Social Copying from Wasps to Humans

Sometimes I am just so lucky to be in the right place at the right time.  I had the opportunity to join my granddaughter, Isabelle, for a week. She was doing an internship at the Santa Fe Institute.  She and her friend were studying the behavior of large groups, among other things.One question, how do people (mostly young people) use Snapchat?  Apparently Snapchat enables people to do “small talk”.  Apparently they like to hang out with each other and show photos and be loosely connected. Of course I am older and like to be deeply connected.  So while they were drawing diagrams and figuring out millions of signals, I reconnected with an old friend, Norman Johnson, PhD.[1] We too have a deep interest in understanding human behavior.

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The conversation started with Norman’s interest in threats and social copying (doing what others do, forgetting your own interests) and how under stress we tend to do more and more social copying and this tends to influences behavior in a group.

Norman approaches problems from a macro perspective: biological warfare, financial markets and traffic jams. Often he will design computer simulations to test his ideas. Since he is interested in how to influence behavior he has also trained people in conflict resolution. Meanwhile, I am observing how families function as emotional units, managing threats in automatic ways, while at the same time producing leaders who often have the ability to be more differentiated and responsible for defining principles.

In the U. S today we have a political situation fanned by fear and spread by social media that encourages and increases polarization and social copying.  Your family and/or friends think that the “other” person is awful and so do you.  A direct result of polarization is that there is little to no agreement on the nature of the problems we face and therefore little ability to cooperate. We are just for being comfortable in our social group so we are against someone else. Perhaps an unintended byproduct of democracy is that under threat, we resort to joining with the “group think” of our in-group.

It is challenging to see the situation we are in. Like the frogs who are still content as the warm water begins to boil, it may be too late when we notice the problem.  No message arrives in the morning news announcing today is the day when you will be bombarded with seven degrees of fearful and disturbing information that may cause you to be social copying or – fill in the blank.

If we can recognize when we are becoming reactive rather than thinking for self, perhaps we can return to more rational or logical thinking.  But if, as in a family, the group may benefit from someone else being the problem, then it takes another order of awareness to see the system and our part in polarization and the seductive comfort of social copying.


Main points from my conversation with Norman Johnson

1) Under conditions of increasing threat various social species are unable to focus on task and begin to copy one another. This kind of social copying behavior can be useful under specific circumstances but the tendency to copy one another is automatic.  It is more important to our instinctive way of reacting to fear than the tendency to think and understand and to be more logical or even rational.

2) Social copying is not cooperation but it can look like it as animals and humans begin to circle the wagons to protect the group.

3) It is difficult to encourage animals to cooperate when they are threatened.

4) One way of encouraging cooperation is to alter the environment: Force animals to cooperate by a) looking at one another and b) both pressing a bar to obtain water. This series of “forced” encounters rewards the animals,  reduces threats, and increases cooperation.  By altering the environment to force animals to cooperate, the animals could tolerate eight times the social density.  The rules of the system (two animals must press the bar to get water) became beliefs that an animal was willing to die for.[2]

5) The rules of the system are not perceived as something that can be altered.    In the movie “The Lobster”, there is a good example of how humans blindly follow the rules the system imposed on them because they are not able to see or challenge them.

6) One has to be seen as a member of the “group” to be listened to.  The messenger is more important than the message.  Therefore, people and animals do not listen to or are not easily led by someone who is not or demonstrates that they are not in your group.  If they do not vote your party, if they are not in the same branch of the military etc., they are not in “your group”.

7) Family observations show that if there is one individual who can manage to be different within the group and not react to threats, that person can slowly alter the behavior of the group.

8) Those who strive to be more autonomous are altering the belief that we all must be alike, believe and act in the same way in order for us all to be safe.


Conversation between Norman and Andrea (only for those who like to go deep)

Norman Johnson (NJ):  Social organisms have a universal characteristic.  We tend to think social organisms are all about cooperation and while that’s true, it’s also about social copying which is a “circling the wagons” mentality. One of the smallest examples is five hornets that live socially in the nest. All you have to do is disturb them, you don’t have to threaten them.  If you poke a stick in the nest they start to socially copy one another.  They stop doing their individual tasks. They look around and seem to be saying “what are others doing?” And that’s what they do.

The funny thing is they and we stop solving problems when we are disturbed or fearful.  This is what happened to us after 9/11.  We became uncertain and then hyper-patriotic and did some dumb things.

Andrea Schara (AMS):  Are you talking about how we invaded Iraq looking for chemical weapons after we invaded Afghanistan to punish/kill Al Queda for the 9/11 attacks?

NJ:  Well, yes that was a horrible thing, but on the local level we repressed the Muslim population. These were the very people that rationally we needed to work with in order to understand why this just happened. Instead we outlawed and isolated them.

Hence we did the exact opposite of the rational thing. We circled the wagons and therefore were unable to solve real problems. Leaders take advantage of that and currently Trump is a good example of this.  He talks about fearful events and how bad things are and in essence he is amplifying the social uncertainty that people have.

AMS:  You recall the work of Jack Calhoun, PhD[3] who studied the inability of animals to solve problems and the social regression in which animals either piled together in groups, a form of social copying, or withdrew from interactions.  These mice had all the food and water they needed but due to the increasing population they had less social space. As the numbers of interactions increased with the increasing population, there was no time to recover from frustrating or fearful interactions.   So Calhoun designed an environment to “force cooperation.” In the cooperative universe two animals had to walk down a path to press a bar in order to obtain water. In the “dis-cooperative” universe only one animal could press the bar to produce water. No other animal was allowed to enter the pathway.  This design required animals to look at one another and depend on one another to cooperate in order to obtain water. Calhoun saw that by structuring the environment in a way that forced animals to notice each other and therefore cooperate the animals could tolerate eight times the increase in density before the “universe” collapsed.

NJ:  Yes, I recall that there was the one deviant animal in the cooperative pen. He had been trained to obey the rules in the “dis-cooperative” universe.  This mouse had accidently entered the universe where two animals had to walk down together in order to get water.   Since the rules were different in his own universe (only one animal at a time went to get water) he was almost killed trying to get these “cooperative” animals to go along with the rules he lived by in his dis-cooperative system. (You could consider this to be obedience to one’s internalized ethical commands learned in his system.) I still use this example when I give talks.

AMS:   One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the way the system is set up and the way our brain interacts with the surrounding clues. If I hear you Norman, the fact that we are disturbed reduces our ability to be rational and to solve problems.  To remain rational one has to decrease fear. How aware are people of the social clues that are impacting their brain and manipulating them?   Both political parties may use words and slogans that manipulate the behavior of the group. How do people know what is happening to their brain as they listen?

NJ:  Hitler used a fear based approach to get his followers to believe he saw the truth.  Trump seems to be the Pied Piper for those who are the most vulnerable to social copying. Hillary Clinton and her gang seem to use raw power behind the scenes manipulation. Trump is a modern era leader using social media with very little substance, feeding on the anger which makes people more fearful and more inclined to social copying.


AMS:  Social copying is a great expression and perhaps it would lead people to greater awareness if that concept became better known. I don’t think I’ve read about it anywhere.

NJ:  There were two main things that Dr. Merle Lefkoff and I observed while doing a study of the science behind the field of conflict resolution.

  • When you have people in conflict they are each defending their own social identity group. So that reduces the rationality in the individual. The result is that rational arguments by the conflict negotiator fail as a mechanism to bring people together.
  • What does work is to get people relaxed or make them feel comfortable with the uncertainty they have. Then they can become open to rational arguments for cooperation. I have done this in many social groups.

AMS:  We use Zengar neurofeedback as part of the program for Navigating Systems DC. [4] In the first part of the day, before people start exchanging ideas, everyone has a neurofeedback session. This kind of equipment and method, reorganizes the brain. People report being more open and relaxed.  They seem to have the ability to perceive the environment as non-threatening.  But neurofeedback is an expensive technology that you can’t really use for vast numbers of people.


NJ:  Meditation is useful for sure. But I think what Trump is exploiting is the broad economic uncertainty largely due to economic disparity (the 1% getting most of the increased wealth in the last 60 years). People feel that the 1% or China or Mexico or someone is taking their subsistence, and in their uncertainty villainize the “other”.  In addition, the family unit has been degraded and so in that kind of uncertain situation, people’s fears can be amplified and they can then be manipulated.

When there is more collective fear, people become more easily manipulated.

The military is a really good example of the system that promotes a strong social group identity as a way of coping with threat. Soldiers have been taught to count on one another. They know how to circle the wagon and survive because of it.

Dr. Merle Lefkoff concluded: you cannot give leaders the solution.  You can make them comfortable and give them tools to discover answers for themselves. But you cannot tell them what to do.

AMS:  You don’t want them to become robots?

NJ:  You cannot tell them because you are the “other” and will not be listened to.  This is an example of where the “messenger is more important than the message.” I will accept what you say if you are of my tribe, but if you are not, I will not even hear you.

AMS:  Can you give me an example of this?

NJ:  For example if I were to walk up to an unknown military person and I was of his tribe, I would immediately accept him/her. Together we’d say “Oh, you are part of my tribe” and accept anything each of us said – assuming we are in a certain state of mind. In addition, if the person were in military uniform I would know a great deal more about him or her. But if I were not in the military system, his/her tribe, the details of the uniform would just be noise to me and all I would see is a military person. And depending on whether or not I am in an uncertain state, they might be “other”, a stranger, or I might be neutral about them.

So if someone who is a member of your tribe says something to you that is slightly off or you don’t agree with them, you would still like them because they’re part of your tribe.  You would allow them in. But if they were part of an opposing social group then this is where the identity would come into play and the conflict would arise. If they’re from another tribe you would not listen to them, no matter how good their argument is.  The messenger is more important than the message.

A lot of the challenge for the police today is that they see the other, who is black, as not in my tribe. And the people in black neighborhoods see the police as not in my tribe.

AMS:  Yes, the chief of police in Dallas seems to understand this and was trying to recruit people from the neighborhood to police their own neighborhood.   This was more the right answer but despite this people objected to his ideas. Perhaps they were not in his tribe so they could not listen to anything rational that he was saying.

NJ:  One of the biggest barriers to problem solving is social identity.  We need to address that one and secondly we need to develop tools they don’t trigger social identity when we’re problem solving.  A couple of months ago I was in Washington DC and I gave a talk to 400 federal employees representing 60 federal agencies. As an audience they understood more of the message than any of the crowds I have talked to.

AMS: Is that because they have to deal with this on a daily basis for their survival?

NJ:  Yes, and a lot of them were minorities and they’re very aware of marginalization because of being different.

Have you heard of the example about where different ethnic groups put their ketchup in the kitchen? African Americans store their ketchup not in the refrigerator like whites do, but out on the counter. There’s nothing on the bottle that says you should refrigerate ketchup.   Restaurants leave ketchup on the counter, but white people have been socialized by their group identity to put the ketchup in the fridge.

Scott Page was the first person to give this as an example of how strongly we may be patterned. The storage of ketchup wasn’t a hot issue.   People hearing it can become aware of how strongly they may be patterned, but without judging it to be right or wrong.

AMS:  Well, social pressure to display similar habits that tells us which tribe we belong to wins again.  Social copying makes for a social identity and leads to an “us against them” situation when the group is disturbed or fearful.

NJ:  And they reinforce each other.   Uncertainty leads to copying, which leads to stronger collective uncertainty, which leads to more copying….

AMS:  As you know Bowen tried to describe differentiation of self as the ability to be sure of one’s own principles and beliefs as one defines a self and at the same time remains connected to important people.  So differentiation would be the recognition that my social identity is continuously being established with my family, since family members may not always be on the right track, especially if there’s a crazy person in the family.

The family unit, perhaps at an instinctive level, can be observed to pick on those who are different and often marginalize them even though they are in the same family.  Families, organizations and nations seem to all generate an “us against them” scapegoating process.

One way of dealing with the tendency to scapegoat and project onto others is to encourage family leaders to get to know extended family members. (These are often people who are strangers to you, “others”.)   You know they are part of your family but since they are more “distant” from your immediate family, you may be able to tolerate their differences more than you can tolerate the differences of those family members closest to you.


In other words, more extended family members, the “others”, are in a distant but related tribe, not the tribe you are the most loyal to.  They could have reasons to be suspicious of you and you would have to extend yourself to get to know them and all of this requires decreasing fear and increasing the ability to get to know “the other.”


Bowen noted: One speculation is that it is easier to observe family patterns and to take ‘action’ on issues in the more distant, but equally important family of origin, than in relation to one’s spouse in whom immediate needs are more imbedded, and with whom it is more difficult to take emotional stances. This effort requires the trainee to take responsibility for his own life and to accept the working proposition he, through his own efforts, can modify his own family system.[5]

NJ:  Bowen is great because he’s always looking at these outer effects of socialization.

AMS:  Yes, this is not the kind of thing one person does on their own, at least not so far.  Right now it takes having heard of Bowen and his theory. Most people are more interested in finding out about their dead relatives as in, than meeting and dealing with the ones who are alive.

Defining a self  as a method to strengthen self in the era of automatic copying has not yet become a meme.

Therefore the thesis is that once people recognize how they are being influenced automatically to do things, to follow people, they MAY want to take back their autonomy.

People can get very caught up in following and copying during a presidential election and then wonder how did I fall for that person?

There are many ways to steady yourself once you can accept that you are automatically influenced, by a threat, an image or a word beyond your ability to notice.  

The main question:

Am I social copying or am I socially coping?





[1] The Applied Science of Collective Intelligence: Solving the grand challenges facing humanity(Link)

Invited paper to the Spanda Journal, special issue on Collective Intelligence

January 2015





[5] From Coach to Coach, Murray Bowen, MD, abstract of paper presented at Annual Georgetown Family Symposium, Washington, DC, 1970

Training Animals is Simple but My Marriage/Family is a Mess


A New York Times article, “No Sound, No Fury, No Marriage” by Laura Pritchett appears just as I am reading Reaching the Animal Mind by Karen Pryor.


What does the founder of “clicker” training, an observation based approach to shaping animal behavior using positive reinforcement, have to say about human relationships? How is it that families fall apart but dogs can be well trained?



Are human relationships immune to the power of reinforcement?

Or is it just hard to notice what is going on in relationships and therefore very difficult to interrupt the negative and reward the small positives when change begins?

Training animals requires that one carefully observe the details of behavior, rewarding only positive behavior with food or praise and then reinforcing these behaviors over time till they become established. Sounds simple.  But it’s difficult to do when it comes to humans.



We are social animals that are not as oriented to food but to being a part of the pack.  The human animal has been trained by a multigenerational social system.

Our genetic inheritance is complex.  Our brain controls our social/emotional functioning and both make it difficult to change ourselves over the long term.

Can any of us see how our current life has many of the same patterns that have guided family members in the past? If so how is it that we end up doing the same kinds of things or the opposite that our grandparents did?

The challenge is to stay focused on our own part, to avoid over-reacting and falling into the psychological traps involved in changing others.



grandparetns mom dad and ams


Who thinks that their behavior is being guided by these four ancient mechanisms? Distance, conflict, reciprocal relationships and projection onto others may be analogous to behavioral reflexes, like responding to the offer of food. The four relationship patterns respond to our intolerance for stress.

Anxiety goes up and we are more vulnerable to distance, etc. The other option – differentiation of self – is based on our ability to stand on principles and find ways to manage self with others.

Karen Pryor can train all kinds of animals.   Even as primitive a life form as a hermit crab can be taught to ring a bell.  She is a great storyteller, clarifying how behaviors can be developed, learned, and altered based on the work of Pavlov and later Skinner.[i]

Laura Pritchett describes beautifully the stress-absorbing mechanism of distance that has crept into her relationship with her husband under the pressure from increasing stress, and cast a pall over her efforts to speak her truth to her husband.

Shakespeare had it right: “My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart, concealing it, will break.” I never spoke of the anger in my heart, the mounting resentments and hurts, and neither did he. I never demanded attention or care, and neither did he. And that’s why we broke.[ii]

Of course it is more complex. Pritchett speaks of both parental families using conflict as their major mechanism and the allergy to conflict that this created in each of them.

Then there is the list of stressors that may have corrupted each person’s ability to take on more stress and anxiety, impairing their ability to be more independent and mature selves.

Yet who does not know the urge to keep things normal for the sake of the children as in recent years they have already been traumatized by things beyond their control: evacuated for wildfires, cut off by historic flooding and exposed to loss and devastation.[iii]

It all seems very rational, the many challenging reasons to be quiet, to get along, to pretend.   Yet how many people think of this urge to protect as letting a primitive mechanism, distance, guide one’s behavior?

There is a cost to take on the challenge of being more of a self in relationships and to learn to tolerate the disruption in the system. After all, who wants upset?  Not your children, your spouse or even your extended family not to mention your friends or even the neighbors. Yes, the difficulty of defining yourself to important others without receiving love and approval from them cannot be overstated.

That is the beauty of the piece by Laura Pritchett.   You can see the logic and how much easier it is to (try to) change partners than to tolerate the upset in the “stuck” relationship.

The alternative of striving to be open and being willing to take the rejection that often follows any attempt to disrupt the pattern of relating by being more self-defined, is not understood as an option.

Pritchett speaks of her inability to demand attention and care without really understanding that this is a long way from being self-defined. This automatic “other focus” is a “reflex-like” behavior. It leads one to see the other as the one that needs to change.   This “other focus” leads to polarization, blame etc. with all its negative ramifications.

If you could solve marital problems as Karen Pryor does in training a dog, you would still have to focus on self not just the other. The trainer decides when and how to reward and reinforce the desired behavior with a pat on the back or something like “good dog.”

Karen Pryor also admits to her problems with animals, describing her part in relationship failure and the heart breaking depressions that even fish or monkeys fall into when the trainer is inconsistent.

Capuchin monkey eating_3

In my book, Your Mindful Compass, the process of self-definition asks any of us interested in becoming more mature, to define what we will or will not do to change self in the system.

Focusing on what it is “I” can do and take responsibility for, takes the “other focus” off the table gives others greater freedom. The idea that one can change self and thereby alter the system moves beyond behaviorism.

The long-term nature of defining yourself in multiple relationships requires that the family leader not react to any negative reaction from others.

Yes, people object to change but usually family members do not get depressed when someone defines self. Often they simply criticize the leader for upsetting others. Therefore, the one who is willing to change self in a system understands the complex nature of the emotional process.

  • They are aware of the inevitable resistance to any change in the system.
  • They have impersonal knowledge as to how systems function: understanding how families are automatically organized, how to extinguish or reinforce behaviors, and focus on relating to others while being a more separate self in the system.
  • They have a willingness to use system knowledge to steady self and to manage without love and approval while the system itself changes.

Systems knowledge gives one the ability to act in more self-aware ways. People speak of standing on principles when defining what they will or will not do. Others speak of describing the nature of the emotional system as a way of putting more information into the system.   Overall systems thinking allows people to choose a more mature way of interacting in the hope that changing self can influence the larger system over time.


[i] Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us About All Animals June 8, 2010 by Karen Pryor




Triangles in Social Groups and Wu-Wei



Would it be useful to see how dominance behavior emerges in a triangle?  It is easy to see the two person social system, as above, and far more challenging to see the family as a unit where the two against one triangle emerges.

Can it be that triangles are an automatic “whatchamacallit” scapegoating thing?

Answering yes, confirms that you do see the automatic nature of triangles, the two against one mechanism, putting pressure on a few to conform.

The dance begins innocently enough. Two are comfortable dancing in the dark. Then as tensions rise, a third is chosen who will either help the two dance the right way, or if the third person objects to helping, then more pressure is applied until they conform or become symptomatic.

Is it our fate to be blind to this kind of a mechanism? After all the mechanism has purpose: it distributes anxiety enabling cooperation but at some price. If the price is too high then perhaps there are things we can do to be more aware and perhaps fine-tune this regulatory mechanism?

For those interested in studying human behavior, one can learn to see how the two against one dance works by observations of subtle alliances. It’s hard to see since we are participating in subtle alliances all the time. At some level, to mess with these alliances is fraught with danger. Most of us live in dread of being rejected and of losing the love and approval we naturally seek. And messing with alliances or just bringing them into attention threatens everyone, including us.

Seeing the primitive nature of triangles is a window into our “red in tooth and claw”[1] of our evolutionary past. The brain and the autonomic nervous system conspire to convey that what worked in the past is good enough for the future, so leave well enough alone or else!

Consider that there are good reasons for each of us to be emotionally blind to the use of coercion. Our ancestors were faced with a dire need to cooperate or die. But to apply the pressure, and for that pressure to work, one must believe it is in the best interest of the other, it has to be sincere and appear to be well intentioned. So what do you do when someone you are dependent on uses guilt and blame just to make you conform, of course “for your own good”.

We see blame and scapegoating just about everywhere today, from our nuclear families and workgroups to the nation. Most of the presidential candidates find something to complain about and mock their competitors, or other nations, a sure-fire way to get their poll numbers up. At the office or at home, people are blaming, shaming and otherwise focusing on others and the same old problems continue. So what if anything can we do about these triangling, polarizing processes?

Understanding how automatically two-against-one triangles begin in the family, (where one person is often over worried about, scapegoated to bring the group together), can give us some insight into how larger political systems function.

As we become aware of these polarizing mechanisms, there is more that can be done to resist the instinctive urge to go along with ostracizing some for the benefit of others. Both in the family and in the larger society, people are increasingly aware of the downside of blame and the use of the triangle even if they don’t talk about triangles, per se. A family leader or a political figure that can be loose and momentarily outside the control of triangle can free the system. The ancient Chinese had a name for being freer of the system, Wu-Wei, or “the Way”. (I’ll say a little more about that later.)

Mechanisms to manage anxiety in a family unit or in society are so smooth and automatic that we barely notice, until, under the conditions of heightened anxiety someone becomes the outcast, the “loser.” Here is how it works. The one who is a little out of step with the group begins to draw more and more anxiety on to him or her self. They do not want this to happen any more than the others want it to happen, it just happens. Under enough anxiety someone gets pushed out. They do not fit in, are not cool enough or they are sick. Now the group is functioning better on the back of this one. They worry about them, complain and can’t get them to fit in, and so what happens next? One says to the preferred other, “I did all I could.” The twosome is restored and the third one is out.

You can observe this and explain it by saying people are so anxious that some have to get away from the others, and miss the triangle in the background working to force these two in and one out. For example it seems so logical when someone says: “I “choose” to have nothing to do with my great aunts” and then eventually say the same thing about their spouse and/or children.  No one thinks, “Oh my God, it’s a multi-generational triangle. The anxiety of my or his/her parents has landed in my marriage.” We do not see the flow of anxiety. We just often see that the cause of trouble is outside of self and in “the other”. Now if we can just find someone to tell about this and they agree, the triangle is formed. The scapegoat is chosen and two against one wins the day.

What does it take to see how triangles distribute anxiety?

What does it take to see interactions as part of an ancient emotional process and not as something particular to one person? Seeing how the system works for a minute or two can be confusing, disappointing and might even make you angry. However, if you’re aware of emotional process, there are things you can do to cope more adequately with side taking and scapegoating, etc. .

If you are unaware and are focused on blaming others, then you can miss the system that surrounds or reinforces the problems and you become part of the automatic forces of that system.

It can take years to train ourselves to notice the way relationships shift silently in the night and to be willing to take action to do something about the part we play in these situations.  All of these mechanisms, conflict, reciprocal relationships, over and under functioning, physical and/or emotional symptoms and projection of worries into the next generation may be activated as anxiety rises due to any kind of stressful event that disturbs the status quo.

Bowen developed a scale of differentiation to describe the range in functioning in people’s ability to perceive adequately the outside environment and solve problems in a realistic way, without encouraging greater dependencies. Consider that people may feel “we all should cooperate.” In an innocent way this urge runs over a few people who may see the problem differently and want to respond differently.

Bowen focused on fusion and the togetherness force (controlling others or giving way to others) and how both can lead to a regression in self, because there is greater reliance on others to make decisions and less ability to adapt and grow.

Putting self OUT to build one’s emotional backbone

The essence of de-triangling is separating a self emotionally, while staying connected to others. In other words one chooses the outside position, instead of being put there by others. One is carefully defined based on growing awarenss fo the fusion dn the togetheness force, stands alone, or is neutral and is not side taking or one is just different or just “strange.” Being “strange” and or provocative in a social group has a long history.

Putting others together (or into togetherness) and getting self outside, is the goal as one defines one’s self. It is a very difficult and challenging disciplined path to take. However, over time this kind of process does result in higher levels of emotional maturity for those who are willing to step outside the controlling and sometimes even comforting control of the triangle. For some it is worth the price of potential rejection to have more interpersonal freedom and a bit of joy.

Differentiation of self is the only effort that has been described by Dr. Bowen as a way through these multigenerational triangles. Dr. Bowen’s quotes about this process appear at the end of this paper. One of his off-the-cuff explanations of de-triangling was, “ Put your parents back together and get yourself out.“

Since the time of Adam, Eve and the snake we have seen over and over just how automatically the triangle works. Two are momentarily together and one is out.  When the outsider gives in, having been in essence manipulated and seduced into going along with the others, all hell breaks loose.  A regression of biblical proportions takes place.  Adam ate the apple. He was unable to keep his promise not to. Principles sound good and even noble till one is bullied in a triangle.  Some of us might think that “It’s not me with the snake” or “That’s not me being the snake” or “Poor old Adam is just a little blind, but I’m not”. We are all doing it, joining, rejecting, influencing, punishing and being punished.  We may feel how others try and do influence us, but not know what to do about it. We may not notice how we are picking on others or joining and going with others to put down or build up others thereby impacting our own status.  The way in which people are able to control another is so subtle, so amazingly innocent and so very easy to talk about, but so very hard to notice in real time.

Once we can accept the subtlety and innocence of triangles then it is possible we can see them.  This method of observing self in relationships dispenses with the blame or guilt that often can blind us to seeing the impersonal and automatic machinations of the system. Of course, this is the way Mother Nature designed the system. Why not just marvel at how nature works to distribute anxiety in a system? Amazing, isn’t it?

If you get the idea of standing alone with no one on your side then you see the down side of de-triangling successfully. Be careful of the kiss of togetherness that beckons.  Be careful about saying to yourself (or worse, to others), “Look how clever I am.”  Yes, I am suggesting that the only way to be a more mature self is not totally believe or get addicted to love and approval. A little bit goes a long way.

My grandfather used to say, “Approval is a bit like perfume, have a drop but do not drink it.” The avoidance of love and approval can safeguard you from false pride and intense need for others. Get used to struggling along and welcoming being on the outside. One may be their best stumbling along. There’s no need to be perfect.

Systems will encounter too much anxiety and so, as nature shows us, the parts begin to break down. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just sometimes too much for the system (and some of the individuals in it) to handle.  Stuff happens. People die, people suffer and people lose the ability to cooperate and solve problems. Trust is lost and misunderstandings, blame, guilt and isolation begin to dominate the relationship landscape. Stumbling along as we learn to define a self requires us to think carefully about how we might begin to restore trust and cooperation in a system by changing the way we participate in it.

The Way and Wu-wei

In ancient China, irrationality was encouraged as a way for individuals to regain the ability to cooperate and reestablish trust. It sounds counterintuitive, but being irrational does force you to draw the negative focus, so be prepared. You draw the energy towards yourself in an effort not to give in to the demands of the system to keep the status quo going. It is not easy to separate yourself from all the others and to be cool in the face of rejection and criticism.

If one is the focus of negativity for too long, one doesn’t have the strength to break family patterns. Often it is the strongest person in the family who can perceive reality with a bit more clarity, and who is not so fearful of disturbing others. Such individuals are not as afraid of rejection, are willing to risk breaking the patterns that seem mal-adaptive under the current circumstances.

Many people change after a death. Perhaps a little inner voice will remind you and say, “ Come on, it’s worth it. We’re outside the system and we have freedom.” Of course people know there is a price to pay for doing this but they also get the positive freedom of stepping outside the controlling ways of the system.

Bowen wrote that a person over 65 on the scale of differentiation can say and do things without getting people upset.  I consider this an ideal to move towards. Most of us will still pay to be more open, more self defined, because the system wants you as you were and is always prepared to put up a fight to keep you there.

Since each of us passes on anxiety in some way or another the anxiety is often absorbed more by one or some, than others. It may not be “fair”, but it’s how systems work. Pipes leak because pressure builds up in the system. Where the leak occurs is not always predictable but with enough pressure, there will be a leak. Some may be willing to sacrifice for others. But many sacrifice themselves because the emotional process began early on to program them so that they see themselves as “the problem”.

There have been many attempts to explain how to live a better life and how to become a more mature person. Bowen added to this by clarifying what the emotional system is and what the nature of the individual is who’s willing to be more separate from others.

In the Chinese philosophy of wu-wei, “The Way” one begins to move self, not following clues from others but finding a moral compass, an inner guidance system that is mature to deal with an unaware and uncooperative and unethical social person or group.  The Wui-we energy may be perceived as crazy as its not part of the system, it seem irrational in the short term but if emotions are sincere they demonstrate “The Way” to restore virtue and values.  Spontaneous irrationality can be threatening to self and others, or it can be clever like posing paradoxes or speaking to others in reversals. The point is to force the system to reorganize.

One example of an unregulated system and a way of responding that breaks the pattern is described in the following ancient Chinese story. The farmer promises his son 5 chickens for a day’s work. The son chops wood all day but the father insists that the son’s work is worth only 3 chickens. Should the son accept his father’s assessment of the value of his work and in so doing, encourage his father’s unreasonable behavior? The son believes it is not virtuous to encourage this dominant seeking behavior in his father.   If the son displays irrational indignation in objecting to his father,, the father may think twice and give him the 5 chickens. Virtue and cooperation are restored.  Of course in this story we do not hear about any triangles or the mother’s part in this situation.  She is silent, but we know she must be feeling sorry for the son, angry with the father or some other variation on these ancient patterns of human interaction.

“Very basic social interactions cannot work unless there are powerful emotions lurking in the background keeping everyone honest.”[2]   Robert Frank at Cornell showed that old-cognition or rational self-interest was incapable of establishing trust, whereas human emotion is the only way to keep people honest. In the Confusion and Daoist schools, wu-wei describes the state of mind of an effortless and spontaneous state.

“Wu-wei” is sometimes compared to being like a pivot or hinge. The behavior points at the center from which one can respond to every change, to every eventuality.” [3] Here the mind is capable of producing great art, or a brilliant insight from a highly integrated state of great harmony.

The ideas of wu-wei were produced in the 3rd to 5th centuries BC, a time of great wars and transformations. Bowen theory was developed following WW II, a time of change and social upheaval. Both wu-wei and the ideas of de-triangling and differentiation of self offer paths to a release from the controlling ways of the emotional system and allow the possibility of greater cooperation with others.]

Bowen theory points to the effort to be emotionally separate from the interlocking triangles. The effort is full of many small steps. One can begin anywhere by simply defining with humor one’s self and one’s boundaries. This lack of blame and greater ease demonstrates that one is available to interact freely without threat. Taking steps to be less caught in triangles, less caught in the primitive state in which two are comfortable while the third is suffering, is where freedom is earned.

Defining self leads to maturity. More energy is directed towards changing self than towards changing others. A more mature person is less dependent on others and therefore knows what to do spontaneously in order to deal with the challenges in both the family and in the larger social systems.  Spontaneous behavior is hard to fake. Differentiation of self is hard to maintain unless one can perceive the environment accurately enough to define self to the system.  Then hold onto your hat, and breath slowly while you stand your ground, alone for a long enough time for the social system to reorganize.


A  Book on Triangles:

Triangles: Bowen Family Systems Theory Perspectives edited by Peter Titleman

Chapter two The Regulatory Function of Triangles by Laurie Lassiter


Dr Bowen at Board

A Few Bowen Quotes on Triangles and Differentiation of Self

Theoretically, the experience with families adds increasing conviction to the belief that schizophrenia will eventually be explained as an emotional phenomenon if we conceive of an emotional process involving multiple generations. Schizophrenia is as fixed and rigid in the father-mother-patient triad as in the patient, but there is evidence to indicate that the process can be reversed in the family ego mass in which the parents grew up if members of the family of origin are available for therapy. Notes: I prefer to use the word “triad in one” because it designates one component of the family ego mass. Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 145). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


This will be discussed under “detriangling the triangle.” From experience with this therapeutic system, there are two main avenues toward a higher level of “differentiation of self.” (1) The optimum is differentiation of a self from one’s spouse, as a cooperative effort, in the presence of a potential “triangle” (therapist) who can remain emotionally detached. To me, this is the “magic” of family psychotherapy. They must be sufficiently involved with each other to stand the stress of “differentiation” and sufficiently uncomfortable to motivate the effort. One, and then the other, moves forward in small steps until motivation stops. Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 175). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


After several years of symptom-relieving methods, including working with various combinations of family members, I began what I have called “detriangling the triangle.” This is too complex for brief discussion but it involves helping one parent to establish an “I” position and to “differentiate a self” in the relationship with the child. If there is another “magic” in family psychotherapy, it is the family response when one parent can begin to “differentiate a self” from the amorphous “we-ness” of the intense undifferentiated family ego mass.

One bit of clearly defined “self” in this area of amorphousness can bring a period of amazing calm. The calm may quickly shift to other issues, but the family is different. The other parent and child fuse together into a more intense oneness that alternately attacks and pleads with the “differentiating parent” to rejoin the oneness. If the differentiating one can maintain a reasonable “I” for even a few days, there is an automatic decrease in the intensity of the attachment between the other two and a permanent decrease in the intensity of the triangle. The second step Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 180). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

In broad terms, the concept is one of withdrawing psychic energy from the other and investing it in the poorly defined ego boundaries. It involves the idea of “getting off the back” of the other by reducing the “other directed” thinking, verbal, action energy which is designed to attack and change the other, and directing that energy to the changing of self. The changing of “self” involves finding a way to listen to the attacks of the other without responding, of finding a way to live with “what is” without trying to change it, of defining one’s own beliefs and convictions without attacking those of the other, and in observing the part that self plays in the situation. Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 178). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition..

Two important variables in triangles. One deals with the level of “differentiation of self.” The other variable deals with the level of anxiety or emotional tension in the system. The higher the anxiety, the more intense the automatic triangling in the system. The lower the level of differentiation in the involved people, the more intense the triangling. The higher the level of differentiation, the more the people have control over the emotional process. In periods of low anxiety, the triangling may be so toned down it is not clinically present. In calm periods, the triangle consists of a two-person togetherness and an outsider. The togetherness is the preferred position. The triangle is rarely in a state of optimum emotional comfort for all three. The most uncomfortable one makes a move to improve his optimum level of emotional closeness-distance. This upsets the equilibrium of another who attempts to adjust his optimum level. Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 307). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition

The over-all goal was to help family members become “system experts” who could know the family system so well that the family could readjust itself without the help of an outside expert, if and when the family system was again stressed. Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 157). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.









[1] Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H., 1850, Richard Dawkins used ‘red in tooth and claw’ in The Selfish Gene, to summarize the behavior of all living things which arises out of the survival of the fittest doctrine.

[2]  Trying not to Try: the Art and Science of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland, p 77

[3]  Trying not to Try: the Art and Science of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland, p 159

101 Ways to 101 Ways to Lead While Escaping Being Focused On, or The Top Ten Reasons to be a Scapegoat

On the last day of 2015 I had the great honor and pleasure of meeting and interviewing Aranka Siegal, a survivor of the holocaust. She wrote the book, Upon the Head of the Goat.  She is a lovely, perceptive and gracious woman with a wonderful sense of humor. Suzanne Brue, who has studied Bowen Theory extensively, made the interview possible by introducing me to Aranka Siegal. She and Judy Baily brought intellectual ideas and questions to this most unforgettable experience. Thank you both for your contributions. See photos of the interview on my website:



After the interview was over, I realized how moved I was by Aranka’s inspirational story. This was more than simply a story of survival under the worst of conditions, although, of course, that is a very compelling part. Her story was about one woman expressing a very deep and human impulse; to be caring and cooperative in the face of unspeakable cruelty.

Time and again we know that cruelty can emerge in a kind of an arms race between those who are cooperative and those who are selfish. A cyclical effect takes place, in which those who are cruel continue to take advantage of the weak in a series of escalating moves. Cruelty, anger and revenge can come to dominate families and or nations. After the holocaust we are left thinking, how could this happen, and game theory offers one theoretical explanation.

Game Theory, as it relates to Nazi Germany, considers that escalation is possible because those who utilized a selfish strategy were able to trample on the weak. One iteration of game theory, the prisoner’s dilemma, shows how cooperation can be a successful winning strategy. In the case of building resistance against the Nazi’s, eventually people were able to form thoughts counter to the mainstream, thoughts that differed from the rhetoric of the Nazi party (the selfish ones). Those outside thinkers were able to band together, forming a resistance and eventually winning the day[1]

Game Theory and the prisoner’s dilemma models helps us understand how either selfish or cooperation behavior can spread through a system, depending on which stream of thought is fed. The the story of Aranka Siegal illustrates the details of how individuals in the city and then in the prison defect from participating passively in cruelty and begin to cooperate, eventually producing a survival strategy for the group.

Some people survived this cruelty, with their compassion intact, and they come to tell us their stories of courage and resiliency. Interwoven throughout Aranka Siegal’s book are descriptions of how the pressures of war transformed people. Some became numb, cold and heartless clogs in the system, while others tried to figure out how to survive, and most amazingly, despite horrible conditions, there were still those who were willing and able to care for others.

The hope for humanity is that “even during the Holocaust” a few people were able to move beyond tribalism – the us against them worldview – towards more cooperation and even compassionate behavior. Hopefully by highlighting and learning from those who survived inhumanity and terror we may become more aware of the early signs of this regression which leads into a groupthink mentality, which can create systems that allow humans to be treated inhumanly.

The initial polarization of people sets the stage for intense negative emotions towards others who are identified as the “outgroup”. They are focused on as wrong and the problem. It is here that people can be manipulated to turn cruelly against others.

For a few there was an awareness of the progression of groupthink that leads to cruelty against a group. Those who can avoid becoming part of the groupthink can find strategies to cope with the situation. For example, Aranka’ mother was able to exhibit a small but powerful act of bravery by creating a private space for her family with torn sheets while in the camps. She told the others the Germans were trying to dehumanize them and the best way to resist was to keep yourself clean so they could not regard you as an animal.

Those who are able to describe and survive this process leave a trail of hope for others who are better able to see and deal with groupthink and polarization. People like Aranka Siegal, who many years later still radiates courage and compassion, can influence us to look at just how the better side of human nature can rise up against cruelty.

For those interested in research on survivors check out this article:…/holocaust-survivors-had-skills-to-…. The researchers may not be system thinkers. They focus on the individuals rather than on family patterns and values, even though they know many families were instrumental to the survival of many people.

Most of us find it challenging to see beyond the individual to the surrounding social system and to deeply appreciate that there are many primitive ways of manipulating our emotions, that play into the group dynamic of system. Going along with the group requires no thought, just a fear response.

“It was not luck that they did well afterwards. The more successful survivors are distinguished by specific traits which, far more than the degree of trauma they endured, seem to be the keys to their recovery.” Tenacity and Adaptability among these, Dr. Helmreich found, are ready adaptation to changing circumstances, a readiness to take the initiative, a stubborn tenacity and “street smarts.” “I found a widespread ability to think quickly, size up a situation, break down its complex elements and make an intelligent decision,” he said.

Clearly individual skills or traits are needed when trouble comes knocking at your door. A systems view allows us to see how families influence individuals who make up the system. Aranka’s book explores her family’s values and the effort needed to cooperate and to survive. She describes her mother’s and grandmother’s behavior as they each tried to adapt to the threats in society.

The family is an ancient organism with an emotional system operating both in the family and in society. Either one can reinforce values which continue to play out throughout life for better of worse. One automatic behavior that leads to problems is to go along with authority. This may work out in the small family unit and be a problem in society. For example obedience to the leader can make people susceptible to going along with the direction of the group. As we saw in Hitler’s Germany and in various dictatorships thorough out the world where people can be unduly pressured to go along with the group.

Bowen theory allows us to conceptualize how the appeal of togetherness can dominate and diminish the voices of the individual. Systems theory describes a counterbalancing force between individuality (and the ability to define self to the system) and togetherness,(the push to be with the group or even give up self for the group). Knowledge promotes the individual’s ability to see the system and to separate from the emotional pressure within the group. Even in the darkest situations in which automatically selfishness and cruelty leads to regression we have seen a few humans resist the push and are able to find ways to cooperate and to then take action to deal with the regression.

The four points in my book, Your Mindful Compass: Breakthrough Strategies For Navigating Life/Work Relationships In Any Social Jungle[2], remind us that after we have found reasons to define a self to the social group, we must be ready for the possibility of standing alone without love and approval when defining one’s self.

A system’s view encourages people to be mindful of emotional processes and slightly more separate from the social pressures around us.  What a gift and what a challenge.

 The Murray Bowen Archives Project

Another way of promoting a system’s view of human behavior is by collecting interviews for the Murray Bowen Archives Project. (MBAP)

Bowen’s professional life began at Menninger and then he moved on to National Institute of Mental Health were he began research on the family as an emotional unit. He then went on to teach at Georgetown University from 1960-1990. The oral history project has promoted the interviewing of over 60 people who had contact with Dr. Bowen. They describe how this professional relationship motivated them to study social systems and to alter their automatic part in his or her family system.

Their stories demonstrate how various individuals figure out how to define a more distinct self in the midst of both upheaval and seeming calm. After all troubled people can pretend to be calm. But for those willing to accept the subtly and complexities of life and who are willing to integrate difficult feelings with deeper values and principles in their close up family relationships, many can describe how they found a more mature way to live and to die.

The interviews also demonstrate the many ways Bowen stepped outside the norm of conventional psychotherapy learning from his research efforts.  People report how in his teaching he would interrupt ordinary trains of thought, challenging people to think for self in the middle of an ocean of emotional pressures to conform.


One promise of Bowen Theory is by understanding the ancient ways the family as a unit organizes, we are able to see how it disrupts and redirects runaway anxiety. There are many examples from surviving the holocaust to the stories from those who are learning system theory. Each of us is trying to manage family life and to be an individual or a leader in our various social systems. Any leader can draw a negative focus from the group as they are different. Leaders can become scapegoats as they become the focus of attention. There are reasons, as we saw in the story of Aranka Siegal, for the sacrifice of comfort. The leader takes action on the possibility that the emotional system will reorganize at a higher level of maturity. And of course there are no guarantees.

Three days before he died Bowen presented at American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Conference 1990 and summed up the basic principle of being your best self in an emotional field. “When you think you know the right way just do it.” M. Bowen, MD,

Seeing the system as an impersonal organism has been the most interesting gift perhaps leading to another new book on some version of scapegoating: 101 Ways to Lead While Escaping Being Focused On, or The Top Ten Reasons to be a Scapegoat or Why Defining a Self is NOT Popular. 

May you have an interesting New Year 2016

Andrea Maloney Schara



[1] The prisoner’s dilemma is a standard example of a game analyzed in game theory that shows why two completely “rational” individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so. It was originally framed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher working at RAND in 1950. The prisoner’s dilemma game can be used as a model for many real world situations involving cooperative behaviour. In casual usage, the label “prisoner’s dilemma” may be applied to situations not strictly matching the formal criteria of the classic or iterative games: for instance, those in which two entities could gain important benefits from cooperating or suffer from the failure to do so, but find it merely difficult or expensive, not necessarily impossible, to coordinate their activities to achieve cooperation.













Bowen and the gorilla

Murray Bowen in 1987 with an unnamed Gorilla at the Georgetown University Family Center Symposium



Happy New Year  – 2016 –   Andrea Maloney Schara



Bullies, Worries – Mindsets and the Family Projection Process

fall stone wall

Back in the dark ages, in 1956 before family systems theory was a thought, Dr. Bowen was observing families at NIMH and asking his staff to describe what the families were doing. There was to be no diagnosing, “just the facts m’am”, e.g. who walks in the room and who leaves, etc., little things like that. Over time he began to make more sense of what he was seeing. Something was going on in the minds of both the staff and the family members that automatically led to labeling and blaming others. The staff would say the patients were problems. The parents would say the child was the problem. Both looked at ways to fix the problems in the others without looking at how they might have the resources themselves to deal with the problems. This is the family projection process at work and current research demonstrates that this “other focus” still goes on today but is not seen as part of what Bowen identified as the family projection process.[1]

In family after family, Bowen saw over and over again this family projection process. He observed and described three automatic steps that ended up with one person “being the problem”: “(1) thinking of the triadic one as sick, (2) diagnosing the triadic one and designating him “patient” and (3) treating the “patient” as a sick person.”[2]

Although this was written 59 years ago we see the exact same process occurring in families and in mental health clinics today. For example, people are worried about children who are bullies. They want to know how we can decrease bullying.  “Something is wrong with that child”, they say. “We’ve got to fix him or her.” Worry and upset and trying to fix and help people plus a tendency to be “other focused” are the mainstays of love. The most common concern in families is the one in which a mother is “worried” about her children and/or her husband. This is part of a natural process that becomes counter productive.

Can understanding how family projection works in society and in the mental health field give us any advantage? Remember, this knowledge has been around for almost sixty years now and doesn’t seem to have been influential on the societal level.

A system’s view seems lost in the intense focus on fixing the person that has the problem.

“A bully has a mindset” (think individual therapy).

“A bully has a mindset and is surrounded by relationships” (think family systems).

In family systems theory each individual in the system has a mind set which in some way can inhibit or reinforce the bully’s mindset and behavior. In a broad look at the system we see that under increasing anxiety/stress people tend to look for a “cause” and a “quick fix”.  This is “the blame game”, when people tend to project worry and blame onto others.

When people focus on a bully and try to fix him or her, they are often missing the system’s automatic response to anxiety.   They fail to see or understand how they are replicating the family projection process: focus on one person as the problem, diagnosis and fix them or bully them into behaving properly as long as the system is able to do that.

Mindsets range from an overall tendency to be “other focused” to more “self focused”. The “other focus” leads to problems in relationships that can only be solved by “fixing” the other.  The mindsets of people in families are varied depending on the kinds of problems the families have run into over the generations. How flexible are people in switching from an “other focus” on the problem person to a “self focus”? (One caveat: people can be self-focused on what is wrong with self. This can also lead to symptoms.)

Once people have a basic understanding of the automatic nature of projection, more thoughtful, mature questions can arise: “What can I do to understand and deal with the problem which I see in others? If I am playing some small part, can I alter that by changing what I am thinking or doing?”

In some families, the automatic response is that the bully is the “impossible” one. The family reactions fall along a continuum. At one end, family members can be over involved and react by yelling and punishing or being bullies themselves. Some families are full of frustration and/or anger and “encourage” young people to act out the parental frustration towards society. The family of the Boston bombers would fall into this category. There are families at the other extreme where there is a total lack of relationship to one another: no one in the family monitors or cares about the bully’s behavior. That person has been written off. Here the lack of a connected relationship can frustrate and drive people crazy. What keeps people from engaging bullies in conversations?

Family systems theory looks at the system with a long-term approach, enabling family members to see the advantages of continuing the conversation with so called impossible people. One person begins the effort to reengage and then one by one others alter their mindsets and the way they relate to others. The out of control bully might simply be out of meaning-filled relationships. In the majority of families there are usually one or two people who are more capable of seeing their own negative mindset and who are able to alter the way they think and interact with others.

History: Family systems therapy was found to be effective for long-term change back in the fifties, about the time new drugs were discovered that could alter behavior.  And at the same time, treating the family relationship system by coaching the stronger members of the family was seen by the prevailing medical system as too complex, too confusing regarding billing and too far from the prevailing medical model to be easily understandable. Therefore the medical model has continued to foster the family projection process when it comes to mental health.

Family systems therapy does away with diagnosing, blaming and fixing one person. The coach enables clients to develop an understanding of the processes that underlie symptoms in individuals in the family and in so doing goes against the “conventional wisdom” or medical model in psychiatry and psychology today.  Even family therapists in order to be paid have, in fact, been bullied into diagnosing individuals in order to receive payment from insurance companies and to comply with the current medical model.

Reactions to Systems Thinking: Unfortunately, training stronger people in the family to alter their mindsets was and continues to be seen by the medical establishment and other organizations as “blaming” family members, rather than offering greater variety and opportunity for both cognitive and relationship changes to take place.

Coaching: A family systems coach promotes family members’ ability to observe the system and then learn to challenge the family projection process. Questions arise as to how people might relate differently to the individual who is the identified bully.  Change in the family begins as one person begins to take responsibility for altering his or her part in the family problem. Such individuals are no longer other focused.   Now they are more thoughtfully self-focused, working to alter their part in the relationship system.

As family members are coached to be able to see the system, they are more able to relate differently to the individuals who are having issues.  Over time changes in one person’s thinking and behavior begins to impact the entire system.  Small changes in how people think and act can and both interrupt and repair the relationship system.

Change is measured not only in how people behave and think but also in the quantity and quality of relationships in both the nuclear and extended family system.

There are many different ways to alter the emotional system.  For example, if a bully comes from a family where parents are scared of their own child, or are too distant and/or bully the child, these behaviors reinforce the bullying behavior of the child.  Parents are better able to change the long-term relationship with the child when they are in more open emotional contact with their larger family system.

Stronger family relationships with extended family members enable individuals to be more confident about their ideas and opinions.  People can practice standing alone and saying what they will or will not do with family members. This practice of talking with extended family members can then alter the automatic responses to the child, and allow parents to move into a better relationship with more open communication with each other and with the child. Changes in parents increase the likelihood that any behavioral change in a child will be long lasting.

The beauty of family systems theory is that once someone sees the family as an emotional system (automatically regulating the behaviors of its members), the upsetting behavior of others becomes less personal and more interesting to understand and interrupt.

Problems in a child can motivate parents to learn theory and to see the automatic nature of systems and the four ways anxiety is distributed: distance, conflict, reciprocal relationships and family projection. Once people get too worried or anxious these mechanisms distribute anxiety to the individuals in the system.

Once people understand anxiety will be distributed to the most vulnerable (and ultimately to everyone in the system), they can rise to the challenge and be more self defined and take on the family anxiety.  The beauty of family systems theory is that anyone who is important to a system can alter the system by changing self and how he or she participates in the system.

It is possible for parents and teachers to control their own reactivity and to be curious and relate in a non-anxious way to those who say things like: “I feel like beating you up”, or “I do not feel like talking to you” or “I don’t feel like working”, or “give me more money”, etc.

If one person can say “I am glad you’re not listening to and acting on your feelings and that you are talking to me about how you feel” then something this simple can be a first step in allowing a child to see how to separate feelings from thinking. Sometimes it’s hard for people to see just what they are doing to self and others.

Bullies and those involved with them are able to gradually understand the reciprocal nature of their behavior and how it is impacting others. Initially people react and that gives the bully “positive” feedback. The bully is winning. But when one person refuses to be bullied and holds the bully accountable, everything begins to change. A parent can say, “If you continue to act disrespectfully then I will take the car away.” They do not have to get mad and get upset. An upset parent has lost control. The immaturity of the bully has become one with the parents’ immaturity.

If parents can control their emotional reactivity then often other people will find that control of self, interesting. This can motivate people to increase self-control and begin to mindfully relate to others. As one person begins to change self, that person will gradually impact the larger system.

Awareness of the automatic and reactive nature of our family and friendship systems allows us to interrupt and challenge old patterns and to be more of a responsible self in relating to others.

Families are way more complicated than a game of chess. It takes time and effort to recognize the formation of various patterns and what you might do to make more of an impact. Think about how long it takes to deeply understand our families? The family’s rules have never been written down or made explicit and doing so is up to each person.  We began by observing relationships and then defining self as to what one will or will not do. For those willing to take the higher road to a stronger, better defined self, family systems thinking reveals what one is up against in changing self.

Case: The mother of five grown children is concerned about how her husband is interacting with the youngest son. The four older sisters are married and not involved in the family business. But the son has struggled due to a learning disability and is constantly asking his father for money. He is threatening his father that if he does not get money he will have to declare bankruptcy and move to a different state, among other things.

Is this son bullying his father for money? The son has been in various financial ventures with the father. None of these ventures have been profitable and this triggers a lot of worry about the future for the parents. Their financial stability is in question and the son has not been able to make it on his own. The father works and the mother worries.

Worry about the son’s performance has flowed through the parent’s relationship. The mother feels sorry for the son and wonders if her past wish to get the father to support the son has made for trouble and what she can do now? She is worried about telling the son the possible complications they have in their own lives. It might be too much for him.

I can feel this woman’s pain and threat so I asked how people in the family have helped each other over the generations?

Each of them has a tradition of lending money to others and/or worries about having enough money in their old age. In the past generations people have had to sell their homes as they aged and this is a frightening possibility. In addition one of her grandfathers committed suicide after a financial failure.

These are the questions I posed to this mother. They were designed to challenge emotional thinking and the family projection process.

Are you taking sides with people in your family?

Are you challenging people to think for self?

What is the emotional system?

How does it direct you?

Is it possible that each person is being controlled by the emotional system and the mutigenerational fears about money?

Is it possible that even if people are dead they might still be influencing people? For example, could the memory of your grandfather’s suicide make you more worried about money, and then you might give in to your son or your husband?

Who is the hardest person to listen to, your son or your husband?

How hard is it to listen to either of them talk about their problems without taking action (or taking sides)?

When do you seem to give in to either your husband or your son?

What is the most difficult thing to talk to your son or your husband about?

Can you calmly talk to your husband/son as to the facts and/or the anxiety?

How much practice would it take to be more open with your son and your husband? Which one of them would be easier for you to be open with

Is it possible that your son/husband finds people who are willing to take care of them and that person might be you?

If you worry about either of them are you helping or hurting the situation?

Can your worry and upset impact their functioning?

What would you say is your part in your husband/son not standing up on their own?

Have they figured out how to borrow self from you at a low interest rate?

The focus is always on questions. There are no interpretations in the usual sense and only an occasional statement about past experiences with other families that might be considered an interpretation. About a fourth of the comments by the therapist are designed to detriangle the situation when a family member invokes the emotional process in a session. Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 225).

General ideas that I shared with the mother: I told her I would focus on trying to be low-key and a little humorous and talk about over and under functioning without using those words. I would say softer things to my son like, “A lot of women, including me, really seem to love you. Does that make it hard for you to find your own way with all of us thinking you’re so cute. Honestly I’m just not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse to be so adorable. I have every confidence that you’ll find your way through all of this and figure out what’s really important to you, and what you want to do. And in the meantime you might as well just enjoy all these women thinking you’re so fabulous. Your Dad has put up with all this gooey love stuff for a long time and I am not sure if it has helped him either?”

I certainly would discipline myself not to get worried about either of them. I would do two or three push-ups every time I found myself thinking about whether not he should get a job, or money will be given for no good reason.

What do you think would happen if you told your husband and son that you were doing push-ups every time you found yourself thinking about what either of them should and ought to be doing?

Summary: One-way the family projection process works is that when any of us gets “other focused” or down on self, we can back down in relationship to others. We begin to back out of relationships instead of thinking carefully about how to engage in relationships.   The head of one person begins to worry about the other person and the first thing you know thinking can get pretty fixed. The family emotional process automatically shifts the focus from one person to another until it finally sticks on one and that would be the one that has the major symptoms.

Once you recognize how the system is influencing you and you see it in the way your own head works, then one thing you can do about it is to lighten up, speak about things in a way that doesn’t spread too much worry, that is funny and silly and kind of ridiculous but still tells the truth without making the truth a burden. Anxiety can be used to make more creative changes in the system when you’re curious and ready to take on the automatic nature of the family emotional process.

Optimally, the teaching communications come when the family tension system is low and they are presented in a way that does not involve the therapist in the family emotional system. Many comments are made from the “I” position, in which the therapist presents his views, beliefs, and operating principles in such a way that they can be accepted or rejected by the family. The therapist has much knowledge that can help the family find solutions. The goal is to find a neutral way to present the knowledge. The following framework has been successful in most situations: I have some experience from work with other families that you may find helpful in planning a course of action. If any of the ideas make sense and if you can incorporate and use them as your own ideas, there is a fair chance your effort will succeed.   Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (pp. 231-232). Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition. Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.

[1] The relationship of case managers’ expressed emotion to clients’ outcomes Solomon P1Alexander LUhl S. Expressed emotion (EE) has been studied in families of a relative with schizophrenia as well as other psychiatric disorders; and high EE (hostile, critical, and overinvolved) families have been found to be strongly related to relapse among their relatives. EE has been assessed on a limited basis among non-familial care providers and determined that providers can also have high EE which results in poor quality of life and negative consequences for their clients. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 2010 Feb;45(2):165-74. doi: 10.1007/s00127-009-0051-3. Epub 2009 Apr 16

[2] Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (pp. 131-132). Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition

Navigating in Social Systems: The use of social interactions around illness and death

bowen and bobbie holt

            Murray Bowen and Bobbie Holt  1983 at a Third Thursday Meeting at Georgetown University

The origin of the human condition is best explained by the natural selection for social interactions – the inherited propensities to communicate, recognize, evaluate, bond, cooperate, compete, and from all these deep warm pleasures of belonging to your own social group. Social intelligence enhanced by group selection made homo sapiens the first fully dominate species in earth’s history. E.O. Wilson[1]


Adaptation and other Relationship Shifts

The death or the illness of a family member are the most obvious times when families are required to change and adapt to the coming and going of its members. How the ongoing social group interacts during these periods can be subtle or dramatic.  Some families pull together and can function at high levels while others fall into chaos. What is the difference between these families?

When a close family member falls ill or gracefully prepares for death, each family member is challenged to become more aware of the shifts in relationships. For some the automatic response is denial and for others there is opportunity to rethink and reorganize the part one has played in the family.

A social group maintains equilibrium and is dependent on individuals to function in specific ways. We probably “inherit” a position in our family depending on the family’s history, current needs and our natural abilities.

In other words, there is a general tendency to function according to one’s position in the group. The sibling position is an easy way to look at the “jobs” that are handed out by the family. Oldest are expected to be responsible, but not all oldest are leaders, not all middles are negotiators and not all of the youngest are funny.

Walter Toman, who did some of the original work on sibling position, noted that all things being equal, and often they are not, people function in predictable ways according to their sibling position.[2]

You might think of the family unit as a kind of ant colony where the colony “trains” its members to function in ways that can be useful to the way the colony has functioned over time. It is not really useful for members of the colony to see or recognize that they are being influenced to “do” or “be” for the colony. To be aware of relationship pressure is incredibly difficult for most people.

We can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness. Daniel Kahneman[3]

Shifts in relationships can usually be managed in a “stable” system, but losses of important members can throw off the balance in more fragile families. Anxiety increases as people react to how life has changed with the loss of an individual. The threat is very challenging if a death occurs in a relationship system in which people are highly dependent on one another in unseen ways.

Here are a few examples.

  1. A husband dies unexpectedly and his wife has never paid the bills and has no knowledge of the family’s financial situation.
  2. A husband is unable to cope with taking care of his children after the loss of his young wife.
  3. A child dies, and all the hopes for the future are lost.

There are many twists and turns in how tasks are divided between a husband and a wife and when you add children the complexity of the “need” for the other to function can become enormous.

The premise here is that people are dependent on each other in ways that are not seen or felt until something happens to the one we are dependent upon. The evidence of connection seems to be hidden until then.

Parental expectations, hidden dependency and “freedom”

In another example, parents may depend on one offspring and another seems to be “free” of the parental expectations. But when parents get sick, the “freer” sibling may be the one who has the most intense symptoms. The free one may say he is too busy to help out and may refuse politely to help with the care of parents, and then a few months later when mountain climbing, he has an “accident” and breaks his leg. If someone asks him if his parent’s illness impacted him, he will deny that there is a relationship between the accident and his relationship with his parents.

A highly dependent person will still not see that stress is increasing. Neither can he see that the distant communication with parents and siblings are not reflections of freedom but rather a “run away” position in which the dependent person gives up responsibility to manage self responsibly in the relationship system.

Sometimes it is very difficult to know who is responsible for what. It is difficult to be a mindful observer of self and even to ask, “Am I relating well to others or am I pretending in order to get along and make things OK?”

Often the family dependency is denied. You can listen for the denial, but hopefully remember that you cannot cure denial with confrontation. If a person is admitted to the hospital with a broken leg, or a broken head, or a broken heart, and someone points out that the timing of the symptom is connected to a death in the family, then the person will often say some variation of: “That is a coincidence, it means nothing. It isn’t relevant. I don’t care about my parents. What happens to them is their business.”

When I worked in a psychiatric hospital my favorite research was doing a three-generation family diagram to see if there were clusters of symptoms or deaths around the time people were admitted to the hospital. Turns out a majority of individuals were admitted around a death in the family or the anniversary of a death. However, this data was not popular with the medical staff. Psychiatry is still focused on the individual and his or her symptoms, not on the state of the system.

When people deny attachments there is little that can be done to make them wake up. If one is mindful of the blindness in the family as a natural way to manage anxiety, one can be more neutral and less upset about the blindness.   If one can hypothesize that anxiety is going up and that people are reacting automatically to a threat, then more attention can be paid to reducing the threat than to trying to fix someone.

When something difficult happens in a family, one person often ends up dealing with the pain in the family because they are more observant and have a greater ability to maintain a more neutral stance. These are often the family leaders. If one is mindful of others suffering, then one is less likely to be drawn into the family emotionality or the drama. And then eventually the more observant person may find a way to be useful.

Anxiety can play out in predictable ways

The emotional process that surrounds death or threatened loss can seduce anyone to join in, take sides and try desperately to fix things. Siblings who at one time were in relatively good contact with each other can have a fight over the care of parents, or the will, or who said what to whom, resulting in a complete lack of ability to cooperate. The tension among people increases, people try to control one another and there is overall less mindfulness and less respect between family members.

Instead of open and calm communication there is the blame game that intensifies all interactions. The gossip network carries the latest news.   Joining in by anyone can lead to generations of cut off, altering the way the social system is able to function both in the present and in the future.

Jumping in, getting over involved, cutting off, being distant and fighting, getting sick, worrying and blaming others are all automatic ways people respond to threats. These are mindless interactions in which the anxiety in the system has begun to control family members.

Knowing Bowen theory gives people a basic understanding of the automatic way that systems function and gives us a method, differentiation of self, to work on our part in any problem.

As one becomes a better observer of emotional process, one has a greater ability to change the part one is automatically asked to play, and to choose to redefine self in the system. This is a crucial skill to have during times of heightened threat.

The Emotional Shock Wave

As noted, it is incredibly challenging for some to see an impending death or ongoing loss of function of important family members as automatically influencing the way individuals are able to relate to one another. To become more mindful and less reactive to changes in the family is our biggest challenge. When one sees this automatic reaction to threat unfolding, how we refrain from getting overly reactive?

There is nothing harder than to bear witness while someone in a family is dying or losing function. Some people “respond” by having affairs, working all the time, or cutting off relationships. What do you do when you see these challenges in your own family or when you see the difficulty families have in coming to grips with each other and with the way they are connected to one another? Can you put in different thoughts without judging and blaming?

The threat travels underground and it’s hard for people to understand that the anxiety in one relationship can end up being expressed in another relationship. Think of the challenge for the average parent in dealing with a teenager who wants to do what she or he wants to do during a time when one of the grandparents is ill.

In general people have a hard time seeing the connection between illness or death in one member of the family affecting others in the family. It is automatic and therefore easier to blame the child than to say something that both informs and disturbs the blindness like: “It might be hard for you to manage yourself now that your grandmother is not doing well.”

When automatically reacting, the teenager’s parents can end up being angry that the child is not coming home on time. The child can seek more distance away from the blaming/controlling parents. But neither of them sees that this anxiety is related to the illness of the grandmother.

In addition to the turmoil and disruption in relationships that can be created around an impending loss, when a family member dies there is a missing person, a void that has been created and people must respond to the actual loss.

Death family pressure and acknowledging each person’s contribution

Many thoughts and reactions mix and swirl around the death of a family member, depending on the kind of relationships people had with the person and how that person functioned in the family. Some think that the deceased lived a good and productive life and may find it easy to acknowledge all that he or she did. Or maybe the deceased did not live a productive life and was the family scapegoat. Nevertheless, an acknowledgment of their functional role in the family can go a long way towards acknowledging the pressure that people are up against and allow people to be more aware of how family pressure works to do in some people and give others an extra boost.

Individuals in more mature families can deal with their dependency on each other without threats and blaming for the small and even more serious problems that arise. They are aware that there is increasing anxiety around losses and are able to be more mindful about the tensions in the system. Less mature families try to deny the dependency and end up with increasing symptoms.


  1. What can we do to understand how death might impact relationships?
  2. What are the possible shifts and challenges to the social system?
  3. How has the system adapted to such threats in the past?
  4. Have individuals made plans as to living well at the end of their lives?
  5. Can they talk about these plans?
  6. Do rituals serve a higher purpose for the social group?
  7. What can the lives of Jesus and Buddha tell us about how life is lived as a strong expression of purpose?

What can enable people to be more thoughtful about the end of life?

The funeral provides an opportunity for the coming together of one’s family and friends to lend support around the death. An open casket allows people to see the body and recall the life of this person. The reality of life is seen and celebrated. Some religious groups consider it to be disrespectful to the dead to look the body.[4] In some traditions, a prescribed period of mourning provides daily gatherings for grieving families and friends to talk about the life of the person. Each belief has its reasons and one is free to pick whatever “belief” they would like. Often people pick the family tradition

Since cremation has become more popular there have been an increasing number of people who prefer to dispense with funerals and memorial services. They inadvertently may be seeking to avoid the reality of death and the honoring of a life. This appears to encourage greater weakness and discourages bringing up and dealing with difficult things in the social group.

Open and Closed Systems

Death is a part of life but how we deal with it may be determined by the kind of social system we are born into. Death comes to each of us. It cannot be avoided. But how one manages and copes with death is another question. One can hide from and avoid the death of loved ones or even of one’s pets. The thesis here is that there is a cost in denial or in hiding out. For most families it can make an enormous difference in the short and long term, if family members purposely see the stress related to death as enabling them to become a more resilient group.

It is not that people have free choices as to feeling overwhelmed and wanting to get away form the challenges. People are more likely to avoid the subject of death and the planning around death if they are born into a closed system where people are not at ease talking about difficult or personally meaningful subjects.

Closed systems are more intense and up tight than open systems. Most families are somewhere in the middle of this continuum. It is important for people to know that most people recover from the stress and strain around a death, and are as happy as they were before the loss after some time passes.

When people have some guidelines or hear about others who have done well after a death it gives them hope. This is another reason for people to work towards being more open and to be able to derive meaning and talk about their experiences with others.

When people are able to be open they have an easier time bringing up difficult and challenging topics. They are more open to both new people and new ideas. In addition new behaviors are seen as interesting and as representing something others can learn or appreciate. People in open families are often thinking of new ways to adapt rather than hide out and regard anything new as threatening.

  1. What do you do if you are born into a closed system and no one is allowed to talk about death, or make plans like wills or even to re-examine the old wills or possibly outdated trust agreements?
  2. Do you break the taboo and talk openly?
  3. If so what is the cost to you, to them?
  4. Can one person who makes an effort to be more open about death and illness alter a closed system? At what cost?
  5. Can the acceptance of death as just another life event give us more courage to adapt to the needed changes and be supportive of others without pity or criticism?

Those who seek to avoid difficulty and stress are more likely to be depressed. Yes, when people state they try to avoid stress, this answer was shown to predict greater difficulty in the years ahead. This was a ten-year study done by the Veterans Affairs in Palo Alto, California, demonstrating that the more one tries to maximize happiness and pleasure, the greater the conflict and problems, and the less meaning in their lives, and the greater the disruption in their community.[5]

 Other species and behavioral responses to death

gorrilasmother gorilla

Chimps “Mourn” Nine-year-old’s Death?

Our instincts about life, reproduction and survival are not that different from other species. Can we watch the way other animals manage the illness and loss of a member of their social group to learn more about the basic adaptation to loss? Other animals participate in rituals enabling these animals to successfully adapt to the changes in the social group.

Mammals may not have rituals or a belief in a God or an afterlife, but they seem to understand that rituals like the cleansing of bodies and the visiting of the dead, serves them well. Even for elephants and chimps, the caring for the other does not end with the physical ending of life.

Elephants keep track of the health of their members. If one is sick they look after them, nudging them back to health. As an elephant approaches death the other animals nudge them towards the family burial spot. Elephants routinely visit these bone filled graveyards, and carefully touch the bones of ancestors. They seemingly come to pay respect or perhaps to remember.   (You Tube Elephant Grieving BBC-Wildlife)

Clearly the brain has to be adaptable for social learning as so many challenges occur in a lifetime. Our brains cannot have fixed responses. We need room to think, to reflect on what is happening, or did happen or might happen and what should we do about it?

Social learning, not instincts, enable us to solve problems in the here and now and not rely as much on what worked in the past. This is vastly different than for many mammals. Only the brain of the elephant is close to the human capacity for social learning.

These animals are matriarchal and require high levels of cooperation within the social group to promote survive. One speculation is that the attention paid to the death of one animal makes it easier for the troop to adapt to the loss and to find a way to replace the functioning of that animal. For example, a new matriarch is chosen or in the case of the death of the young, to move on and to reproduce once again.

There has been no documentation (that I can find) of an elephant troop failing to function after the death of one of its members. However there have been reports of elephants seeking revenge against poachers who have shot and killed animals.

Social interactions and selection:

Interactions occur in response to the history of interactions or habits plus the perceived or real changes in the environment.   There can be grunt of recognition followed by a stare, a downward glance, which might be a reaction to shifts in relationships or in strategy. Has one animal or person entered into the relationship to dominate another or to cooperate? The way the hierarchy is formed, by either force or by invitation, can produce two very different kinds of social groups.

As E. O Wilson pointed out, evolutionary biology has been forced to return to group selection as a way to see how social groups are selected for as to a group’s ability to adapt and cope. The group is formed by the way in which interactions play out.

Consider the long history of funerals and the advantages that accrue to those who practice such rituals. Researchers have found burial grounds of Neanderthal man dating to 60,000 BC with animal antlers on the body and flower fragments next to the corpse indicating some type of ritual and gifts to the deceased. One of the first examples of this was unearthed in the Shanidar cave in Iraq; Neanderthal skeletons were discovered with a layer of pollen.[6]

One of the most prescribed death rituals takes place among the Hindu and requires intense cooperation and obedience to ritual.[7]

In all these examples of a ritualized way of dealing with death, the advantages to the ongoing social group are not always clarified. The guess is that the reasons such funeral practices have been found in every human society is that funerals enable the group itself to maintain a way of relating. If the group can find ways to promote survival of its members, these rituals may enable greater survival and therefore rituals around death would be selected for. This does not rule out selection for the individual members of the group. Selection for both individual traits and for a group may occur.

Strong individuals in a cooperative group may fare well as may weaker individuals in a strong group.   But weaker individuals in a weak group will not fare as well.

Questions remain as to be how to be a “strong person” who is contributing to a “strong group?” Bowen’s observation was that if an individual could be more of a “differentiated” self that persons would not be as controlled by the emotionality in the group. Therefore, overtime the group itself would become stronger, less feeling driven and able to make more thoughtful decisions.

Family Strength:

The hypothesis is that social groups that can manage the emotionality and expression of feelings around the death of a significant person can move with more strength into the future.

Three indicators of strength to consider:

  • People find ceremonies and rituals useful in allowing a public expression of respect for those who die.
  • The memories of the person are useful. Recall how even elephants visit the bones of the ancestors.
  • People are able to build new relationships that in some sense “replace” the function of the person who died. When a father dies a son becomes more involved with a distant uncle.
  • Preparing for one’s own death. There are many details that one can attend during one’s life that can relieve the pressure on others. These range from funeral arrangements, the memorial service and obituary, to medical consents and powers of attorney, to speaking more openly with people.

Summary: Striving towards Clarity

Social interactions are key to how families are organized. Much of the way one interacts is influenced by the history of the social group. Death is one of the upheavals that forces social systems to change, for better or worse. The effort to manage relationships and responsibilities sets the stage for the future.   Each of us has some idea about what kinds of relationships are worth striving towards, no matter if the person is dead or alive. Finding ways to relate well to others, during times of great upheavals, are our gifts to the future.



1 Wilson, E.O. The Meaning of Human Existence, 2014, W.W. Norton, Page 75        2, and Family Constellation: Its Effects on Personality and Social Behavior, 4th Edition 4th Edition by Walter Toman PhD                                          3 Levitt, Stephen and Dubner, Stephen, 2014, Think Like A Freak, Page 172             4 Viewing a corpse is more likely to bring to mind opinions on how the body appears, or an emotional reaction that is more tied to how we feel when seeing a dead person or grappling with our own mortality. None of these truly honor the deceased.               5 McGonigal, Kelly, The Upside of Stress, Page 84                                                                     6                                                                7

Abstracts of Interesting Readings:

“70% of family-owned businesses fail or are sold before the second generation gets a chance to take over. Just 10% remain active, privately held companies for the third generation to lead. In contrast to publicly owned firms, in which the average CEO tenure is six years, many family businesses have the same leaders for 20 or 25 years.

2) In 1838 Darwin read Malthus’s assertion that human population would skyrocket if not for natural controls such as famine and disease, Charles Darwin has a new insight: other a nimals’ populations must also be kept low by a struggle for existence, in which only the best adapted survive. The theory of natural selection is born. From Evolution:“Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”

Malthus believed that unless people exercised restraint in the number of children they had, the inevitable shortfall of food in the face of spiraling population growth would doom mankind to a ceaseless struggle for existence. Out of that unforgiving battle, some would survive and many would not, as famine, disease, and war put a ceiling on the growth in population.

These ideas galvanized Darwin’s thinking about the struggles for survival in the wild, where restraint is unknown. Before reading Malthus, Darwin had thought that living things reproduced just enough individuals to keep populations stable. But now he came to realize that, as in human society, populations bred beyond their means, leaving survivors and losers in the effort to exist.

Immediately, Darwin saw that the variation he had observed in wild populations would produce some individuals that were slightly better equipped to thrive and reproduce under the particular conditions at the time. Those individuals would tend to leave more offspring than their fellows, and over many generations their traits would come to dominate.[8]

3) Hare studies how chimpanzees and bonobos solve problems, and in 2007 he happened to see one of our closest evolutionary relatives die. He was at a bonobo orphanage in the Democratic Republic of Congo when Lipopo, a newcomer to the orphanage, died unexpectedly from pneumonia. Although the other bonobos could have moved away from his body and travel anywhere in their very large, heavily forested enclosure, they chose to stay and groom Lipopo’s corpse. When their caretakers arrived to remove the body, the vigil morphed into a tense standoff.

In the video Hare took, Mimi, the group’s alpha female, stands guard over Lipopo’s body. When the caretakers try to push the corpse out of the enclosure with long poles, Mimi fights them, viciously. She grabs the poles with both hands, wrenching them away from Lipopo. She calls to other bonobos, who help her fend off the humans from two sides. Even when the vet arrives with a tranquilizer gun, Mimi stands her ground, her mouth open wide in a scream that’s inaudible in the silent film. Mimi wasn’t related to Lipopo. In fact, she barely knew him, Hare told me. But Mimi was willing to risk an encounter with a gun to protect the body of a mere acquaintance. “That’s why I started to cry,” Hare said. “I don’t know why she did it.”

4) Scientists have watched chimpanzees, bonobos and other primates deal with death in ways that look strikingly like our own informal rituals of mourning: watching over the dying, cleaning and protecting bodies and displaying outward signs of anxiety. Chimps have been seen to make loud distress calls when a comrade dies. They investigate bodies as if looking for signs of life. There are many cases of mothers refusing to abandon dead infants, carrying and grooming them for days or even weeks.


When the scientists at the park realized Pansy’s death was imminent, they turned on video cameras, capturing intimate moments during her last hours as Blossom, Rosie and Blossom’s son, Chippy, groomed her and comforted her as she got weaker. After she passed, the chimps examined the body, inspecting Pansy’s mouth, pulling her arm and leaning their faces close to hers. Blossom sat by Pansy’s body through the night. And when she finally moved away to sleep in a different part of the enclosure, she did so fitfully, waking and repositioning herself dozens more times than was normal. For five days after Pansy’s death, none of the other chimps would sleep on the platform where she died.

5) The pictures of a baby elephant in Borneo, nudging and nuzzling the body of its dead mother in obvious distress and bewilderment, cannot fail to move us. Allegations that up to ten pygmy elephants were poisoned, perhaps by local farmers, are upsetting — perhaps because elephant emotions seem so like our own, so heartbreakingly close to human sorrow and grief. Any scientist knows how dangerous it is to project human feelings on to an animal, to force them into human molds or ‘anthropomorphize’ them, but it’s equally dangerous to ignore a wealth of scientific data based on decades of observation in the wild.

We may never know exactly what goes on inside the mind of an elephant, but it would be arrogant of us to assume we are the only species capable of feeling loss and grief. I have been filming animals in the wild for more than 20 years, and that has often meant being around elephants: they live across a huge range of habitats. But mass poaching has put them into terrible decline — around 40,000 elephants a year are killed by poachers and, according to some estimates, since the Sixties the population has been culled from 3.5 million to just 250,000.–leading-wildlife-film-maker-reveals-animals-like-us.html#ixzz3inn5rkTg

6) Elephants are widely believed to mourn the deaths of members of their herd, and even pay homage to long-dead elephants. A 2005 study in the UK found the creatures displayed traits similar to humans and, coming across the remains of an elephant, would gently touch the skull and tusks with their trunks and feet. They are also believed to display a ritual around death, with several elephants travelling to visit a dead body and touching the corpse with their trunks. Some elephants have been seen to weep and others make sounds associated with grief as they cover the body with leaves and branches before keeping a silent vigil.
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7) Like humans, elephants must learn behavior as they grow up. They are not born with the instincts of how to survive.[24] Elephants have a very long period in their lives for learning, lasting for around ten years. One comparative way to try to gauge intelligence is to compare brain size at birth to the fully developed adult brain. This indicates how much learning a species accumulates while young. The majority of mammals are born with a brain close to 90% of the adult weight,[24] while Humans are born with 28%,[24]bottlenose dolphins with 42.5%,[25] chimpanzees with 54%,[24] and elephants with 35%.[26] This indicates that elephants have the highest amount of learning to undergo next to humans, and behavior is not mere instinct but must be taught throughout life. It should be noted that instinct is quite different from learned intelligence. Parents teach their young how to feed, use tools and learn their place in the highly complex elephant society. The cerebrum temporal lobes, which function as storage of memory, are much larger than those of a human.[24]

8) Elephants are the only species of mammals other than Homo sapiens sapiens and Neanderthals[citation needed]known to have or have had any recognizable ritual around death. They show a keen interest in the bones of their own kind (even unrelated elephants that have died long ago). They are often seen gently investigating the bones with their trunks and feet while remaining very quiet. Sometimes elephants that are completely unrelated to the deceased still visit their graves.[15] Elephant researcher Martin Meredith recalls an occurrence in his book about a typical elephant death ritual that was witnessed by Anthony Hall-Martin, a South African biologist who had studied elephants in Addo, South Africa, for over eight years. The entire family of a dead matriarch, including her young calf, were all gently touching her body with their trunks, trying to lift her. The elephant herd were all rumbling loudly. The calf was observed to be weeping and made sounds that sounded like a scream, but then the entire herd fell incredibly silent. They then began to throw leaves and dirt over the body and broke off tree branches to cover her. They spent the next two days quietly standing over her body. They sometimes had to leave to get water or food, but they would always return.[35]

If the elephant’s gargantuan cerebellum—as well as its intricate olfactory and temporal lobes—equip the creature with sensory superpowers, what features of the elephant brain account for its more sophisticated, more abstract mental talents: for its cooperative problem-solving, understanding of death and self-awareness? Based on what we know about brains generally, this type of intellect arises from the cerebral cortex. Manger and Herculano-Houzel’s recent investigations confirmed, however, that despite having a brain three times as large as our own, the elephant’s cerebral cortex contains surprisingly few neurons and is nowhere near as dense as the human or chimpanzee cortex. Yet the elephant is clearly capable of astounding intelligence.

9) Benjamin Hart of the University of California Davis has speculated that the elephant cortex derives its intellectual prowess not from local density but from widespread interconnectivity. He suspects that, whereas the human and chimpanzee brains have evolved many tight-knit networks of nearby neurons throughout the cortex—akin to states packed with highly populous cities—the elephant brain has favored lengthy connections between far-flung brain areas, building the equivalent of an extensive cross-country railroad system.

10) Quotes from Bowen’s chapter on The Family Reaction to Death
Direct thinking about death, or indirect thinking about staying alive and avoiding death, occupies more of man’s time than any other subject. Man is an instinctual animal with the same instinctual awareness of death as the lower forms of life. He follows the same predictable instinctual life pattern of all living things. He is born, he grows to maturity, he reproduces, his life force runs out, and he dies. In addition, he is a thinking animal with a brain that enables him to reason, reflect, and think abstractly. With his intellect he has devised philosophies and beliefs about the meaning of life and death that tend to deny his place in nature’s plan. Each individual has to define his own place in the total scheme and accept the fact that he will die and be replaced by succeeding generations.[9]

[1] Wilson, E.O. The Meaning of Human Existence, 2014, W.W. Norton, Page 75

[2], and Family Constellation: Its Effects on Personality and Social Behavior, 4th Edition 4th Edition by Walter Toman PhD

[3] Levitt, Stephen and Dubner, Stephen, 2014, Think Like A Freak, Page 172

[4] Viewing a corpse is more likely to bring to mind opinions on how the body appears, or an emotional reaction that is more tied to how we feel when seeing a dead person or grappling with our own mortality. None of these truly honor the deceased.

[5] McGonigal, Kelly, The Upside of Stress, Page 84




[9] Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 321). Jason Aronson, Inc.

When Does an Emotional System Guide Your Behavior?

Bowen and the gorilla

Murray Bowen, MD and a very smart gorilla  around 1987

Is it possible or even probable that we can learn about our own emotionally oriented, automatic behavior?  Can we get a clue from observing other social species? Can they show us what it is like when you only feel your way through life?

Can other mammals use thinking to overcome a feeling response?

Does reflection enable humans to self regulate?

Are we the only species able to think about our feelings?

Do we humans gain a little bit of freedom by being able to think and reorganize our feelings?

How do we know when we are outside the stimulus-response world?

Can reflecting on our feelings allow us to be a bit more separate from the controlling ways of the emotional system?

We saw in Jack Calhoun’s experiments at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), how mice interacted poorly under conditions of overcrowding.

Calhoun’s early experiments with rats were carried out on farmland at Rockville, Maryland, starting in 1947.[6]

While Calhoun was working at NIMH in 1954, he began numerous experiments with rats and mice. During his first tests, he placed around 32 to 56 rodents in a 10 x 14-foot case in a barn in Montgomery County. He separated the space into four rooms. Every room was specifically created to support a dozen matured brown Norwegian rats. Rats could maneuver between the rooms by using the ramps. Since Calhoun provided unlimited resources, such as water, food, and also protection from predators as well as disease and weather, the rats were said to be in “rat utopia” or “mouse paradise,” another psychologist explained.[7]

Following his earlier experiments with rats, in 1972 Calhoun would later create his “Mortality-Inhibiting Environment for Mice”: a 101-inch square cage for mice with food and water replenished to support any increase in population,[8] which took his experimental approach to its limits. In his most famous experiment in the series, “Universe 25”, population peaked at 2,200 mice and thereafter exhibited a variety of abnormal, often destructive behaviors. By the 600th day, the population was on its way to extinction.[6]

They seem to live in a stimulus-response universe. Their interactions determine their health. Crowding conditions created too many frustrating interactions and the mice lost the ability to recognize one another as individuals, reproduce, cooperate and care for the young.

The plight of the mice resulted from relationship problems, not a lack of food and water. The increasing numbers of animals in a small universe led to population crashes. By restructuring the physical environment Calhoun forced the animals to notice each other, and to cooperate in order to drink water.

With this change in the environment the animals could tolerate eight times the social density. Jack Calhoun observed that animals could create meaningful social roles when they had to figure out how to cooperate with one another to obtain water.

Rats, mice and chimpanzees are all mammals that share an inability to think or override their feeling oriented guidance systems. They are wired to respond quickly to threats. The mice had to rely on the thinking of an innovator like Jack Calhoun to figure out how to organize their relationships.

A thinking brain can impact survival. The inability to see the big picture and to think rationally, what I call relationship blindness, may be a mammalian vulnerability. The early ancestors of humans also needed to respond to threat and developed quick reflexes to survive. Those in small tribes could react quickly to a simple decision – friend or foe? And so our very human brain evolved to confront short-term phenomena.

Like most mammals, for thousands of years humans too have lived and died in the moment. As a result, the brain orients and perceives in a narrow range. What is coming at me now? Whose fault is this? Humans could not easily understand systems. For millennia, for example,humans thought the earth was the center of the universe, not understanding the earth was being influenced by the solar system as it traveled around the sun.

As human society has became more complex, various mental skill sets were developed to slow down these stimulus-response reflexes, allowing individuals to think longer term, like “How do I survive the winter and get along with the people in this village?”

As population has increased, there has been an increased need to develop greater awareness of the environment to slow down our automatic reflexes and thereby manage relationship dynamics reduce stress and make better long-term decisions.

Ten thousand plus years ago agriculture forced humans to do more thinking, to learn how to reflect and create different ways of behavior rather than simply following along with the group. As the population grew it required humans to use more thinking about the distant future. It also required that individuals be more of a stand alone self rather than operate as part of the togetherness group. (see Julian Jaynes)

Since there is no Jack Calhoun to think of a better way to force us to cooperate we must learn to engage more of a thinking response to challenges. The brain begins to do this by observing the traps of stimulus-response feelings and begins to adapt to changing conditions through trial and error efforts. (see Jack Panksepp)

Understanding what it means to be an “I” has taken many mysterious paths. (See Douglas Hofstadter) Mediation may have been one way that humans began to withdraw energy from a pure feeling response to reduce complexity and gain insight into phenomena.

Over time more and more people learned to withdraw energy from the stimulus feeling response world to think and reflect. Indian artifacts point to the origins of “tantric” meditation which 5,000 years ago allowed individual members to slow down their reactivity and increase their ability to reflect. (

In addition to learning how to alter one’s brain state, increasing population leads to role diversification as humans began to expand into towns, cities, nations and finally a human community on planet earth. We learned from Jack Calhoun that our mammalian brains make us vulnerable to social breakdowns. The early failure of social bonding in Calhoun’s mice was due to poor interactions and a lack of gratification resulting in greater emotional blindness and high contact rates with the young animals who were no longer being protected by their mothers.

Calhoun noted: “High contact rate further fragments behavior as a result of the stochastic social interactions which demand that, in order to maximize gratification from social interactions, intensity and direction of social interactions must be reduced in proportion to the degree that the group size exceeds the optimum.”

The optimum group size for Calhoun’s mice was 12 individuals resulting in a 50/50 chance that each interaction might be positive. If it was negative and one was not gratified they might withdraw and be frustrated. But if they could reflect on and think about the encounter and possibly learn from it, the animal was more creative in their next encounter. Frustrating interactions in a small social group often lead to creativity. We know all to well, however, that an increase in frustrating interactions may lead to destruction of relationships and/or of the individual as well.

Bowen described differentiation of self as a method to reorganize the brain and to be able to think carefully about ones behavior and the principles that are guidelines for defining a self. You could think about differentiation as a process of recognizing self separate from the other while being able to recognize self in the other. At one end of the spectrum people cannot see self as separate. Others are threatening all the time. They are subject to heightened emotionality. At the most mature end of the spectrum, there is great knowing and management of self while relating well to others and their differences with respect and compassion.

The effort to be more separate and not take sides while still being in good emotional contact with others creates a very different emotional system, one that is driven more by managing self and less

by the emotional push and pull of the group. Differentiation allows an individual to think and override automatic habits. If one can see the tricks of the emotional system for what they are, automatic behavior, one can stand-alone and not be manipulated by relationship signals. As one has greater ability to perceive and to think about relationship signals one has a better ability to choose how and when to interact.

Jane Goodall, Frans de Waal and Robert Sapolsky have all written and spoken about the basic social instincts in various species of mammals. By looking at their behavior it’s easy for us to identify with these animals as we experience these basic emotions: affection, love, betrayal, mistrust, the need for domination and the fear of being dominated.

How has man altered these basic social templates? Bowen thought that by using our thinking to act differently in relationships we had begun to separate more of our thinking system from the overriding commands of the emotional system. Bowen thought it possible that differentiation of self could influence evolution.

Differentiation can lead us to more thoughtful social interaction as we stand-alone on our principles and avoid being tricked by the emotional system as best we can. The possibility is that seeing the emotional system operate on all of us offers the possibility that we can have other social roles that that will give us a place (or in Calhoun’s terms a social role) in the system.

For example a creative person might like to work alone but the family objects and is critical, and calls him or  her crazy. If one person in the family can not join in and react and if the person can relate to others and manage self, the creative person may have a chance to play a useful role in the family and in society.

Or consider that the family emotional system can program an individual to be an over or under responsible oldest. By seeing the family process one has the ability to redefine self to others rather than to blindly follow  the programming.

Knowing self and the system would be more important than giving up self to go along with the social pressure from others. Therefore defining self becomes a way to create various social roles for self in any number of social systems.

Murray Bowen described a way of managing relationships and separating out using the knowledge of triangles. “Put a stranger into the system in place of the child. After a brief time the stranger will  either become programmed into the familiar patterns of the triangle, or he will withdraw—also a predictable response to triangles.

Put a family therapist with knowledge of triangles into the triangle in the place of the child. The parents will make predictable moves designed to involve the therapist into the triangle with them. If the therapist can avoid becoming “triangled,” and still remain in constant emotional contact with the parents over a period of time, the relationship between the parents will begin to change.”

“This is the theoretical and practical basis for much of the family psychotherapy in this theoretical- therapeutic system, in which a family is considered to consist of the two most important people in the family, together with the therapist who constitutes a potential triangled person. Theoretically, a family system can be changed if any triangle in the family is changed, and if that triangle can stay in meaningful emotional contact with the others. Practically, the two spouses are usually the only ones

who are important enough to the rest of the family and who have the motivation and dedication for this kind of an effort. The second way to modify a triangle is through one family member. If one memberofatrianglecanchange,thetrianglewillpredictablychange. Andifonetrianglecan change, an entire extended family can change. Thus, an entire family can be changed through one family member, if this motivated family member has sufficient dedication and life energy to work toward his or her goal in spite of all obstacles. The “change” mentioned here is not some superficial change in role or posture, but is deeper and more far-reaching than the change generally associated with most therapeutic systems.”

Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 246). Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.

Other References:

  • Stress in the Animal Kingdom: What We Can Learn
  • Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes, By Frans de Waal
  • Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness, Jul 2, 1999 by James H. Austin
    • Used for $4.89 here.
  • I AM a Strange Loop by Douglas R. Hofstader
    • Used for $1.89 here.
  • The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Aug 15, 2000 by Julian Jaynes
    • Used for $1.26 here.
  • The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology)Sep 17, 2012 by Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven