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by Jeff Napier, copyright 2011-2013

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Double Binds and Triple Binds

The term double-bind was first created by linguist and social scientist Gregory Bateson and perhaps assisted by his anthropologist wife, Margaret Mead. Double-bind describes a typically stressful situation in which a person is confronted with conflicting choices. Action toward either choice will have less-than-desirable consequences.

Dr. Milton H Erickson made use of a variation of the double-bind pattern in hypnotherapy. The founders of NLP, Richard Bandler and John Grinder, studied Gregory Bateson and Milton Erickson extensively, and came up with a slightly different definition of 'double-bind' for use in NLP.

The Batesonian version of 'double-bind' generally has a specific context. The recipient of the double-bind is a child, employee, or someone that for the purposes of this discussion might be considered inferior to the issuer - a parent, teacher, or employer.

A double-bind can have two choices that are both spoken: such as "tell me exactly what happened, and don't act like a child."

Or, a part of the bind can be implied by the environment, situation, or even the recipients internal state or imagination.

For example, a parent may be asking a child to tell the truth while looking disgustedly at the child over the top of reading glasses.

A double-bind usually carries an emotional confusion. The recipient finds responding appropriately to the double-bind especially difficult since real or imagined consequences can be strong enough to interrupt logical thinking.

Psychiatrist Milton H Erickson, known as the father of modern hypnotherapy, often used a more positive form of double-bind, in which he might tell a client something like, 'don't even begin to imagine. . .' He was also adept at recognizing implicit double-binds in a client's life, and reframing the situation so the client had new choices.

The founders of NLP were particularly impressed with Milton Erickson's work. They combined a new understanding of double-binds with several other of Dr. Erickson's techniques and called it the 'Milton Model.'

The NLP version is simpler. It is a hypnotic suggestion offering two choices. Each choice includes an implied requirement. In speaking with a child, a parent might say, "Do you want to clean up your room before or after the movie?" In this double-bind, the child's focus is drawn away from the requirement of cleaning the room, and has only to choose between watching the movie before or after. One could say that this is opposite of the Bateson version of double-bind, because it actually makes it easier for the recipient to reach a decision by suppressing the requirement from logical thinking. Another version might involve a salesperson asking a customer, "would you like that sent by UPS or Fed Ex?" before signing the contract. This subdues the big decision about buying the product, by causing an internal state in which the customer has already assumed the purchase, and has only to make the simple decision about delivery.

In an NLP therapeutic pattern a double-bind might take a form like this: "So you have the one new detail that you can think about later today, or whenever your mind brings it back to you."

Would you like to read about triple-binds now, or after you have a minute to digest double-binds?

A triple bind is a situation recently discovered in research reported by Dan Ariely that is similar to the NLP version of a double-bind, but offers a third choice. The third choice is similar to one of the other two, but has a quality that is less desirable. The effect is to cause the recipient to accept the choice that is most like the undesirable one. For instance, you could have:

A. A new Prius with all options including GPS for $45,000.

B. A new Prius with all options except GPS for $44.995.

C. A new Prius with no options for $32,000.

The salesperson is going to make a much bigger commission if the buyer selects the $45,000 version over the $32,000 version. Without option B, most buyers may select the $32,000 version. But option B makes option A, the $45,000 version, look like much more attractive. Statistical research proves that the buyer will most often select option A.