Family therapy owes a major debt to Gregory Bateson, yet he was not a family therapist and was opposed to therapeutic interventions of any kind. Bateson was an anthropologist with an interest in applying ideas from the emerging field of cybernetics to communication patterns in living organisms. Cybernetics is the science of communication and control in humans and machines. It looks at how humans and machines maintain stability through feedback. A good example is how a thermostat maintains the temperature in a room.


As the temperature rises, the thermostat receives this information and turns on the air-conditioning. When the temperature drops to the desired setting, the thermostat receives this information and shuts off the air-conditioning. This idea was used to explain how a family member’s symptoms would get worse to cool off an escalating family crisis and subside when the crisis settled down. For example, an adolescent might begin stealing to deflect attention from his or her parents’ marital problems, and stop when their marriage was doing better. In 1952, Bateson was funded by a Rockefeller Foundation grant to study paradoxes in communication (Gale and Long, 1996).



Paradoxes are statements that tend to disqualify themselves. For example, a wife ordering her husband to be more spontaneous disqualifies her demands, because the husband cannot behave spontaneously if he follows his wife’s orders. The very root of spontaneity is to be free to act as one pleases.