Bateson, Gregory
First name:
20th century
Field of expertise:
Place of birth:
Grantchester (GBR)
* 09.05.1904
† 04.07.1980
Biography print

British-American anthropologist, social scientist and systems theorist.



Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) was born in Grantchester, England, as the son of the geneticist William Bateson. Following studies in zoology, anthropology and ethnology in Cambridge, he went on extended field trips to the Galapagos Islands and to New Guinea. In 1936, he published his influential book Naven on the latmul, an indigenous people of New Guinea. In the same year, he married his first wife, the American anthropologist Margaret Mead, with whom he travelled to Bali for joint fieldwork. The couple moved to the United States in 1939. Together with Mead, Bateson also analyzed Nazi propaganda (1943). During WWII, he worked for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, mainly in South Asia (Schüttelpelz 2005: 125 ff.). Applying systems theory and cybernetics to the social sciences became a major focus of his scientific work from 1942 onwards. In 1947, he was appointed a visiting professor of anthropology at Harvard University. Bateson divorced Margaret Mead, with whom he had a daughter, in 1950, and married his second wife, Betty Sumner, in 1951. They had three children. After their divorce in 1957, Bateson married his third wife, the social worker Lois Cammack, with whom he had another daughter. Further stages of Bateson’s career included his work at the Marine Research Institute in Hawaii (1964-69), where he studied communication among dolphins, at Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute and at Palo Alto Veterans’ Administration Hospital. In his 1972 book Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Bateson applied cybernetics to address ecological issues. In his last work, Mind and Nature (1980), he developed a theory of knowledge and learning based on evolutionary biology. Gregory Bateson died from pneumonia on 4 July 1980 at age 76.


Contributions to psychiatry: double bind theory

Between 1952 and 1962, Bateson worked on a research project at the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto, California, together with John Weakland, Donald D. Jackson and Jay Haley (later also joined by Virginia Satir and Paul Watzlawick). The research group developed a systemic theory of schizophrenia focusing on the patterns of communication within the families of disturbed persons (1956). They assumed that these families showed dysfunctional communication patterns, so-called double binds or relationship pitfalls, in which the children constantly find themselves confronted with conflicting or contradictory messages from their parents without being able to avoid these situations. The classic example is that of a mother telling her child that she loves him or her, while at the same time indicating the opposite through her nonverbal behavior. The child would thus increasingly mistrust its own perceptions and could develop distorted ways of thinking, eventually culminating in psychotic denial – quite similar to hypnotic stages: “This use of hallucination to resolve a problem posed by contradictory commands which cannot be discussed seems to us to illustrate the solution of a double bind situation via a shift in logical types” (Bateson et al. 1956: 263). According to Bateson and his colleagues, these communicative paradoxes may facilitate the development of psychotic disorders (Weakland 1960; Bateson et al. 1963: 157). The double bind theory came under scrutiny during the 1970s and 1980s, and its validity was questioned. However, there is sufficient empirical evidence in support of the theory of “expressed emotion” (Leff & Vaughn 1985) stating that relatives’ display of critical, hostile or overly emotional attitudes can increase a patient’s potential for relapse (Cechniki et al. 2013). The Palo Alto group first and foremost sought to develop an effective short-time therapy for mental disorders. Their approach was adopted, among others, by the Milan school of family therapy (Selvini-Palazolli et al. 1975).



Bateson, G. (1936): Naven: A Survey of the Problems Suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe Drawn from Three Points of View. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Reprint, New York: Macmillan 1937.

Bateson, G. (1943): An Analysis of the Nazi Film Hitlerjunge Quex: In: M. Mead, R. Métraux (eds.): The Study of Culture at a Distance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1953, pp. 302-314.

Bateson, G., G. Ruesch (1951): Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Bateson, G., D. D. Jackson, J. Haley, J. Weakland (1956): Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia. In: Behavioral Science 1 (4), pp. 251-264.

Bateson, G. (1958): Analysis of Group Therapy in an Admission Ward, United States Naval Hospital, Oakland, California. In: H. A. Wilmer (ed.): Social Psychiatry in Action. A Therapeutic Community. Springfield: Thomas, pp. 334-349.

Bateson, G. (1961) (ed.): Perceval’s Narrative. A Patient’s Account of His Psychosis, 1830-1832, by John Perceval. Edited and with an Introduction by Gregory Bateson. Stanford, London: University Press, Hogarth.

Bateson, G., D. D. Jackson, J. Haley, J. H. Weakland (1963): A Note on the Double Bind – 1962. In: Family Process 2 (1), pp. 154-161

Bateson, G. (1972): Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution and Epistemology. Northvale, New Jersey, London: Aronson.

Gibney, P. (2006): The double bind theory: Still crazy-making after all these years. In: Psychotherapy in Australia 12, (3), S. 48-55.

Gregory Bateson (1980): Mind and Nature - A Necessary Unity. New York: Dutton.

Cechnicki, A., A. Bielańska, I. Hanuszkiewicz, A. Daren (2013): The Predictive Validity of Expressed Emotions (EE) in Schizophrenia. A 20-Year Prospective Study. In: Journal of Psychiatric Research 47 (2), pp. 208-214.

Charlton, N.G. (2008): Understanding Gregory Bateson: Mind, Beauty, and the Sacred Earth. Albany: New York University Press.

Leff, J., C. Vaughn (1985): Expressed Emotion in Families. Its Significance for Mental Illness. New York: Guilford.

Marc, E., D. Picard (1981): Bateson, Watzlawick und die Schule von Palo Alto. Frankfurt on the Main: Athenäum.

Schüttpelz, E. (2005): Die Moderne im Spiegel des Primitiven: Weltliteratur und Ethnologie (1870-1960). Munich: Fink.

Selvini Palazzoli, M., L. Boscolo, G. Cecchin, G. Prata (1975): Paradoxon und Gegenparadoxon. Heidelberg: Carl Auer 1977.

Weakland, J. (1960): The Double-Bind-Hypothesis of Schizophrenia and Three-Party-Interaction. In: D. D. Jackson (ed.): The Etiology of Schizophrenia. Oxford: Basic Books, pp. 373-388.


Ansgar Fabri, Burkhart Brückner


Referencing format
Ansgar Fabri, Burkhart Brückner (2015): Bateson, Gregory.
In: Biographisches Archiv der Psychiatrie.
(retrieved on:16.07.2024)