on paradoxical communications, confusions or contaminations between these levels — communication and meta-communication — may lead to impasses identical in structure to those of the famous paradoxes in logic.

About the time I was reading this book, I started drawing cartoons that illustrated many of the paradoxical communications or confusions or contaminations that I encountered in my life. These cartoons can be viewed on the Violet-n-Joey Cartoon Page.

Axiom: Sequence of Events Can Be Punctuated Differently. This axiom is a real beauty as it explains otherwise unexplainable communication deadlocks. I recall this process of understanding the punctuation of events from Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind where he illustrated that the simple description of a lumberjack chopping down a tree may be described two ways:

1) Man swings axe into tree, then chips fly away from the tree.

2) Chips fly away from tree, then Man swings his axe into the tree.

Both descriptions are equally valid, only the punctuation is different. The problem arises when one uses the followed-by-therefore-caused-by fallacy. Thus to say, “chips fly away from tree causing the man to swing his axe into the tree” is clearly a fallacy, but based on one valid punctuation of the sequence of events. Now let us move into less clear interactional sequences.

[page 56] Disagreement about how to punctuate the sequence of events is at the root of countless relationship struggles. Suppose a couple have a marital problem to which he contributes passive withdrawal, while her 50 per cent is nagging criticism. In explaining their frustrations, the husband will state that withdrawal is his only defense against her nagging, while she will label this explanation a gross and willful distortion of what “really” happens in their marriage: namely, that she is critical of him because of his passivity. Stripped of all ephemeral and fortuitous elements, their fights consist in a monotonous exchange of the messages “I withdraw because you nag” and “I nag because you withdraw.”

Sequences can be punctuated differently and the nature of the relationship will be determined by the chosen punctuation of each party.

Axiom: Human Beings Communicate Both Digitally and Analogically. This next axiom is laughable or rather leads to an understanding of the origin of what laughter is all about.

[page 60] In the central nervous system the functional units (neurons) receive so-called quantal packages of information through connecting elements (synapses). Upon arrival at the synapses these “packages” produce excitatory or inhibitory postsynaptic potentials that are summed up by the neuron and either cause or inhibit its firing. This specific part of neural activity, consisting in the occurrence or nonoccurrence of its firing, therefore conveys binary digital information. The humoral system, on the other hand, is not based on digitalization of information. This system communicates by releasing discrete quantities of specific substances into the bloodstream. It is further known that the neural and the humoral modes of intraorganismic communication exist not only side by side, but that they complement and are contingent upon each other, often in highly complex ways.

Consider my following thoughts as a brief summary or beginning of an aetiology of laughter. If I may re-state simply what the authors have said above: the nervous system is digital and the humoral system is analog. One deals with discrete on-off signals and the other with continuously varying signals.

We know from split brain experiments that the nervous system on the left side of the body receives its digital signals from the right side of the brain and vice versa. However, the humoral system has no such left-right polarization. As such the analog chemical signals generated by the humoral system are spread across areas of the body, whereas the digital signals generated by the brain converge at the midline of the body, the signals from either side of the brain meeting or slightly overlapping along that midline. Not surprisingly, most of the interesting and fun things in life happen along the midline: nursing at one’s mother’s breast, kissing one’s sweetheart, and sexual intercourse.

What happens if the signals from the left brain and right brain are incongruous? Suppose the signal from the left brain tells the right side of the body to relax and the signals from the opposite side tells the left side of the body to tense up? Right at the midline, there appears a signal to both tense up and relax! How does one deal with mutually contradictory commands? One natural way is to follow both commands sequentially: first follow one command and then another. When your body’s midline follows that procedure, your abdominal muscles first clench and then release in quick succession. Does this seem like an operational or procedural description of what we otherwise know simply as “laughter” to you? It does to me.

Another process would involve the humoral system. It can only flood the body’s torso with the continuous analog signals of chemicals or neuro-transmitters triggered by either the right or left side of the brain. The humoral signal will match the digital neural signals on one side of the body, but, if the other side of the body receives a digital neural signal that is different from the analog chemical signal, then laughter is the likely result. One side of the body tries to accommodate itself to two mutually incompatible signals, which results in the paroxysms of delight we know as laughter. In this process, the side of the body with the incompatible signals will experience the sequential spasms and the repetitive muscle clenching and releasing could lead to muscles cramps or pain. This is commonly called, “side-splitting laughter.”

Back in 1978 I had been living with a woman for about a year and asked if she would marry me. “Why get married and ruin a good thing?” she said. I gave serious consideration to her question. I knew couples that had been good friends such as we were who got married and then came to hate each other. What was it about marriage that could lead to good friends hating each other? The authors point to an interesting paradox of marriage in Jay Haley’s book:

[page 119, The Strategies of Psychotherapy] “When a man a woman decide their association should be legalized with a marriage ceremony, they pose themselves a problem which will continue throughout the marriage: now that they are married are they staying together because they wish to or because they must?”

[page 66] In the light of the foregoing, we would say that when to the mostly analogic part of their relationship (courtship behavior) is added a digitalization (the marriage contract) an unambiguous definition of their relationship becomes problematic.

How did my wife of 24 years and I avoid that problem of why we were staying together? We decided that we were not going to stay together for any specified length of time nor treat each other differently. “The next two or three weeks” is enough was our motto. We basically deconstructed the usual marriage vows, promises, and expectations. We saw them as a box that people defined and then jumped into and wondered why they felt trapped. We decided to create the usual box, but to define our relationship as existing outside of that box. The clauses of our agreement were written up in what I called the 21st Century Marriage Contract and is posted at: Check Clause 4: We do not promise to stay together for any specified period of time. And Clause 7: We do not agree to treat the other differently just because we’re married.

Axiom: Communications are either symmetrical or complementary. This is an interesting axiom. Relationships between equals are symmetrical and relationships between non-equals are complementary. I remember hearing once that “marriage is like having two department heads for the same department.” A department head has a complementary relationship to the other members of the department. If both partners in a marriage are department heads, then by definition, they are equals, and thus have a symmetrical relationship. But since each one is a department head, the other one is a member of the department and by definition, they each have a complementary relationship to each other. Given all these strikes against marriage, it is a wonder that marriages survive at all.

[page 81] He and his wife had experienced many violent symmetrical escalations, usually based on the question of who was right regarding some trivial matter. One day she was able to prove to him conclusively that he was factually wrong, and he replied, “Well, you may be right, but you are wrong because you are arguing with me.

Double Bind: A Definition in Three Parts. Everyone knows what it’s like to be in a bind — you must do something and are prevented from doing it. Many think that “double bind” is just a doubly hard bind, and that is not the case. A “double bind” must have three specific components [quoted from page 212]:

1. Two or more persons are involved in an intense relationship that has a high degree of physical and/or psychological survival value for one, several, or all of them.

2. In such a context, a message is given which is so structured that

(a) it asserts something
(b) it asserts something about its own assertion and
(c) these two assertions are mutually exclusive.

3. The recipient of the message is prevented from stepping outside of the frame set by this message, either by metacommunicating (commenting) about it or by withdrawing.

A person in a double bind situation will be punished for correct perceptions and defined as bad for even insinuating that there be a discrepancy between what he does see and what he “should” see. The old joke about the Jewish mother illustrates this dilemma. She gives her son two new shirts for his birthday. When he goes to his mother’s for dinner the next time, he wears one of the shirts she gave him. “What?” she says insulted, “you didn’t like the other one?” Typically the son will be speechless, unable to metacomment and yet forced to comment by the structure of the question from his mother. A more detailed example is given from Johnson et al. in a footnote:

[page 213] When these children perceived the anger and hostility of a parent, as they did on many occasions, immediately the parent would deny that he was angry and would insist that the child deny it too, so that the child was faced with a dilemma of whether to believe the parent or his own senses. If he believed his senses he maintained a firm grasp on reality; if he believed the parent, he maintained the necessary relationship, but distorted his perception of reality.

Luckily for people who get stuck in double binds, there are therapeutic double binds and therapists who know how and when to implement them to extract a patient from a stuck situation. These are mirror images of the pathogenic ones. Let’s examine the three components of a therapeutic double bind [quoted from page 241]:

1. It presupposes an intense relationship, in this case, the psychotherapeutic situation, which has a high degree of survival value and of expectation for the patient.

2. In this context, an injunction is given which is so structured that it

(a) reinforces the behavior the patient expects to be changed
(b) implies that this reinforcement is the vehicle of change
(c) thereby creates paradox because the patient is told to change by remaining unchanged.

3. The therapeutic situation prevents the patient from withdrawing or otherwise dissolving the paradox by commenting on it. Therefore, even though the injunction is logically absurd, it is a pragmatic reality: the patient cannot not react to it, but neither can he react to it in his usual, symptomatic way.

One technique using this process was pioneered by Mara Selivini Palazzoli in what she called “paradoxical prescription” or “prescribing the symptom.” The authors give an example of a patient who was concerned about a hidden microphone in the therapist’s office. Rather than trying to talk him out of his notion, the therapist insisted on searching every square inch of the office for a hidden microphone. This led the patient to be increasingly unsure about his suspicion till finally the patient “plunged into a meaningful description of his marriage, and it turned out that in this area he had good reasons to be suspicious.” (page 243)

When I worked on the Crisis Line many years ago, I would occasionally get phone calls from people who would ask for help with a problem and when you offered them a solution, they would slough off the suggestion with such comments as, “That wouldn’t work for me.” “I already tried that.” and so on. No matter what the suggestion or how many suggestions one offered, they countered with a good reason why that wouldn’t work. Finally I took to using the following process. After identifying that this person was one of those types for whom no suggestion would work, I would stop suddenly and say, “I’ve listened carefully to your problem and all the reasons you’ve given me why none of the suggestions I offered will work for you, and I must tell you that in my professional opinion your situation is hopeless.” This advice was offered as a suggestion similar to the other ones that they had refused and they would invariably just as strongly refuse that suggestion. They might bring up a suggestion I made earlier and say, “What if I do x?” I’d recant for them the reason they had previously told me why x would not work and that would force them to overcome their objection. Suddenly the roles were reversed, they were working to find solutions for themselves and I was the one casting doubt on every suggestion they came up with.

The authors describe a similar case with a woman with persistent, severe headaches. Medical test showed no organic damage and yet the headaches persisted. The psychiatrist realized that the mere implication that psychiatry might help would doom his efforts to failure with her. Here’s what he did:

[page 246, 247] He therefore began by informing the patient that from the results of all the previous examinations and in view of the fact that no treatment had given her the slightest relief, there could be no doubt that her condition was irreversible.

The woman refused to believe this and asked what use was psychiatry if it could do nothing about her case. The doctor simply held her case history in the air and explained that she would have to resign herself to the facts. She kept coming back for more of this, but each time she came she was more and more free of the pain from her headaches. Finally she left treatment, greatly improved, and convinced that the psychiatrist was unable to help her.

The pragmatics of human communication are stranger than I ever conceived them to be before I encountered this book. If you will read and assimilate the contents of this book, you may also reach the point where human communication seems manageable even in the midst of its wonderful strangeness.

Other Reading

Persuasive Communication Fundamentals(Opens in a new browser tab)