What Makes a Warrior versus a Killer?

 The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another. Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact. Begin to be now what you will be hereafter. Act as if what you do makes a difference. Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power.  William James

On the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, December 8th, I was puzzling about the relationship between violence during war and the potential for violence by those who are drawn to murder strangers.  Those who fight in wars often do so by leading armies or following the will of the authorities. There is a cause and a reason to risk death for country.


My father, Andrew Maloney was a Captain in the US Arm Air Force in WW II. (He is standing on the left with the pilot and on the right in the briefing photo).  He worked for Curtis LeMay.  LeMay is credited with designing and implementing an effective, but also controversial systematic strategic bombing campaign in the Pacific theater. During war, we need people who can plan the systematic murder of others.  But in these case a person in authority authorizes the killings as part of protecting the nation by winning the war. The cost of war is sever and my father was one of many who never recovered from the tragedy of war.  Perhaps this sustains my interested in how people can be convinced to kill.

We have good research about the kind of interactions that promote a majority of people to harm others under the spell of authority. This was explained in Stanley Milgram’s 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. In this research Milgram found only a minority of people can say no to authority when the action appears unethical.  The majority of people appear to have little to no choice.

We know that a majority will do whatever it is the person in authority asks.  Are there such figures in a family or in society?  Can an authority figure in a family impact a person’s ability to think for self?  Can relationships process produce people capable of mass murder?

At one end of the spectrum there are those who will kill as a part of being in the armed services.  At another point in the spectrum there are those who are aggressive and will punch, kick or bite when provoked. And at the other end of the spectrum are a few who are able to strangle others.

Researchers have found that strangulation may be a clue to the personality of mass murders.   Strangulation requires that one get very close, use extreme force and watch someone slowly die.  A link between strangulation and mass shooters is increasingly recognized.  Strangulation as a specific sign of lethality in the context of domestic violence remains largely unknown.[i] This piece suggests that strangulation may be a new clue to help identify a mass murderer.  While the link between mass shooters and domestic violence is increasingly recognized in the lay press and research, strangulation as a sign that someone could become a mass murder has just emerged as a possible warning sign.

The challenge to social scientists is to find ways to identify how specific behaviors emerge from shifts in important relationships. For example, it may be that in triangles, where one person is in the outside position for long periods of time, such individuals may not develop a self.  They may become isolated, frustrated or violent to self or others.

One researcher studying relationship process in early family life is Elizabeth Skowron. She is focused on clarifying the individual and joint contributions of neurobiology and environment to the development of self-regulation and school readiness in at-risk children. Her research also focuses on understanding the neurobiology of parenting at risk children and the mechanisms of change in interventions that are effective for supporting positive, healthy parenting and reducing child maltreatment.[ii]

Confusing, violent or very distant relationships with parents can set children up for a life of frustration and failure. As anxiety goes up, the tendency to look for problems in others is a mechanism that kicks in automatically without any thought about it.  A child can easily become the target. For example, if one parent tries to enforce a rule, then the other parent must join in. If he or she refuses they risk becoming the object of negative focus themselves. It is the two against one situation that leads to the outside position drawing the negative attention and then becoming the scapegoat.

If the anxiety is not resolved then people divorce or cut off from those who do not agree with them, whether they’re parents or extended family members. All for one and one for all seems to be a common theme in intensely child focused families.  The extreme is reached when it becomes do it my way or die.   The way emotional process works, those on the outside upon whom there’s a negative focus, are at risk of symptoms, extrusion and/or violence.

Families with violence have histories of undermining with criticism and negativity anything a child chooses to do. Some children can come out of these positions in the family with an attitude: “I will show you what I can do.” In fact, often times we see that those who become presidents of the U.S. (Clinton and Obama)  have had to contend with early loss and negative relationships with parents or the extended family.  Apparently, there are still ways to be resilient when there is enough family flexibility.

A spectrum of child focused families. 

Some families blame the child while others give into a child.   Children can frighten parents. The parents give in and join with the child and eventually the child is undermined by being allowed or even encouraged to have temper tantrums.   Eventually this can result in incredible violence.  The Sandy Hook family displayed years of giving into the child and threatening the child with leaving the area. The Boston Bomber’s family had generations of cut off, disapproval and mixed messages about violence.

How does one think about strangulation as a sign of future violence? Could it be that these individuals do not recognize the other as like self or even human?  Is there is a switch in the brain of mass murderers that sees others as not human, as the enemy?  Perhaps they have no empathy and or lack working mirror neuron? [iii]

Research may find that strangulation always points to a mass murderer, although I doubt that since there seem to be additional triggers that promote the violence. Often someone important has left or threatens to leave. We may find that there is some relationship between the brain that is capable of strangulation and a person who comes from a family system that is full of intense threats and fears leading to an inability to see and relate to others as “like me”.

Jack Calhoun’s research showed that with animals under stress, an animal can lose the ability to maintain basic behaviors, like recognizing other animals.  Calhoun forced animals to notice each other to cooperate to get water. This allowed the animals to maintain behavior competence and not run over each and engage in impersonal aggression. [iv]

The challenge of observing the family lives of mass murderers would be more subjective since it draws on what people say or remember.  After a family member has committed murder there may be a great deal of denial and/or the inability to recall with any accuracy what family life was like.  In addition, family members may refuse to tell what they recall since it implicates them in a culture of violence. If family members were indicted as co-conspirators to the murders they might have reason to be more factual as to how this person was treated in his family. But of course, they would have to face a sentence for that co-conspiracy.

Could we predict the percentage chance that this or that kind of family life leads to the potential for violence in three out of four families?   What are we up against in doing this?  It’s hard for the human mind to consider many factors.  We can look at multiple factors when it comes to weather but when it comes to looking at our own behavior it’s far harder to see the influences leading to a deterioration in behavior. Conventional wisdom focuses on single causes and effects inside the person, (their brain or their biochemistry), not in the surrounding system. [v]

Let us not forget that there are many survival level reasons that we need the human to be willing to fight and to kill others.   Much of our history has been grounded in violence, in killing and taking territory. Killing, as a function of loyalty to one’s tribe or country is seen as positive and probably has been selected for in terms of evolution. Perhaps it is not so shocking that a few mentally unstable individuals see themselves as “warriors” and go rogue, killing strangers and even small babies

One day we will know if the makeup of family alliances influences the structure of the brain, perhaps there will be evidence that mass murders are programed from seeing others as like us.  Eventually we will understand the way relationships influence us. Those who murder for seemingly no reason and in cold blood, may have had a negatively focused early family life.

Those who came from more positive environments may have been the family hero, and they can follow ethical directions and serve their country.  A percentage of ethical people bear the continuing burden of war, while those who have killed for no real reason can remain untouchable as to their deeds.

The following  note from my father was found atop his photography book with pictures of family life and better times and then the war.  The message seems to  be about understanding the cost and the need for wars, and the pain of ignorance.


[i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/which-domestic-abusers-will-go-on-to-commit-murder-this-one-act-offers-a-clue/2017/11/16/80881ebc-c978-11e7-aa96-54417592cf72_story.html?utm_term=.e9f8f34a63b8


[ii] https://education.uoregon.edu/users/elizabeth-skowron


[iii] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/230834868_Empathy_and_Mirror_Neurons_A_View_on_Contemporary_Neuropsychological_Empathy_Research



[iv][iv] https://nihrecord.nih.gov/newsletters/2008/07_25_2008/story1.htm


We have significant amounts of research about the kind of interactions that promote a majority of people to harm others under the spell of authority.  This was explained in Stanley Milgram’s 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.  But what do  we think about the way in which the family system  impacts a person, making them capable of mass murder?

At one end of the spectrum there are those who will kill as a part of serving in the armed services.  Then there is a spectrum of those at one end who are aggressive and will punch, kick or bite when provoked. At this end of the spectrum there are a few who are able to strangle others.  Strangulation requires that one get very close, use extreme force and watch someone slowly die.

Researchers have found that strangulation may be a clue to the personality of mass murders.   A link between strangulation and mass shooters is increasingly recognized.  Strangulation as a specific sign of lethality in the context of domestic violence remains largely unknown.[i] This piece suggests that strangulation may be a new clue to help identify a mass murderer.  While the link between mass shooters and domestic violence is increasingly recognized in the lay press and research, strangulation as a sign that someone could become a mass murder has just emerged as a possible warning sign.

The challenge to social scientists is to find ways to identify how specific behaviors emerge from shifts in important relationships. For example, it may be that in triangles, where one person is in the outside position for long periods of time, such individual may not develop a self.  They may become isolated, frustrated and even violent to self or others.

One researcher studying relationship process in early family life is Elizabeth Skowron. She is focused on clarifying the individual and joint contributions of neurobiology and environment to the development of self-regulation and school readiness in at-risk children. Her research also focuses on understanding the neurobiology of parenting at risk children and the mechanisms of change in interventions that are effective for supporting positive, healthy parenting and reducing child maltreatment.[ii]

Confusing, violent or very distant relationships with parents can set children up for a life of frustration and failure. As anxiety goes up the tendency to look for problems in others is an automatic mechanism that kicks in without our asking.  A child can easily become the target. For example, if one parent tries to enforce a rule, then the other must joins in. If he refuses he or she might become the object of negative focus. It is the two against one situation that leads to the outside drawing the negative attention and then becoming the scapegoat.

If the anxiety is not resolved then people divorce or curt off from those who do not agree be they parents or extended family members. All for one and one for all seems to be a common theme in intensely child focused families.  The extreme is reached when it becomes do it my way or die.   the way emotional process works those on the outside upon whom there’s a a negative focus, are at risk of symptoms, extrusion and or violence.

Families with violence have histories of undermining with criticism and negativity anything a child chooses to do. Some children can come out of these positions in the family with an attitude: “I will show you what I can do.” In fact often times we see that those who become presidents of the U.S. (Clinton and Obama)  have had to contend with early loss and negative relationships with parents or the extended family.  Apparently, there are still ways to be resilient when there is enough family flexibility.

A spectrum of child focused families. 

Some families blame the child while others give into a child.   A child can frighten parents. The parents give in and join with the child and eventually the child is undermined by being allowed or even encouraged to have temper tantrum.   Eventually this can result in incredible violence.  The Sandy Hook family displayed years of giving into the child and threatening the child with leaving the area. The Boston Bomber’s family had generations of cut off, disapproval and mixed messages about violence.

How does one think about strangulation as a sign of future violence? Could it be that these individuals do not recognize the other as like self or even human?  Is there is a switch in the brain of mass murderers that sees others as not human, as the enemy?  They have no empathy and or lack working mirror neurons.[iii]

Research may find that strangulation always points to a mass murderer, although I doubt that since there seem to be additional triggers that promote the violence. Often someone important has left or threatens to leave. We may find that there is some relationship between the brain that is capable of strangulation and a person who comes from a family system that is full of intense threats and fears leading to an inability to see and relate to others as “like me”.

Jack Calhoun’s research showed that with animals under stress, an animal can lose the ability to maintain basic behaviors, like recognizing other animals.  Calhoun forced animals to notice each other to cooperate to get water. This allowed the animals to maintain behavior competence and not run over each and engage in impersonal aggression. [iv]

The challenge of observing the family lives of mass murderers would be more subjective since it draws on what people say or remember.  After a family member has committed murder there may be a great deal of denial and/or the inability to recall with any accuracy what family life was like.  In addition, family members may refuse to tell what they recall since it implicates them in a culture of violence. If family members were indicted as co-conspirators to the murders they might have reason to be more factual as to how this person was treated in his family. But of course, they would have to face a sentence for that co-conspiracy.

Could we predict the percentage chance that this or that kind of family life leads to the potential for violence in three out of four families?   What are we up against in doing this?  It’s hard for the human mind to consider many factors.  We can look at multiple factors when it comes to weather but when it comes to looking at our own behavior it’s far harder to see the influences leading to a deterioration in behavior.

Often people revert to look for single causes and effects.  Conventional wisdom focuses on the cause inside the person, (their brain or their biochemistry), not in the surrounding system. [v]

Let us not forget that there are many survival level reasons that we need the human to be willing to fight and to kill others.   Much of our history has been grounded in violence, in killing and taking territory. Killing, as a function of loyalty to one’s tribe or country is seen as positive and probably has been selected for in terms of evolution. Perhaps it is not so shocking that a few “warriors” go rogue and attract their own.

One day we will know if the makeup of family alliances and the pressure put on the young, can be understood as part of the way that some murder in cold blood while others serve their country.

Below a note left for me by my father, Captain Andrew J. Maloney




[i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/which-domestic-abusers-will-go-on-to-commit-murder-this-one-act-offers-a-clue/2017/11/16/80881ebc-c978-11e7-aa96-54417592cf72_story.html?utm_term=.e9f8f34a63b8


[ii] https://education.uoregon.edu/users/elizabeth-skowron


[iii] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/230834868_Empathy_and_Mirror_Neurons_A_View_on_Contemporary_Neuropsychological_Empathy_Research



[iv][iv] https://nihrecord.nih.gov/newsletters/2008/07_25_2008/story1.htm


Blindsided by a Mass Murder:  What does it take to change a social system?

Originally written for Navigating Systems, LLC.


A mass murder takes place in Las Vegas and LeBron James, takes to Twitter to ask, in my view, the most relevant question, “What the hell is going on people!?!?” LeBron, who excels in the high-powered world of sports systems, can see the whole social system unfold. He sees how when one is at their best they can interact with others to produce a winning team. He does not over focus on one or blame one person, as over focusing on the player who missed the last shot will increase emotionality and will not help the team.


Rather consider a systems view which encourages more logic and objectivity in observing as many factors affecting a situation as is possible: the strengths and weakness of the player who missed or made the last shot, how does the team interact with the player, what was the audience doing, who is in the audience, what is the player’s family life like, how were the coaches performing etc.? These are the kinds of questions which begin to give us a more complete picture of the multiple factors involved in success and failure. Then one can begin to hypothesize, to test, to guess at the best way to alter the system and then see if the system improves.  Decrease blame and you decrease emotional blindness to complex problems, like the creation of mass murders.

World class leaders acquire knowledge from the discipline of practice and yes, the pain of being blindsided, of seeing the team fall apart. As a team leader LeBron asks what are ‘we the people’ doing to change our behavior to solve complex problems?  Will we be lead astray by the polarizing headlines?  Can we override the impulse for a quick fix to consider how the social and political systems gives rise to gun violence?

The family is one factor that is often minimized, denied, and overlooked in most efforts to understand an individual’s pathway to violence. Can we know more about the pressure cooker called the family?  Can we understand the influence of family life on a mass murderer?  How does anyone’s identity become so twisted that they are willing to kill unknown others? How do relationships escalate, turning simple interactions into a chain reaction of fear, aggression, and cutoff, leading to revenge?

Focusing on the shooter without understanding the state of his relationships only gives limited knowledge. “Chasing down all those leads “helped create a better profile into the madness of this suspect,” McMahill said, but “we still do not have a clear motive or reason why.”[1]


Looking carefully at his family system may give more evidence of how he became such a recluse that family members say they had no idea that he was stockpiling guns and ammunition for years.  What was his gripe?  Does it have deep roots in his childhood? What would be your best guess as to where the pressure came from in his family history? What happened to his team?

Many other mass murders have left evidence that they were reacting to those who were trying to control them or leave them. Some evidence is circumstantial.  No one wants to say their mother made them do it.  In the Las Vegas case, the father was a violent guy when the shooter was young.  In his last act, the shooter became an even worse guy than his scary father. Violence is often linked with a reaction to those family members who disappoint, threaten or ignore us. Many people have unpleasant family relationships and somehow can maintain self-control and resist these kinds of impulses. Some cannot. The question is can we know who has control of their impulses?

“University of Michigan professor of social psychology Richard Nisbett, the world’s greatest authority on intelligence, plainly said that he’d rather have his son being high in self-control than intelligence….” He noted that anything that leads to social isolation leads the subject toward goals and activities that are violent in a very specific way.[2] The isolation needed for the shooter to collect an arsenal and isolation has been shown to be associated with other early life family dynamics.

Four factors that we will consider as basic to creating a disturbed person: exposure to violence, a neglectful confused family, social isolation, and lack of self-control.

A fifth factor to consider is the society that surrounds the person. After all it was not just this shooter that loved guns and killing people. Our society seems to glorify guns as a marker of freedom, not a tool of death. Consider that it takes 28 days to murder 59 people in Chicago.   This mass murderer killed 59 people (including himself) in ten minutes in Las Vegas.[3]

A sixth factor would be the amount of cutoff between people in the family. What do we know about the family life of this latest shooter?  We know precious little about what went on in his family. We do know the shooter was the oldest of four brothers and was in business with his youngest brother, Eric.  Apparently both became wealthy. But Eric, like all of us, is confused. He feels like his brother shot his family in the back. He feels like Mars just landed on Earth. How can this be? This person was not the brother he knew. But he was the brother that Eric did not know. Was it because they were geographically thousands of miles apart? Was it because the family had generations of cutoff, threats, and confusion between people? The current state of the family suggests this fear response has been going on for generations.  Clearly, people were so anxious that they couldn’t relate well enough to each other to be open about difficult things like a father in jail. How could they solve problems hiding basic truths? The shooter did not talk for twenty years to the brother closest in age to him.  These family members have been hiding out from one another for years.

We have no idea. We’re horrified. We’re bewildered …… We have no idea in the world. This fell out of the sky…. The fact that he had those kinds of weapons is just … where the hell did he get automatic weapons? He has no military background or anything like that.” [4]

There are real and scary reasons why family members cannot maintain contact.  The Adverse Childhood Experiences profile notes risk factors: an incarcerated household member, mental illness, physical or mental abuse, physical and emotional neglect. Three or more of these risk factors put children at higher risk of becoming socially isolated and troubled.[5]

Who was the shooter’s father? This father left the family when the shooter was 7 years old. The man was on the FBI’s most wanted list. Was the shooter reacting to his father? His brother Eric said of their father, “We didn’t grow up under his influence… [But we don’t know what went on in the first seven years of the shooter’s life.] His FBI Most Wanted poster warned that he was “diagnosed as psychopathic,” “reportedly has suicidal tendencies,” and “should be considered armed and very dangerous…It’s believed that he spent his remaining years in Texas, and died in 1998.[6]


Using a family systems approach, we are looking at many factors that might come together to form a hurricane or a mass murderer. So far, we have five factors that are involved in this man’s family life.  It not as simple as one factor, one cause, like saying that a child who has been threatened can then become like the aggressor and threaten others.[7]

After the father was arrested, the mother kept the arrest and the father’s whereabouts a secret. She told the children their father had died.  (Stephen, the oldest, was whisked away by neighbors when the police came to the house to arrest his father to spare him seeing his father arrested.) Many years later one of the brothers joined the military and found his father’s military record; he was alive but still unavailable to the family.  The shooter’s mother can make no more sense of her son’s actions at 90 years of age than she could when she was a younger woman. She seems to react to her husband with a “run for your life” attitude. The shooter had a violent father and a scared mother. Now what?

We know that a percentage of families have overt violence and children are threatened, beaten, or seduced. These children can then become violent towards others or they can become the opposite, a no-self, an agreeable spouse. The less emotional maturity in the family, the greater the need to force others to “be like me, be the way I demand that you be.” But if one is forced to go along with another they can eventually seek revenge. Did the shooter seek revenge?   Was he shooting his family in the back as Eric suggested?

Without training, most of us are blind to the interactive nature of the family’s relationship system.  If we cannot see the brewing storm, we cannot prepare or cope. If we see the system, then there are many more things we can do to alter the patterns of behavior that sustain the status quo. One can hypothesize that distance and the inability to relate is an automatic response to fear that must have been in this family for a long time, perhaps over generations.  As fear increases people become paralyzed, unable to factually observe the nature of the relationships and less able to solve problems.

In many cases like this, the family appears not to notice or feels helpless if one person is disappearing.  For the family to be aware and to take on the problems would not just be about fixing the one who is “the problem.” It would be about altering the way a system is reinforcing immaturity.  Maturity in families shows up in how people are in reasonable contact with family members and demonstrate the ability to take responsibility for one’s part in problems.

In a besieged family, the status quo and automatic behavior will rule. People tend to be distant and often totally cutoff from one another.  There is also often intense conflict and some version of “reciprocal functioning” where one does better at a cost to another. And there will always be a tendency to project blame onto the weaker ones and their functioning will go down, unless they are up to taking on the criticism. Change takes place when one person in the family has a desire to relate to others in a more thoughtful way, leading to a variety of new outcomes and not a continuation of old patterns.

A seventh factor is whether there is anyone in the family who is curious, wants to find out what has gone wrong, and what he or she can do about it? Is there a family leader? A family is like a team.  Teams and families can focus on one player as the problem and maybe the others get a free ride for a while. But the team (or family) is hurt by the one who is focused on as the problem.  Team members cannot focus on their own individual performance. Sometimes the “sick” one rules the team.  Understanding how each member acts to pull the team up or down gives us insights into the nature of the relationships that surround us.

Many say forget systems. Just blame the killer. He is crazy. No thinking needed.  Forget about chain reactions and how “we the people” are programmed to react.

Bowen described what goes on in families, but he did not tell us what to do about it. People in each generation have to decide what will I do now? The relationships between family members constitute a system in the sense that a reaction in one family member is followed by a predictable reaction in another, and that reaction is followed by a predictable reaction in another and then another in a chain-reaction pattern. [8] Murray Bowen

Something broke in his head is the only thing possible. Did he have a stroke?” he said. I’m hoping they cut open his brain and find something. There’s a data point missing.”[9] There is more than one data point missing. Because of the lack of details about the family, we do not know about this family’s relationships.

The eighth factor: Was there any kind of family support from relatives? We do not know the kind of support the mother may have found in her own family, or if there was contact with grandparents, or what happened to the father’s family? Distance, conflict, and cutoff are automatic behaviors regulating anxiety. They do not enable one to become a better observer of the chain reaction pattern in family relationships.

I could say “LeBron, see, this is all about the team, the family system team. The same problems that exist in the family also occurs in society.  Bowen called it the societal emotional process.   People are not held accountable for their part in problems, and they focus on others.  With a great team, each person works on their part. In a losing team, people blame one another. It is as simple and as difficult as that.”

People can learn to deal with the challenges if they can see them and reduce their fearfulness.  This is often the coach’s role who can see beyond the individual.   The coach sees how the team is working and helps the team see this as well.   When the team is under pressure a few will lose the ability to maintain their humanness: the ability to throw the ball accurately, to care for others, to face up to their part in problems, to talk over problems, to tolerate differences, to be respectful, and to hold others accountable. These more mature behaviors are the first to go as anxiety increases.

In general, people have a hard time understanding the emotional process in the family. They are blind to what goes on or to the consequences of the way people are treating each other.  It is so easy to take sides, to lose your objectivity so that some are “good” (they agree with me) and others “bad”. Polarization in the team is the first step to losing the game. People do not get along. They are not able to cooperate.  They are no longer a team.

The ninth factor: How do people relate to each other and is the anxiety high or low?

As anxiety increases people look for the leader who will dominate. They fall into habits of appeasing the other. They lose their backbone.  They go silent.  The first reaction to a threat is to appease the dominant one. But how long will this work?  Not long, if the dominant one feels threatened, loses a gamble, is called to task, or a bluff is called.  These are the kinds of actions that people react to: being controlled by others, being dominated, having their dominant status threatened. Both people need each other. The dominant one and the one who adapts.

The hypothesis is that the intense need for the other to submit to give meaning and life to another, is one reason the possible loss of the adaptive one, the mother, the girlfriend, can trigger a psychotic event. The core of the dominant person can be empty unless others fill them up.

Although the early family interactions are shrouded in the memory of those who are not talking, we can see a bit more about his family relationships in the shooter’s relationship with his girlfriend, as some of this took place in public.  Here is the way that the relationships between the shooter and his only close female companion played out. A report said Tuesday that Paddock had a habit of berating his girlfriend. “It happened a lot,” Esperanza Mendoza, supervisor of the local Starbucks outlet where they met, said Tuesday. “He would glare down at her and say — with a mean attitude — ‘You don’t need my casino card for this. I’m paying for your drink, just like I’m paying for you.’ Then she would softly say, ‘OK’ and step back behind him. He was so rude to her in front of us.”[10]  Clearly the shooter could achieve dominance by being critical and managed to convince his girlfriend not to wear chemical scents.  These are the kinds of dominance and appeasement behaviors that kept their relationship working. [11]

The lack of red flags leading up to the massacre make the observations from the Starbucks employees even more compelling, for they offer us a telling glimpse at how he treated his intimate partner. Over the past few years, a number of mass killers and violent terrorists have had one striking thing in common: They practiced their abuse on family members before targeting the public.[12]

What will change because of all the media attention? Not much, since family relationship functioning will continue to be ignored. The old fight with the National Rifle Association will NOT change. Despite a great deal of evidence that strict gun control laws work to decrease deaths, killing 59 people may not be enough to scare Congress into legislating about gun control.   (After all, after the deaths of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, no changes in gun laws occurred to say nothing of the other mass and other gun murders over the years.)  Congress may outlaw bump stocks, which are legal aftermarket accessories that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire as an automatic weapon. Chicago and other cities will continue to be the most popular places where shots are “not heard”.

A change that might work:  Anything that promotes greater awareness of relationships, that requires people to have to interact cooperatively, to achieve a common goal would make a difference in our society. Consider, one must have a written test, a road test and an eye test to drive a vehicle. Cars do kill more people than guns but there was no formidable opposition to make sure people passed a basic test to drive a car. Currently congress is under tremendous social and financial pressure from the NRA to decrease regulations.  Congress might prefer to continue to support building prisons and filling cemeteries rather than invent a new system that would alter the way people buy guns.

Statistics that give a context to mass shootings versus just plain shooting, suggest that many of these shots are never heard.  There are over 33,000 deaths from shootings through our great country. In addition, mass shootings make up only a tiny portion of America’s firearm deaths. “Americans are 20 times as likely to die from gun violence as citizens of other civilized countries.”[13]

Hijacked by emotional intensity:  The lone wolf attacks are full of drama that consumes the public for a time. The people feel anyone, anywhere can die. There is no rhyme or reason to it.  It’s random. The shock of the mass shootings inhibits us from making more rational decisions about shootings in general. And shock keeps us from seeing how the family comes to function as an incubator of violence.

If we were rational people would see that the greatest numbers of deaths using guns come from suicides. Yet we do not put resources and manpower into understanding suicides. Much more could be done to combat suicides and there would be a bigger pay off for the surviving family and friends. This is not just a mental health problem either. As we also ignore the ongoing numbers of deaths in our larger cities. I will suggest that when either a family or a society becomes more anxious and feels helpless the weak in society can become more disoriented. There is also the tendency to scape goat and cut off from those individuals who are just too difficult to relate to.

When families and social groups become overwhelmed and helpless they are drawn into emotional reactivity and begin to act and feel like: Those “people” have nothing to do with us.


So much attention goes to the violence inflicted on us by lone wolves where most often nothing can be done to predict who they are ahead of time. There seems no way to predict who is vulnerable to becoming an attacker (or being attacked) and no way to hold the friends and family of shooters responsible for knowing what their family members are up to. There is little awareness and no “reward” for getting to know people in your family. Very few people understand that getting to know the difficult and challenging people in your family is one way to build life sustaining relationships.

The rational approach is to deeply understand the way family relationships can deteriorate, putting all at greater risk. This requires expert testimony from family and friends. As a society, we would have to values family members who are willing and able to tell us what they witnessed and how they were manipulated by the intensity in the other. Hopefully they would get more positive attention than the shooter.  Hopefully we will not punish people who try to explain honestly what happens in the relationships with a shooter.

Emotionally people are mad at the shooter and their families. The way emotional reactivity functions, is to encourage us to focus on the shooter, blame the family and put some shooters in prisons. This encourages a blame and revenge orientation, not prevention, and continues the primitive emotional process of scapegoating the angry, the isolated and the weak.  Our prisons are already colossal failures.  Unless there is greater awareness of the danger of emotional isolations and just how it leads to violence, we may go on blaming others, polarizing society and ignoring our near and dear and eventually just bury the dead.

In so far as man is a cause-and-effect thinker, which is most of the time in calm periods and all of the time in tense periods, he is still as inaccurate, unrealistic, irrational, and overly righteous in his assignment of causality for his problems as were his ancestors who pursued a different kind of evil influence, who eliminated different kinds of witches and dragons, and who built different kinds of temples to influence benevolent spirits.[14]

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/06/us/unknowable-stephen-paddock-and-the-mystery-motive/index.html

[2] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/anger-management-self-control/

[3] https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20171006/downtown/chicago-murder-las-vegas-comparison

[4] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/stephen-paddock-las-vegas-shooting-latest-updates-brother-interview-eric-worst-american-history-a7978791.html

[5]  https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html

[6] http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/10/what-we-know-about-las-vegas-gunman-stephen-paddock.html

[7] https://www.simplypsychology.org/defense-mechanisms.html

[8] Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (pp. 206-207). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[9] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/10/02/las-vegas-gunman-liked-to-gamble-listened-to-country-music-lived-quiet-retired-life-before-massacre/?utm_term=.819109e8f1a0

[10] http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/10/03/new-details-emerge-about-las-vegas-shooter-stephen-paddock-and-girlfriend-marilou-danley/?utm_term=.a05c381bbad7

[11] http://nypost.com/2017/10/04/vegas-madman-regularly-wore-gloves-because-of-bizarre-allergies/

[12] In general, most mass shootings in the United States are related to domestic violence, according to research collected by Everytown for Gun Safety. Between 2009 and 2016, 54 percent of mass shootings ― defined as incidents where at least four people were killed, not including the perpetrator ― involved a perpetrator shooting a current or former intimate partner or family member. Before Sunday’s massacre, the two deadliest shootings of 2017 involved an estranged husband allegedly targeting his wife. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/stephen-paddock-abuse-girlfriend_us_59d40429e4b0218923e60bcc

[13] http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2014/jan/17/lisa-bloom/americans-are-20-times-likely-die-gun-violence-cit/

[14] Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 423). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Observing and Gaining Insight into Social Challenges


In my thirties, I was part of the change generation.  I took on civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights. I had two children and was divorced. At first I didn’t stop to wonder what is driving all these changes? Was I simply taking part in societal upheaval?

Looking around I noticed, most all my friends were divorcing. This could not be individual choices.  An entire society had altered their values and ways of living. I had this insight; it was social change and not just individuals who drove this change. individuals may not see or comprehend the social pressure therefore they are unduly influenced.

In trying to understand the breakup of so many nuclear families, I turned to Bowen’s family system ideas. This led me to an understanding of how families function and how anxiety is played out in relationships. I thought that because of such tremendous change in our generation, our children would live in generation of less sweeping social change.

Now I am again seeing sweeping social change and consider that it may be our grandchildren, who are rapidly changing and forcing us to see and adapt to the next big societal change.

Yes, there was an increase in divorce and people learned to adapt to a variety of relationships. Forty years later, my family is a tribe with loose connections. There have been multiple marriages and partnerships. The eight grandchildren and three step-grandchildren have a personal awareness of the extended family, the triangles, and emotional cutoffs, and to some extent what to do about them. All of us still have the challenge of relating well to the strangers.  Some of us use systems knowledge as best we can to rise above side-taking and scapegoating. But I have never lost my interest in understanding social change and imagining the possible future.

One researcher, Jack B. Calhoun, tried to predict the possible future for humans by studying colonies of mice. If mice lived in a nice clean environment with plenty of food and water, what would happen when physical space was limited?  How would the social structure change?



In the ‘90s I asked him to read my paper called “The Biological Need to Keep your Ex-in Laws.” The thesis was that the family was automatically reshaping itself to adapt to changing conditions, most specifically an increase in world-wide population. One issue facing us would be that a majority of woman would be divorced from reproduction.  This would enable the populations to decrease.

Calhoun noted that humans would have to be far more cooperative and tribal to withstand the pressures of the changing social makeup. He predicted that by the year (2024) we would use a computer like extension of the brain to make better decisions in the face of the increased population.


Anticipated changes as result of the increase in numbers

As we have moved from 2 billion to 7 billion people over the last hundred years, the family unit has undergone significant changes. There were four children in the average family. Now there are two children. There has been an increase in single parent families[i] and often a decrease in the number of relationships available to an individual family member.

Changing demographics require adaptations.  Over-population in Jack Calhoun’s mouse research led to a “behavioral sink”; the distressed population lost the ability to maintain relationships and reproduce.  Calhoun, in his custom-built mice universes encouraged new behaviors, noting that successful animals could cooperate when forced to do so to obtain water. In addition, the more competent animals had twelve important relationships, to balance frustration and gratification with the increase in population.[ii]
Hopefully despite the population pressures, the evolutionary processes continue to operate that shape social animals to care about the group they are a part of now and into the future.
As a grandparent, I may not be alive to see the future but I want to talk with my grandchildren about it.  Clearly, they too are interested in spending some amount of their life energy challenging grandparents to keep up their health and well-being and their thinking.

For example, Andrew, my oldest grandson majored in computer science. Now I find myself reading books like Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths or Nik Bostrom’s Superintelligence: Paths Dangers, Strategies. Andrew’s interests are promoting my learning in thinking about the super amazing ways we might adapt using Artificial Intelligence (AI).

I fell into the world of AI wondering just how will a future super intelligence have values that enhance human relationships and life? Over Christmas, Andrew gave his younger brother, Patrick, the book, I, Robot.  As a youngster, I loved I, Robot and the three laws of robotics were clear values that regulated caring about others:


1) A robot may not injure a human being or 2) through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 3) A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.[iii]
I am still intrigued and enamored of robots. After all, robots are the optimal knowledge machine, solving problems like cancer or global warming without having to rely on the fascination for the irrational thinking and superstitions of charismatic leaders. Robots love facts and doing stuff. They do not take sides or need power. They should be carefully programmed.



A superintelligence learning machine has its own reason to complete a task. They want answers, and they are immune from relationship pressures and anxiety.

Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil (two of my new human heroes) think the only way for humans to survive is to fuse with the machines. They are us and we are them. The bots enter our blood stream, connecting us to a neural network based in the cloud. By the year 2030 our survival will be intertwined with that of the robots.

My grandson Patrick will be 28 by then, and like most of us, probably will not yet have absorbed all of Wikipedia, unlike Watson, the IBM computer, who already has.

Watson will be twice as smart next year, and then in another six months it will have another doubling of information, and the doubling continues exponentially in time.  If these machines can solve the riddle of cancer or global warming, is it possible that they might be put to the task of understanding our ancient emotional system?


Robots could be curious and learn about emotional reactivity in relationships. Robots could be programmed to observe and ask questions to the human. What are the short and long consequences of these actions? Have you considered these alternatives? The percentage chance of this decision working out is “X”.


The robot might have to give us ideas even if we do not want them. Like, If you play one more game of golf your wife might…  Robots might even know if we are harming others through inaction. To do no harm requires a highly-developed level of awareness and the ability to begin to predict the future.

Pedro Domingos, an expert in machine learning, sees experience as the great teacher, even for machines.[iv]  A bot in our blood stream would learn a lot. They could sense increasing threats or stress and give the human a rational warning in emotional language: Wow! You are getting over-involved. Think, think, think for a minute, what else might you do? Here are three quick suggestions to mull over. 

Social pressure is not a problem for bots. Your friendly family bot could calculate the automatic nature of avoidance, the automatic anxiety absorber, the “other focus”, blame and guilt, or how one can innocently wander into an emotional divorce.  Our bot can remind us that 82% of the time this or that behavior leads to one becoming a hapless victim of the system.  Bots have nothing to gain by going along with scapegoating. They would have no fear of losing self in a love affair.

The bot would be free to give feedback about how to achieve cooperation with others. They would be immune to rejection or name calling or even a loss in social status due to a physical illness. Robots do not need money or power to get along with the human. This value, aiding human productivity, will have to be a part of the way the robot is constructed. People are already working on this.

Only time will tell if a machine built to learn, from experiences with humans, will value family systems thinking and emotional maturity.  Perhaps the super intelligent robot will see humans as savages and leave us to be regulated by the law of the jungle. If this is not our path, then we will have to be able to be better define in relationship to each other and the robots.

Emotional maturity by the programmers may ask the superintelligence, the robots, to solve problems a little bit better than we can.  For example, what are the problems that can lead to humans having successors?

Perhaps then we can ask more significant questions. Perhaps we can even let the AI figure out its own way with just a slight nudge in values to go with it. The AI might be given “the motivation to achieve that which we would have wished the AI to achieve if we had thought about the matter long and hard.”[v]

Until the arrival of the superintelligence, humans will continue to form social groups, competing and forming hierarchies as we and the mice have done for millennia. But perhaps one day, differences will not loom as large. The focus will be on adapting to and solving complex problems, as problems we know will always be shaping our future.



Ideas for further reflection


Michael Schrage is a research fellow at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE) and the MIT Sloan School of Management, and author of The Innovator’s Hypothesis: How Cheap Experiments Are Worth More Than Good Ideas. He notes that:


[…]workers will get greater returns investing in “selves improvement”— “selves” that are smarter, bolder, more creative, more persuasive and/or more empathic than one’s “typical” or “average” self.

“Selvesware” delivers actionable, data-driven insights and advice on what to say, when to speak up and with whom to work, and suggests options to create, communicate and collaborate. It invites workers to digitally amplify their best attributes, while monitoring and minimizing their workplace weakness. In this future, the AI revolution is less about “artificial intelligence” and more about “augmenting introspection.”[i]


Buckminster Fuller created the “Knowledge Doubling Curve”; he noticed that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today, things are not as simple as different types of knowledge have different rates of growth. For example, nanotechnology knowledge is doubling every two years and clinical knowledge every 18 months. But on average, human knowledge is doubling every 13 months.  According to IBM, the build out of  the “internet of things” will lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours.[vi]


Isaac Asimov

Now humans caught in an impossibility often respond by a retreat from reality: by entry into a world of delusion, or by taking to drink, going off into hysteria or jumping off a bridge.  It all comes to the same thing – a refusal or inability to face the situation squarely away and so too the robot.


Nick Bostrom wrote in Superintelligence: Paths Dangers, Strategies –

AI can be less human in its motivation than a green scaly space alien. The extraterrestrial (we will assume) has arisen through evolutionary processes and therefore can be expected to have the same kind of motivations typical of evolved creatures…. A member of an intelligent social species might have motivations related to air, food, water, survival, recognition of threat, disease, sex, progenies, group loyalty, resentment of free riders, perhaps even have concerns with reputation and appearance.  An AI by contrast may not value any of these things. Page 127


The final goal, ask that AI achieve that which we would have wished the AI to achieve if we had thought about the matter long and hard.  Page 173



Videos and Readings of Interest  

  1. Elon Musk – AI Advancement 
  2. Google’s Deep Mind Explained! – Self Learning
  3. Sam Harris – Scared of superintelligent AI?
  4. Nick Bostrom – What Happens When Our Computers Get Smarter than We Are?  
  5. Pedro Domingos – The Quest for the Master Algorithm
  6. Ray Kurzweil – How to Create a Mind
  7. Richard Dawkins – Red in Tooth and Claw

Murray Bowen – Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 22)





[i] http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/12/17/1-the-american-family-today/
[ii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/06/19/the-researcher-who-loved-rats-and-fueled-our-doomsday-fears/?utm_term=.8fd14940fd72
[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Laws_of_Robotics
[iv] Pedro Domingos, 2015, Basic Books, The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World
[v] Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence: Paths Dangers, Strategies (page 173)
[vi] https://techcrunch.com/2017/06/21/how-technology-enabled-selves-improvement-will-drive-the-future-of-personal-productivity/


Andrea Maloney Schara


Mailing address:
4122 Cheseapeak St. NW

Washington, DC 20016
cell 203-274-1069


 Your Mindful Compass: Breakthrough Strategies For Navigating Life/Work Relationships In Any Social Jungle available on Amazon

Where Now Family…… Therapy?

One day an email arrived at The Murray Bowen Archives Project, TMBAP,  http://www.murraybowenarchives.org asking if someone would please write an article for the American Association for Marriage and Family therapy magazine, AAMFT.


The request from Kim Bryce, the senior editor, was to discuss the foundations of the field from the viewpoint of where family therapy is today compared to its early roots.


Photo by Andrea Schara 1978

Questions were: how did Bowen impacted the field, what aspects of his model are still in use today, and what interventions or approaches came from Bowen’s original work? Basically, how did he help shape what the field is today?

In addition, what would the founders think of the way Marriage and Family Therapy is practiced today. Has the field grown in a way that the pioneers would have expected or have we strayed far from the early visions of Family Therapy?

What an opportunity!

I quickly volunteered to write an article. My main idea was to have different individuals represent where they had taken Bowen’s ideas in order to draw attention to the importance of differences.  This might be one way to communicate thoughtfully about the differences in the field of mental health that persist and undermine progress today.

As in many fields tribal boundaries are set up by the different approaches to serious problems.  These differences can create divisions as to how we think about and treat emotional problems.  People can object to the word “emotional” and insist that you refer to mental health, and so it goes.

 The roots of family therapy go back to the early family researchers who began to clarify a system view of human behavior, after WW II. Mental health was the main casualty veterans suffered from after the war. In the 1950s, congress funded the National Institute of Mental Health. One of the initial researchers, Murray Bowen, M.D. was hired to research schizophrenia in the family.  Enough evidence had been found to implicate family dynamics and to warrant further study. At the same time, new drugs appeared, which treated the individual and reduced symptoms, but did not alter the social system around the person. And here we have mostly been ever since.

Bowen went in a far different direction from his early training in psychoanalysis. Instead of the individual being the focus, the basic unit of emotional functioning he saw as residing in the multigenerational family system.  Known as family system theory, Bowen connected human behavior to biology and evolution rather than to Freud’s use of metaphors and Greek myths.  Family systems theory became a small part of a larger field of marriage and family therapy. Bowen was the only one to develop a theory of individual functioning within the larger multigenerational family.  His focus was more on coaching one person to become the family leader thereby altering the family system.  This did not appeal to insurance companies.

Since the fifties, the numbers of professional interested in the family has increased yet the focus of main stream mental health remains on the individual.  This should not be too shocking since this is the direction that the family as an emotional unit takes. The family unit tends to worry about or blame one person thereby missing the system.  One person often has far more social pressure or neglect than others.  Just how the family unit manages anxiety, is not a part of conventional individual based psychotherapy.

Today the American Psychiatric Association has about 36,000 members. The American Psychological Association has about 77,000 members. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) represent 50,000 marriage and family therapists, possibly there may be a couple of thousand individuals who have been trained in Family systems theory.

Below you can explore the different directions a few individuals have taken to move family systems theory along. I deeply appreciate those who had the time to write up where they have taken the ideas from Bowen’s original work.


Bowen, an oldest son of five, was a born observer of human behavior. Growing up in Waverley, Tennessee, his parents ran the local mortuary, allowing him to observe how families function after a death. After WW II, he saw many psychological wounds and became interested in psychiatry training at Menninger.

Taking careful notes on the impact relationships had on behavior, he saw how relationship shifts changed how people thought and acted. Selected as the first family researcher on schizophrenia at NIMH in 1956, he hospitalized several families for observation, asking the staff to discuss the relationship issues they, the staff had. The families could listen in and all records were open.  This research structure required the staff to focus on the strength of families and not to diagnose and tell others what to do, but to focus on self’s part in any problem. This coaching method enables family members to become more responsible and decreases the fusion between people.

Bowen based his theory in evolution and said he had merely pointed in a direction. The human family is part of evolution.   It has its reasons to survive just as the individual does. This opens the door to the unequal distribution of anxiety in social groups.  We have evolved to act for the benefit of the group, especially when under social pressure. Our feelings and thinking are always interacting but not always informing us accurately because there are hidden influences, blindsiding us.

The field of family therapy still credits Bowen for introducing the family diagram, the ideas around transmission of problems into future generations, triangles, sibling position and emotional cut off.  More difficult are the ideas that 1) the family is an emotional unit governing the behavior of its members; and 2) that differentiation is a way for motivated individuals to define a problem, take a position and get outside the emotional system, while staying in contact with others, thereby allowing the system itself to change.

There is a large national and international network of people who are interested in Bowen theory. Possibly the best way to understand where Bowen Theory has gone in the years since Bowen death in 1990 is to see where people have taken the theory.

Laurie Lassiter: In recent years, there has been more and more interaction between Bowen theory and the life sciences.  In addition, scientific discoveries suggest avenues for evidence for the theory, including in areas of neuroscience, animal behavior, and epigenetics.   One of the most important issues for the theory is its predictability.  Once trained in the theory, it is fairly easy to see in retrospect how family influences our productivity; relationships, including those outside the family; our physical health; and our overall well-being.  Once research breaks through to demonstrate the ability of the theory to predict the future–how the family determines the individual life course within limits–Bowen theory will gain mainstream interest.  In some ways, the current time, without the pressure of popularity, may be an especially rich period of development of the theory.  People who encounter the theory and seriously apply it to their own lives are often amazed at its power.  The theory makes possible a lifelong effort, as there is always something to work on, to increase differentiation of self, as relationships with others become more open, more free, more long-lasting, and more enjoyable.

Laurie Lassiter is in private practice, author of articles on Bowen theory, including:  2011 “Others,” in Chimeras and Consciousness. Ed. Lynn Margulis. MIT Press: an effort to communicate Bowen family systems theory to biologists.

2007 “The Regulatory Function of Triangles,” in Triangles: Bowen Family Systems Perspectives. Ed. Peter Titelman. Haworth Press.

Currently transcribing tapes of individuals’ sessions with Dr. Bowen to be edited for a book on his coaching.  Present at conferences, webcasts, working on several writing projects including her Triangle Hypothesis.  She organizes two online writing groups on Bowen theory, including FEST, a four-times-a-year opportunity to submit and read writing, and a Lunch Hour writing group.

Paul McLean.jpg
Photo by Andrea Schara – In keeping with Bowen’s turn toward evolution here is a photo of Bowen and Paul MacLean.  The triune brain is a model of the evolution of the vertebrate forebrain and behavior, proposed by the American physician and neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean. MacLean originally formulated his model in the 1960s and propounded it at length in his 1990 book The Triune Brain in Evolution.

Laura Havstad, Ph.D., I continue to lead Programs in Bowen Theory in Sonoma County in it’s 28th year.  We have a training seminar for mental health professionals, consultants, and clergy and educational conferences for professionals and the community on Bowen theory and it’s applications regarding current topics in biology, clinical science and practice, and emotional process in society. Along with leaders of other programs in Bowen theory I participate in a national network that meets twice a year in which more than a dozen leaders of similar programs work towards the advancement of Bowen theory.  I am working on papers for publication on a reliable method and a parsimonious framework for looking at shifts in the family emotional system as they affect the functioning and chronic anxiety of family members and changes in their symptoms. The goal is to contribute the ability to assess and control for the family system effects in clinical research occurring in the mainstream of the clinical sciences.   The same framework will serve as an organizing structure for developing a knowledge base of family systems data to be developed for family system researchers, particularly for those with hypotheses based in Bowen theory, in conjunction with the Princeton Family Center.  I am publishing a paper in a volume edited by Peter Titleman and Sydney Reed on Death and Loss in the Family making a connection between the trajectories of resilience that emerged out of the research of George Bonnano and his associates, and the shifts in the family system, as Bowen theory predicts following death and loss as anxiety is redistributed in the family system.

Victoria Harrison, LMFT, uses the concepts in Bowen theory and the methodology described in Bowen’s writing and teaching to work with individuals and families where symptoms impact health and reproduction.  Her research and writing focuses on the family emotional system as part of evolution, the biological nature of family relationships, and the difference Bowen theory makes in psychotherapy practice.  One person alters self and the system changes.  This is a completely different method for reducing symptoms in a multigenerational system.  She serves on the faculty of The Bowen Center and directs Center for the Study of Natural Systems and the Family in Houston, Texas where she also maintains a clinical practice using biofeedback and neurofeedback for self-regulation in family systems psychotherapy.  She teaches nation-wide and internationally.  Her articles can be found in Family Systems Forum, the journal Family Systems and in other medical and mental health publications.

This is year four of an Observations of Change research project documenting changes in anxious physiology and patterns in the family associated with one person’s work on differentiation of self, the process of psychotherapy based in Bowen theory.   Fifteen participants from the Bowen Center Postgraduate Training program take measures of muscle tension, adrenalin levels, sympathetic nervous system activity, brain waves and cortisol four times a year while describing and dating the steps toward differentiation of self that they take.

Preliminary observations are that A) anxiety increases as people plan to contact family and handle themselves differently in triangles throughout the family and B) anxiety decreases and evidence of thoughtfulness increases over time with sustained effort.  The changes in physiological reactions and patterns of interaction, associated with decreasing symptoms within the family, indicate reversibility of the impact of epigenetic influences over the generations and adversity in one’s own lifetime.

Mkerr M Bowen Jack Calhoun.jpgMichael Kerr, Murray Bowen, and Jack Calhoun

John B. Calhoun (May 11, 1917 – September 7, 1995) was an American ethologist and behavioral researcher noted for his studies of population density and its effects on behavior (at NIMH). He claimed that the bleak effects of overpopulation on rodents were a grim model for the future of the human race. During his studies, Calhoun coined the term “behavioral sink” to describe aberrant behaviors in overcrowded population density situations and “beautiful ones” to describe passive individuals who withdrew from all social interaction. His work gained world recognition. He spoke at conferences around the world and his opinion was sought by groups as diverse as NASA and the District of Columbia’s Panel on overcrowding in local jails. Calhoun’s rat studies were used as a basis in the development of Edward T. Hall‘s 1966 proxemics theories.

Taking the High Road by James B. Smith, MS, Director, Western Pennsylvania Family Center, Pittsburgh, PA: We live at a time in human history that psychiatrist Murray Bowen described as a time of “societal regression”.  Human functioning is guided more by subjectivity, opinion and feeling than fact.  Observable facts are commonly exchanged for other more comfortable “facts” at the drop of a hat, in marriages, families, at all levels of society, and at all points on the political spectrum, allowing individuals to gain comfort in relationships at the expense of what is real in the issues and decisions at hand. I discovered Bowen theory 48 years ago in my first professional job as a state hospital psychologist, finding it to be the most accurate description of human functioning that I had ever come across. I still find that to be true. I have used it to guide the entirety of my subsequent personal and professional life. I have found it to be equally at home in my work with those living in or having grown up in North America, South America, Asia, Africa and Europe. I have found universal validity of the singular focus In Bowen theory on making the effort to become more emotionally mature.  An African colleague put it this way: “What Zambia needs most is more differentiation of self”. On the last page of his just published “Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom”, journalist Thomas Ricks writes: “The fundamental driver of Western civilization is the agreement that objective reality exists, that people of goodwill can perceive it and that other people will change their views when presented with the facts of the matter.” I have come to believe that the journey toward becoming more emotionally mature is the high road to realizing this, not only in the West, but worldwide. With more people taking to this high road the current course of societal regression may tilt to societal progression.

Andrea Schara, LCSWA: In 1976 while working as an alcoholism counselor at a psychiatric hospital I met Murray Bowen, MD. In the talk, he noted that alcoholism would decrease if you could figure out how to “de-twitch” rats. I wanted to know how to do this and was accepted in the post graduate program at the Georgetown University Family Center, despite having only two years of college. Four years later, 1980, I was hired as the audio-visual coordinator and videotaped his work with families, staff and faculty, believing that in the future there would be more interest in his effort to use science as the base for a theory which gives a broad look at understanding human behavior from an evolutionary viewpoint. From 1985 to 1995 I organized a pilot program for individuals in families with HIV/AIDS. This project considered how motivated individuals could altered their family relationships, impacting the immune systems of the HIV/AIDS patients. I used biofeedback and now neurofeedback to “de-twitch” or reduce anxiety which increases the ability integrate thinking and feeling. People who altered family relationships lived longer than predicted by T cell counts. This will be a chapter in a book on death edited by Peter Titleman and Sydney Reed on Death and Loss in the Family. I spearheaded the donation of 15 years of Bowen’s clinical videotapes with two families to the National Library of Medicine (NLM) .  NLM researchers have access to all Bowen’s videos, letters and papers.  As a founding member of The Murray Bowen Archives Project, I have worked with its Board of Directors to make Bowen’s work accessible to the public via the web.  Oral interviews and videotapes of Bowen are available on the Archives web site. the faculty of the Georgetown Family Center, 1993 – 2011 and am currently on the faculty of Navigating Systems DC, providing learning opportunities for consultants who serve family businesses or members of wealthy families. How to communicate useful ideas around the process of differentiation of self is covered in my book: Your Mindful Compass: Breakthrough strategies for navigating life/work relationships in any social jungle.

ams and M Bowen.jpg

Andrea Schara with Murray Bowen, MD at Walter Reed Army Hospital 1986


   The Woman’s March: Reflections on observing self in a social system

The following blog was written for Navigating Systems D.C.



                  Reflections on Seeing the Influence of the Emotional System 
In an era of societal polarization, how can I understand the power of the emotional system to manipulate me?  One way is to take time to think and write about an emotional event. This is my purpose here.
A good example occurred when my granddaughters wanted to go to The Woman’s March in Washington, D.C., and have their voices heard. It took time to understand that their request activated a fear response in me based in old memories of the impact of the Vietnam War, WWI and WWII on my family life.
Andrew J. Maloney, my father , right of photo on Saipan, WWII.
Were these emotional memories preventing me from acting with greater emotional maturity and living more optimally? Was I vulnerable to losing my way in current relationships due to old threatening memories?
Initially, feeling anxious and not knowing what was going on, I started asking questions. What does it mean that one takes a stand?  How much thinking and how much feeling goes into this kind of a political stand?  Can anyone take a stand for self and not be against others? What happens when you are against others?  Will those who are different become the “enemy?” If so, how long before one’s family members become the enemy?  If we want agreement from others, how much are we controlling others? Can I understand more about emotional reactivity and where it originates? Will talking about my reactivity (around the March) help me move a bit away from automatic responses? What can I possibly learn?
                                        Differences in the Ability to Feel Safe
Different generations, different faiths, different social positions, different values – all these differences exist and are highlighted during times like this. Our brains are stressed with these differences. Our physiology responds and is on high alert or shuts down. The reactions can produce damaging cortisol and increased adrenaline. The fear about the other becomes chemical, reinforcing the feeling that those who are different are the enemy. Differences breed fear and translate into becoming afraid of others. Wait, perhaps this is not rational? How can we stand up for what we believe, relate well and respect the values of others?
Our emotional system does not routinely answer these questions. Waiting gives time for reflection and helps to recognize the drivers of fear and to begin to integrate our thinking and feeling systems. One can ask what part of our brain is running the show. Can we sort out facts from the use and abuse of fear?  The pause-reflection process helps.
                                                                  The March
The march developed in opposition to the direction of Donald Trump. Many friends and family warned me not to go. They recalled the 1970s when fear, anger, tear gas and the shooting of students marked the resistance to the Vietnam War. I hesitated to go due to memories and to the influence of those who were telling me not to. Asking questions, thinking about the past and identifying the anxiety helped me to see this emotional process. I could then hear my granddaughters’ hopes for standing up for a better future. They wanted to express their opposition to Trump and his tweets. They are concerned about the environment, civil rights, and being rational about immigrants. Standing up for one’s values always sounds good, but it can also fuel the reactivity in the emotional system. It fueled my anxiety and that of the social group that is a part of my relationship system.
Arriving at the Capital we found friendly, energetic strangers.
Most had signs stating their purposes. Many of which were funny. No one was angry or threatening. The closer we got to the stage, the more we saw there was no room to march. Stuck behind the stage, surrounded by the muted sound of the milling crowd, I moved towards the walled off VIP area. The girls were unsure about this idea but I thought there might be a way to get information or find a way out about the crowd. We found our way to the fence. The security people told us the situation was hopeless. There was no plan for this large of a crowd.
DSC03270.jpgEventually the man next to me tried to get his friend David’s attention. I joined in. “David, David.” David came over and said, “Jump over.” My new friend said he could not. I put my leg up on the fence and said, “I can.” Everyone laughed. “OK, you can come too.” I grabbed Madeline and Isabelle and in we went. Being able to be separate from the crowd and think for myself was a relief.
Once over the fence there was room to breathe. Alicia Keys was singing, “Girl on Fire” then Janelle Monae led a chant; “Say her name…. Sandra Bland.”
DSC03302.jpgAngela Davis spoke eloquently and quietly of sacrifices needed to gain respect for minorities. After that surge of emotional lyrics came the super woman in orange football player pants. Madonna welcomed us to the love revolution, “It took this horrific moment of darkness to wake us the f— up.”
Hopefully, a better tweet will emerge.
There in the shadow of The National Museum of the American Indian, there were many signs as people seemed to join with the original at-risk group.
Will this march bring greater awareness and cooperation?
Will it build to a political force to advocate for positive change?
Will people retreat and spin more devil stories about the others?
Was the march a work of art?
Will it much like a Buddhist mandala?
At the end of the day will the sand be blown into the wind?
                                             Reactivity and the Brain
One automatically responds to emotionally perceived threats.  The threat can be a sound, or a memory. As we acquire language we can explain our reactivity often as feelings. Explanation of how we feel, may be real or imaginary but it gives our intellectual system the ability to reason with and then increase or dampen our reactivity. Instinctively we are influenced to strive for pleasure and avoid pain. Emotions are primitive and often out of awareness. Older parts of the brain can direct us to preserve the status quo, most often by scapegoating the vulnerable. We are often blind to the more primitive emotional guides for behavior. There has been little need to be aware if the greatest threats to our survival came from animals in the jungle.  The higher parts of the brain encourage us to care for the young, talk, and be playful. The newest part the neocortex looks for patterns and apply a kind of statistical analysis to evaluate the problem and offer solutions. We know the brain itself does not perceive the outside world objectively. Therefore, we test to see what is “out there” and what we might do to solve problems with some chance pf success.  By being aware and integrating the three parts of the brain we have the best chance to find a mature direction for self.
Change in One’s Impact on the System: We can learn to “see” the emotional system as it controls our functioning. One can remember that when you say “I am for ‘x’,” the ‘y’ must arise. It is not personal. By defining to the group what I value, others will oppose. When attacked, there is a push back. This is the way of systems. Changes come about slowly. One step forward, a half-step back. Eventually the system finds a new balance. Once triggered and recognized, the automatic arousal of fear can be overcome.
Reflections on Living Optimally: Observing One’s Response to the Emotional System
While my initial fear of the January march was based in memories of the past, the more rational thinking system could overcome these fears and hear the principles for which my granddaughters were advocating. This improved our relationships. I learned more about them and how they think and they learned a bit about me. The joyful crowd offered evidence that going to the march was a good decision. No, we were not in a war. However, when caught in the crowd, there was threat, engendering the feeling that “this is a hopeless situation.”  As soon as the thinking system developed a plan, as to what I was going to do, resistance to the plan surfaced. I used the energy of the feeling system to go against the negative response to the plan and was playful with the security people. At the same time my thinking system needed to calculate the risk of playfully putting my leg up and over the fence. The calculation worked and David responded positively.
This story is just one example of living optimally. Clarifying the natural functioning of the emotional system and understanding stressful triggers enabled me to think and respond with greater clarity. The granddaughters experienced not only a never-give-up moment, but also a grandmother who could slowly think in the middle of emotionality. Relationships and life experiences do improve with increasing knowledge of the emotional system. The outcome is a better defined people who can articulate that “this is me and this is what I will or will not do.”
 The following quote by Murray Bowen, MD is from a conference in Green Bay, Wisconsin, April 19-20, 1990, six months before he died. Currently at the National Library of Medicine, the videotape is available on the Bowen Archives website: http://www.murraybowenarchives.org/intro-archives.html
Individuality comes from inside self. You don’t take it to the group to find out. If you do not know where you stand, then ask your neighbor. How are you going to stand up if you do not know yourself?  Most people do not want to bother.
Andrea M. Schara
February 21, 2017

What Does it Take to Observe Self in Your Own Family?


Do you find yourself wondering what makes you avoid family relationships? Do you wonder, what is going on, why is so and so upset or picking fight or will not return phone calls,  etc.?  What are people trying to tell you?  What must you do to figure out relationship issues? How can I see who is influencing me and how am I influencing them? Where do “I” begin and end? How much can I do for others before “I” am over functioning for them, and being less responsible for self? What happens if I become overly helpful, too distant or too conflictual?  How do any of us become more self-defined?

Relationships under pressure have common automatic responses to heightened anxiety and over time people are less and less able to be with one another without feeling threatened. The questionnaire below is one way to consider how you participate in your family system.  By making a disciplined effort to be a better observer of relationships one can step back and observe the push and pull in relationships as part of how family systems just naturally operate.

Based in evolutionary theory and the behavior of other social species, Murray Bowen, MD, described the family as an emotional unit, distributing anxiety unfairly. Living in a family unit often results in greater pressure being put on the weakest members of the unit. This automatic response to stress can be decreased by one person being a more separate yet connected individual in the family organism. Leaders can direct and deal with anxiety far better than the weaker members who become symptomatic.

Not to be forgotten is just how the emotional system promotes both the survival of the unit and of the individual. There is a cost and a benefit to belonging to social groups. If over time you are better defended from predators or get the needed help raising children by being a member of a family group, then joining the groups enhances your survival.  Yes, we each pay the cost of belonging and of doing for others. It may be that we have to lend some energy to others or they to us. Do for me and I will do for you, but let’s hope it does not cost that much to belong.

“In evolutionary biology, reciprocal altruism is a behavior whereby an organism acts in a manner that temporarily reduces its fitness while increasing another organism’s fitness, with the expectation that the other organism will act in a similar manner at a later time.” Robert Trivers

 Social systems are organized to encourage or force individuals to assume functional roles.  If an organism fits into the “needed” roles the anxiety in the group is diminished. When anxiety is high the system applies more pressure to individuals to perform more for the system than for self-directed needs. Observing the system increases the ability to clarify values and positions and to relate with greater openness. If one person in a system begins to think for self and decides to challenge the status quo it is expected that others will react negatively to the change. If the person thinking for self does not react to the negative responses, and continues to relate differently, then the system slowly settles down to a new level with more knowledge.

Below are some of the assumptions of the challenges of understanding the family as an emotional unit that governs individuals’ behavior and development over evolutionary time.

  • While there is variation, we all have a resistance to self-scrutinize.
  • Less awareness promotes automatic responses to challenges.
  • Observing self requires a considerable amount of energy and time.
  • Our behavior is influenced by emotional and logical needs to be in any social group.

There are many methods that can enable people to become better observers and manage self in relationships. The questions below are one effort to keep track of your effort to understand your family system by observing the extent to which you are influenced by the emotional system.  It also provides a way to keep track of changes in the family when one believes they are taking steps to be more separate and more mature in relationship to others.



By becoming an observer of the family system one can become aware of the impersonal forces operating in one’s family thereby becoming more sure of self and better defined.The formula below enables people to understand the various influences on behavior.

Self – The ability to manage anxiety (A) and to stand on principles (P).

Self is then influenced by

  1. the amount of emotional intensity in triangles(T)
  2. how one manage his or her functional role as a sibling, (S)
  3. in the family emotional process (FSP),
  4. in the multigenerational family emotional process (MGFEP),
  5. in the nuclear family process (NFEP),
  6. which includes the four mechanisms in the family projection process (FPP 4)*,
  7. the level of emotional cut off (ECO)
  8. and finally, the current state of society or societal emotional process (SEP).



One has to manage (A) and  defined principles (P)

Self is also influenced by often unseen social pressures.


                              S (A) (P)

 T+ FSP + MGFEP + NFEP + FPP (4) + ECO + SEP

(FPP 4 = 1)  Automatic mechanisms that mange anxiety: distance, 2) conflict, 3) reciprocal relationships, 4) projection onto children


Tracking the nature of the contact with family members: 

First name each person in your three-generational family. Then describe the nature of the relationships: close, distant, conflictual

  1. How many people in your three-generational family have you had contact with during your life time?
  1. Have you made an effort to contact people who have drifted away from you?
  1. Are there people you are mad at and do not want to see?
  1. Who have you contacted in the last six months?
  1. Who contacted you?
  1. Please name them and note the kind of contact: positive, negative or neutral.
  1. Did the contact with this individual alter the way others in the family related to you? Yes or No. Please describe:
  1. Was the contact made just to stay connected, to be polite?

Yes or No If no please describe the reason.

  1. Was the contact made to allow you to be separate from the emotional system? Yes or No. Please describe:
  1. Was the contact an effort to de-triangle? If yes please describe.
  1. Were there other efforts to be more separate? Please describe:
  1. Did you anticipate a negative reaction in trying to be more self-defined? Please describe:
  1. Were you thrown off by any reactions? Please describe:
  1. If people are critical can you stay in low keyed contact? Please describe:
  1. Are there people you cut off from as they are just to difficult to relate to?

Please describe:

Understanding the family system and making an effort to be more defined.


Overview of Relationships and the Level of Reactivity

  1. Can you name those in your family that you are currently most aligned with and those you are distant from?
  1. Can you name those you react to the most?
  1. Can you name those who currently have symptoms and the extent to which those symptoms manifest from mild to severe?
  1. Can you identify the level of functioning, from high to low, for each individual you’ve identified above?
  1. Can you note the individuals’ level of ability to be open from high to low?
  1. Can you observe the basic relationships patterns in those you are close to?
  1. If so identify the dominant pattern: conflict, distance, reciprocity or projection onto others?
  1. What do you do with yourself to alter these relationships patterns?
  1. Which relationships are the most challenging for you and which are more open?
  1. Are you currently working on being more open with any one in your family?
  2. And if so, why did you select this person?
  1. How do you go about being more open?
  2. (For example, some people will think ahead of time and others will practice being spontaneous, just keeping the goal in mind. There is not one right way as people are different.)
  1. How many people do you have contact with in your three-generation family?
  1. How much do you know about your extended family?
  1. Can you go back a hundred years in any of your family lines?
  2. If yes can you describe in one paragraph how you learned about these ancestors?
  1. What kind of visits do you have with family members?
  2. Do you visit people or do they visit you?   What is the difference?
  1. Are you able to notice the formation of triangles, (the two against one formation) often found in innocent social gossip about others?
  1. Name the people you are on the inside with and those where you are on the outside.
  1. Have you ever set out to purposefully get on the outside of a triangle by putting two people together and pulling self out?
  2. If yes, please describe in one paragraph.
  1. Do you have a time line for changes in your family?
  1. Can you create a time line as to disruptions following a nodal event?
  1. Can you track efforts to change self in the system, and how the system responds? Please describe one effort:
  1. Have you ever taken a stand to alter your part in the relationship system? Please describe:
  1. If you changed yourself in how you relate to others in the relationship system,what kind of resistance have you encountered?    Please describe:
  1. What kinds of techniques do you use to manage self when anxiety rises?
  1. How do you manage your own upset in relationships?
  1. Do you prefer to write out issues to clarify where you stand?
  1. Do you tell people where you stand based on a principle?
  1. Do most people in the family know your principles?
  1. Do you know where your principles came from?
  1. What do you do when people challenge your viewpoint?
  1. Would you consider yourself open to others’ feedback?
  1. What does it mean to be emotionally independent?
  1. Can you write out how you think you have been more for self and less caught reacting to the system?

Don Lorenzo Servije An Interview

Don Lorinzo died today, February 3, 2017,  at 98 years of age.  Nine years ago I had the great honor of interviewing Don Lorenzo, who was a giant of a man, and founder of the world wide bakery Bimbo. (revenues of $14 billion in 2014) The interview was arranged by Maria G Bustos Porcayo. She had been in my supervision group at the Georgetown Family Center back in the early nineties. Her goal was to have a book in Spanish that introduced Bowen family systems theory to the Mexican people through the lives of people who recognized the important of family in their success.

Mario Bustos had talked to Francisco Gonzalez, the general director of USEM http://www.usem.org.mx/ and he brought in Heberto Ruz to publish the book.  Francisco ask Don Lorenzo to allow me to interview him for my book. He agreed mostly as he believed that family is where values begin and one most live their values.  The interview began and ended about the tremendous gratitude he had for his family and most especially for his wife, the mother of their eight children. His wife had died before him and he missed her. It took courage to talk to a stranger about this, but he had tons of courage.

When I met Don Lorenzo his mind was alive with ideas. With an almost poetic ability he told me the story of his early years, which you can read below. Two things stood out in the interview: one, his deep appreciation for relationships. In the interview, he talked about the early years after his father died and his decision to work with his mother and other family members in the bakery. A religious man who understood the importance of passing on values to children and grandchildren he went to mass every day.  Don Lorenzo Servitje was also very concerned with leadership in his community and the transmission of family values.  Secondly, I was very impressed with his fundamental understanding of the importance of past relationships on the future. I do not think he had ever heard of family systems theory but he knew the importance of family roots to ongoing stability of the family.

Going back to Spain had helped him stay connected with his family roots and decreased the forces that say – look at me I am successful. Instead its more about – I came from these plain roots.  I was lucky. I worked hard. I understood the debt to my family and went back to Spain to see were the family roots were.  He somehow knew it was important to take his family there. As a reminder, they took pictures on the front porch, as they had when they were young.

Because I was writing a book about the influence of the family on one’s ability to be a leader, he kindly took time out of his schedule to let me interview him and the interview was videotaped.

I think family contact can change your brain.  My assumption is that those willing to learn from the past will have more complex thought process and be better at seeing the world without as much illusion.  By seeing the world in a more realistic way people can often make better decisions as to the future.

Possibly brain connections are influenced by family connections. That is the greater the connections between people, the greater the behavioral flexibility.  Flexible people are also less likely to be blinded by emotional reactions. Some have suggested that understanding your family’s past, without judgment, is likely to reduce one’s level of anxiety. If your anxious and or cut off from the past your brain has less information and perhaps more fantasy.

Family relationships are just more  complex, people make generations of assumptions about who you are.  Then you have to figure it out, and be who you are.

Talk about complexity, Don Lorenzo Servitje’s company was established in Mexico City in 1945. Born in Mexico City in 1918, Mr. Servitje was the child of immigrants who had come from Spain in search of “broader horizons.” Juan Servitje, his father, began working at a bakery and pastry shop and eventually established the El Molino bakery, which remained popular for generations.

While his son, known as Don Lorenzo, began working at the bakery at the age of 16, he decided to study to become a public accountant. When Juan Servitje died suddenly, leaving a wife and four young children, Don Lorenzo quit school and took charge of the family bakery.

Adopting a business philosophy of “Believe — Create,” the Servitjes began baking loaf bread at a small plant with 35 employees, 10 delivery trucks and formulas to bake four different types of pan bread. Also partners in the business were his uncle, Jaime Sendra, and his brother, Roberto, who would spend the next half century in a leadership position at Bimbo.

According to the company, the objectives were straightforward — “To bake really good, nutritious, tasty and fresh bread under clean conditions and perfection.”


Over time, Grupo Bimbo, has become one of the three largest bakeries in the world in terms of production and sales volume.  They supply over one million points of sales in eighteen different countries, requiring them to deliver products daily to an outlet or a factory. The distant equivalent to traveling around the globe about 46 times a day. The company is committed to high productivity and responsible community projects such as reforestation. They reported sales of $5.9 billion dollars in 2006.  They have 76 plants and operate three trading agencies. (As an exercise think of what it would require of you to see and lead successfully in a system of this complexity.)

As I understand it, Don Lorenzo Servitje also helped found the society for entrepreneurs, USEM.  USEM organizes web seminars, distant learning and various kinds of meetings bringing new ideas to business people. http://www.usem.org.mx/ It was through this organization and its director, Francisco Gonzalez, that I was invited to interview Don Lorenzo Servitje.

My first question was: How did your family encourage him to be a leader?

Don Lorenzo Servitje said that he was not sure if his family thought he would be a good leader but that his mother had a very high opinion of him. Her ideas were based on some facts, as he was usually second or third in his class in school.  He noted, that “I was not afraid to talk with people and I was able to perform well. My mother was my main interest as my father died when I was 18.”

I asked Don Lorenzo Servitje, “Are you the oldest son in your family?”  He noted that, “I had an older brother but he died when I was four years old and then I became the oldest son. I also had a sister who was three years younger and two younger brothers. One was ten years younger and the other eleven years younger.  They were like sons to me, in a way.  Years later, one of them said I was like his father. The death of my father in 1936 forced me to go ahead.  My mother and I had worked in the pastry shop with my father.  Now, it was up to us to support the family. We were in the pastry business for nine years.  I saved money.  Then together with a friend, and a cousin, we formed the industrial business of Bimbo.”

I was interested in how much he had learned by running a small business, the pastry shop with his father. I told him that my son-in-law, Michael Mauboussin, (More Than You Know: Finding Financial Wisdom in Unconventional Places) had explained business dynamics to me back in 1991. Michael helped me understand my family business by talking about how to capitalize and run a small lemonade stand. For example, I had never considered that a business had to continue to earn over the cost of capital for things the business owned clear and free, like the land the lemonade stand was on.  Nor had I put enough energy into the ways one had to save to keep the stand looking good and to expand dynamically.

I asked Don Lorenzo Servitje if he had a vision of the future when he made the decision to invest in Bimbo. He said that he and his colleagues had developed experience between 1940 and 1945 supplying companies throughout South America.  That experience, coupled with people who trusted him and planned with him, was the launching pad for the industrial baking business, Bimbo.  He explained: “We took our savings and borrowed an equal amount of money to make this happen.  It has grown over the years.  During this period my mother remained as an owner of the company.  Then she remarried at the age of 63.”

Don Lorenzo Servitje continued: “I was 26 when I married. We had eight children. There were six girls in a row and then two sons. The youngest son is an original thinker.  He has a special gift for business. He went to Stanford and was the first in his class. He is far better than I am.”

I told him that we all hope that our children will do better than we do. If our children do better perhaps we have done something right.  Part of collecting family stories is to encourage other people to do well by understanding how real people have become successful leaders and overcome hardships. It is encouraging for others to know that successful individuals have overcome difficulties like the early loss of a father.

We talked a bit about how the early loss of a father is a common theme in American politics today. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama grew up without their fathers’ influence. It would seem that both men want to be better fathers, both in their families and for their country.

(In my book I highlight that some of us are leaders by default we had to rise up, and lead when difficult things happen. Others are natural leaders who rise up without trauma or serious losses.  One way is not necessarily superior to another. I developed The Mindful Compass to point out that leaders are those who have a vision and are willing to act with knowledge, even if they must act alone. Leaders have the courage to overcome challenges. If they are mindful of their impact on others and can also enable others to become leaders, then they are mature leaders.)

I noted that Don Lorenzo Servitje also seems to have become the father for his siblings, family and company and perhaps for the people of Mexico.

Don Lorenzo Servitje then said, “I am too old.  I am 89. I lost my wife six years ago. Carmen was 80. She left me without advice.”

I said “Perhaps that is a gift.  It could be.  Suppose she told you to marry again?” I said. And he replied:  “I am faithful. She was a very wise woman and a very sweet woman.  I have suffered many times because of the business. But I was a workaholic. She held everything together.  She was a very typical housewife. She loved to be at home with the children. She was the queen of the house. I had no problems with the children or the home. She was a very responsible woman and I suffer in her absence.”

I was not sure that his wife Carmen would like it if he were suffering.  I was sure I did not want him to suffer any more than necessary so I said, “I would like it if her memory made you happy.”  He thought for a moment and said “Her loss is a very sweet pain.”

I asked him what he would say to the young people in Mexico that they might carry in their hearts as important principles.   He said:  “One, keep your faith, be good Christians.

Two, work hard and be wary of distractions and a frivolous life.   Three, learning is important.  I love to read lots of books.  My life has been study and work.  I am a very plain man.”

I noted that perhaps a simple man can see the simple truth.

Don Lorenzo Servitje said, “I see what I think is right and I keep on going.”

“Were your parent’s family religious?” I asked.

“My mother’s family was more religious than my father’s family.  I know my extended family. I have pictures and stories as I researched my family back to 1770. They were mostly working in the fields.  They were peasants.”

“What made you do family research?” I asked.

“I was traveling to Spain often. My family was from Spain and as a hobby I looked for the origins of my family in the records of the Churches. I learned many curious things about the family.”

I noted that in my years as a family therapist I had found that healthier and stronger people just automatically were more interested in family history and knew more about their family roots. These people are often more accepting of different kinds of people as they see all the variations possible in four or five generations in a family.

Don Lorenzo Servitje said “I talked with my children about their ancestors. Also, I took my children to Spain to see where the ancestors lived. I also showed them where I lived when I was a young boy.”

It is not easy to go visit the homes of your very distant relatives. I told him about my visit to Ireland and how I had felt uneasy in a town where several generations ago the family I am related to had a fight between the older and younger brother. When I was in the town of the younger brother’s family I became ill. When I was in the older brother’s home town I was fine.  Was I sensitive to a fight that occurred over a hundred and fifty years ago?  Perhaps by going back to these two places I was more able to accept my own sensitivities.  It takes time to understand and respect the difficulties people have lived with over the generations.

Then Don Lorenzo Servitje showed me some photos from his family research.

“Here you can see a picture in 1976, and then seventeen years later the same group of children has grown up. This is the place I was born in 1924. This is the house of my father.  This is the wedding invitation of my mother. My brother was very handsome. Here is a picture of my brother and me and here is one of myself and my sister in the house where we grew up. Here is a picture 50 years later.

My sister died before my wife. My other brother died after my father. Yes, I lost two brothers and my sister, the youngest one died two years ago. Such is life.

Here is a picture of my wife when we were young. One of my granddaughters is a painter. Here you see a picture of a grandchild and then you can see into the past and there is my wife.”  I said, “Your granddaughter is an artist who paints dramatically the connections between people.  Some might say its all in the genes.”  I did not have time to elaborate on this thought but I did think she must understand the family emotional process at a deep level where the past is folded into the future. The past does not determine the future but it influences and reminds us of our connections to others.

My interview with Servitje concluded when he had to leave for a meeting.

I said, “Yes, people still need you. I appreciate so much the time for this interview and meeting you in your home. I think this interview will demonstrate the importance of family for a life well lived.”

Don Lorenzo Servitje’s Mindful Compass Points

(1)  The ability to define a vision: Don Lorenzo Servitje allows us to see how his vision for a larger company arose out of his experiences with his family’s smaller pastry business.  It was not that he started with this vision.  It happened as part of his personal growth with others.  When he had an opportunity to expand into the industrial arena he had also built a trustworthy team which he kept with him over the years.

The early death of his brother and then his father were pivotal events. They are high stress events for everyone.  Most difficult for families is dealing with and adapting to the loss of the primary wage earner. It is a threat for most families. Many people have found their lives torn asunder following the loss of a father.  The fact that his family could keep going and did so well testifies to the resiliency in the larger family system.  In his case the loss may have forced him to make responsible decisions at an early age. His decisions to work in the family pastry shop were made as much to support his family as they were to build his career.

Obvious Don Lorenzo Servitje became the leader of his family, and business yet he gives a great deal of credit for success to his mother, his other business partners and to his son in the next generation. His wife was in the middle of it all and was a very wise woman who was his responsible partner in life.  Although he misses her mightily he keeps contributing to society in many unknown ways. It seems in his nature to play down the work he does and to build up others.

Caring about others is a very deep value that also resonates with his religious values.  Therefore, we hear consistent values which are being converted into actions. There is little interest in finding love and approval but more in getting any job done well.

Don Lorenzo Servitje is a leader with instinct. He seems to know just what the best action to take is, and then he just does it. His common-sense attitudes lead him to spend time and energy investigating the past generations of family members.  This is an unusual action for a person to take in our society.  It is the sign of a leader who can look way beyond the short term. Here is a leader who knows that if something is important then he must find the way to do and have fun in the process.  He discovers his family roots and shares this knowledge with his children, taking them to Spain to see where past generations of the family lived and walking in their footsteps.

It is easy to see how he can inspire others in his work settings and also in his family. He seems to deeply enjoy his work.  He also gives his Christian religion a great deal of credit for all he does and hopes that future generations will also keep true to these time-tested values.

Mature leaders look beyond charisma to find sustaining principles and values promoting courage and steadfastness in their lives. Don Lorenzo Servitje leads by example.

(2) The resistance to change in self and in any system: Overcoming obstacles is not something that Don Lorenzo Servitje focused on. We know that he overcame the early loss of his father without bitterness or longing. His attitude of just doing what needs to be done, despite the difficulty, gives us a glimpse of man who chooses to do his work without focusing on the difficulties. He seems to be a contented man who is at ease with himself and with all kinds of other people.  Any obstacles are overcome without making them into a big deal. I could see this in his ability to change his attitude about the loss of his wife. He could focus on her positive qualities and to let go of the sadness saying, “Her loss is a very sweet pain.”

(3) The ability to connect and use systems knowledge: Few people have shown the ability to build a successful family and business network as complex as that of Don Lorenzo Servitje.  *(I wondered how much his business ability was influenced by his ability to deeply understand his multigenerational family.)

Apparently from an early age Don Lorenzo Servitje was able to perform and be at ease with people. He recognized the importance of his family relationships on his ability to function well.  He was clear that his mother’s ability to see him in a positive light was significant for him. There is no way of knowing exactly what enabled him to understand the importance of the family history.

We can call it intuition or common sense to understand that the past has an impact on the future.  Many people indulge in short term thinking about the family believing that only this generation is important.  People move away from those they consider difficult people or hard to reach family members.  In the business world, this tendency to cut off from the problem people in the family could convert to a tendency to walk away from difficult decisions, or to refuse to deal with difficult people, or with difficult jobs.

(4) The ability to be separate: Although Don Lorenzo Servitje did not talk about the usefulness of being alone to think, plan and take time to reflect on deeper values, obviously, he has done so.  Nothing tests people’s ability to stand alone more than loss. Even if one overcomes the sadness due to loss once, it does not mean that people will be able to do so in the future.


There are many reasons people find to carry on after the loss of a spouse.  With eight children, many grandchildren and great grandchildren, the love and fun of his family life is displayed thought his home.  Clearly the quality of the relationships surrounding him is a major factor in his well functioning life. Another factor is that he loves his work and other projects.

Don Lorenzo Servitje has lived to see many of his closes family members die and has found the needed reasons be a resource to the remaining family members. Some people might have become more sensitive to loss with age.  But here is a man who has the ability, the resiliency to deal gracefully with loss.

Those who have been able to deal with the loss of loved ones have had to learn to stand alone.  Although some may call this an assumption, I suggest that the ability to stand alone is increased when one has dealt well with the death of a loved one.

Don Lorenzo Servitje has had to deal with the death of family members from the time he was a young man, obviously, he has done so in many ways which have transformed the losses into reasons for carrying on and honoring those who have gone before.


Happy Birthday Dr. Bowen would have been 104 1/31/1913-0/1990

bowen chalk on finger tips

I first met Dr. Bowen at a conference in 1976.  He accepted me into the Post graduate Training Program and I became a kind of an apprentice.  In 1980 he hired me to be the audiovisual coordinator at the Georgetown Family Center. l learned so much from watching and relating to him. It has been twenty seven years since he died.

If you, like me, are interested in seeing some of Dr. Bowen’s original teaching tapes, you can get a flavor of how he taught and what made being with him such a lively and challenging experience just by going to the website of the Bowen Archives on The Murray Bowen Archives Project (TMBAP) website.    http://murraybowenarchives.org/videos-GreenBay.html

I taped many of these videos back in the eighties. Of course, some of the tapes have awful sound problems or the video breaks up. But back in the eighties that was par for the course with the equipment that was available.

Traveling with Bowen was a wonderful opportunity for which I will always be grateful. Bowen gave people a new paradigm to think about human behavior. Here is a quote from one of the video tapes produced in Green Bay, Wisconsin, April 19-20, 1990. This tape was made six months before he died.

“Individuality comes from inside self.  You don’t take it to the group to find out. If you do not know where you stand, then ask your neighbor….. How are you going to stand up if you do not know yourself?  Most people do not want to bother.”


The following is what Bowen wrote up as part of his Curriculum Vita

Practical Issues. New concepts introduced by the “Bowen Theory” include evolution to replace most of Freud; the part of Freud that is relatively scientific; and natural systems theory to combine the two. Numerous variables prevent clear writing when the reader is “hearing” Freud.

The differentiation of self and emotional systems are essential for the theory. Therapists use the correct words, but use their own heads to interpret meaning.

Beyond that, the theory includes the family diagram; a summary of a differentiation scale; triangles; fusion; cut-offs; projection of immaturity to succeeding generations, to minorities, or to the weakest link in the chain; extended family patterns; emotional objectivity; the multigenerational transmission process; sibling position; the extension of family process to work and social systems; societal regression; and a precise integration of the amalgam which is the family. Most patients and clients can change themselves if given a chance. Most therapists are trying so hard to be therapeutic, they cannot “think” theory. Good therapy is determined by the way a theorist thinks about human problems. When the therapist cannot think theory, the theoretical gap is closed by some fixed version of Freud, the therapy is less efficient than it could be, and the therapist is vulnerable to becoming the author of yet another personal procedure.

Theoretical Future. The theory will probably replace Freudian Theory within the coming decades. There are indications it may influence the whole of medicine, more than psychiatry and mental health. When theorists have become aware of its potential, the theory may move on to a “science like” baseline in which theory governs everything that occurs in the field. Good theory is never final. It can always be changed with new knowledge, but change is not frivolous or personally determined. It is interesting to guess what may have occurred by the middle of the 21st century.

Date and Place of Birth: January 31, 1913, Waverly, Tennessee

College: University of Tennessee, Knoxville, B.S. 1934

Medical School: University of Tennessee Medical School, Memphis, MD 1937

Family Background: Family in Middle Tennessee since the Revolution. Oldest of five. Father died in 1974 at 87. Mother died in 1982 at 95. All siblings are living. Married to second of three daughters. Four children, ages 42 to 37.

Internships: Bellevue Hospital, New York City, 1938; Grasslands Hospital, Valhalla, New York, 1939-41.

Military Training: Five years active duty with Army, 1941-46, in the United States and Europe. Rank: 1st Lt. to Major. Had been accepted for fellowship in surgery at Mayo Clinic to begin after military service. Interest changed from surgery to psychiatry during WW 11.

Psychiatric Training and Experience:

Menninger Foundation, Topeka, Kansas. 1946-1954. Fellowship in psychiatry, personal psychoanalysis, and on staff. Background interest in science led to a new theory, which uses evolution and systems ideas to replace Freud. Enough promise for the theory to seek full-time research in a neutral center.

National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, Maryland, 1954-1959. Previous years on theory made research go rapidly. Live-in parents, with one adult schizophrenic child, provided a dimension for all children. Family therapy was a by-product of theory. It began the first year, about two years before it was known nationally. Concepts integrated with the new theory, emerged one after the other. None had previously been described in the literature, and none could have been “seen” with Freudian theory. They are now known as the “Bowen Theory.” Long-term research terminated by Institute for short-term research studies.

Georgetown University Medical Center. Washington, DC 1959 – present. Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Director of Family Programs, and founder of a Family Center. Half-time research and teaching. Each concept was extended, and woven into physical, emotional, and social illness. It has already gone far beyond another family systems theory. Through association with medicine, knowledge has been extended to every medical specialty, and even the prodromal states that precede medical diagnoses. The future is promising. As long as psychiatry exists to diagnose and treat emotional illness, its potential is limited. The theory is directed to human life rather than symptomatic cubicles. National popularity indicates the theory will eventually replace Freudian thinking. It may well contribute more to all of medicine than to psychiatry alone. At Georgetown since 1959.

Other Faculty Appointments and Consultantships. Visiting Professor in a variety of medical schools. More permanent included the University of Maryland, 1956-1963; and part-time Professor and Chairman, Division of Family and Social Psychiatry, Medical College of Virginia, Richmond, 1964-1978. Closed-circuit television in Richmond was used to integrate family therapy with the larger theory.

Current Appointments and Activities. Half-time, Clinical Professor in Psychiatry, Georgetown University Medical Center, and Director, Georgetown University Family Center, 1959 to present. Private practice, part time, family psychotherapy, Chevy Chase, Maryland, 1954 to present,

Organizations. List limited to those with a potential interest in a single theory. American Psychiatric Association, Life Fellow; American Orthopsychiatric Association, Life Fellow; Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, Life Member; Diplomate in Psychiatry, American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, 1961; American Family Therapy Association, Terminated membership 1989 after two consecutive terms as first President.

Biographies. Listed in Membership Directories. American Psychiatric Association, since 1950; Directory of Medical Specialists, since 1952; American Men of Medicine, 1961; World Who’s Who in Science, 1700 B.C. to 1966 A.D. (3700 years in one volume), 1966; International Biography, since 1968; Personalities of the South, since 1976; Who’s Who in America, 1978.

Recent Awards and Recognition.

Originator and First President, American Family Therapy Association, 1978-1982.

Alumnus of the Year, Menninger Foundation, June 1985.

Faculty, Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference, Erickson Foundation, Phoenix, December 1985.

Graduation Speaker, Menninger School of Psychiatry, June 1986.

Governor’s Certificate, Tennessee Homecoming ’86, Knoxville, 1986 Distinguished Alumnus Award, University of Tennessee-Knoxville, October 1986.

Publications. About fifty papers, book chapters, and monographs based on new theory of human behavior. The most important ones are in my book, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Jason Aronson, Inc., publisher, Northvale, NJ, 1978, which contains twenty years of theory. Other papers are referenced in the book. The past ten years, most of the concepts have been described in detail in about twenty videotapes. A list of tapes, both theoretical and clinical, are available at the Georgetown University Hospital.

Addresses: Department of Psychiatry, Georgetown University Hospital, 4380 MacArthur Blvd., NW, Washington, DC 20007, or 4903 DeRussey Parkway, Chevy Chase, Maryland 20815.

Washington, D.C.

January 1990

Happy New Year – 2017

To start out this New Year I wanted to give special thanks and appreciation to all those who visit my site and to the Murray Bowen Archives Project new website. http://murraybowenarchives.org.

This web site will give you access to much of Dr. Bowen’s original thinking as to the family as an emotional unit that guides our behavior.

Thankfully I stumble upon one of Bowen’ s papers while working at a psychiatric hospital in 1976. This began a life-long learning effort. Without this accident of fate my life course would have been far bumpier or shorter. Naturally I want to make Bowen’s original ideas available to everyone.

This year, through the financial help of many of you, more of Dr. Bowen’s unique contributions for transforming one’s family life are available to all. You know that developing the web site takes time and money.  We need funds to both prepare and post archival letters, audiovisual and other written materials. This is an enormous responsibility accomplished now with limited funds and many volunteer hours.

This many layered web site is a home a run for all of us who value the work of Murray Bowen.  Yes, it has taken us many years to accomplish all that you see on this web site. This year, for first time ever, videos of Dr. Bowen on the web can be found for all to see for free.  This is a huge accomplishment and I’m thrilled about it!

Whenever you have time to look you will find the following features:

1)     For an overview of the site: http://murraybowenarchives.org/explore-the-archives.html

2)     For a detailed look at Murray Bowen’s early family life and career: http://murraybowenarchives.org/themes.html

3)    The web site features weekly releases of Bowen’s letters selected by Clarence Boyd, in his book Commitment to Principles. http://murraybowenarchives.org/commitment-to-principles.html

4)     Monthly audio history interviews with people who worked and/or were coached by Dr. Bowen: These interviews give us more clarity about how Dr. Bowen lived theory in his interactions with others. So far there are over 50 interviews and more than half of them have been transcribed and are ready to be posted.   Three of the interviews are currently available:   http://murraybowenarchives.org/oral-history.html

5)     Videotapes of Dr. Bowen, many of which I video taped back in the eighties, as he  traveled around the country giving people a paradigm shifting way to think about human behavior.  http://murraybowenarchives.org/videos-GreenBay.html

6)     The link below is to a video that points to the importance of getting to know people in your extended family.  http://murraybowenarchives.org/videos-NuclearFamily.html

As you see the web site is a gateway to the vast details of Dr. Bowen’s life work given to all because of people like you!  Now anyone can have access to Bowen’s life, or some of the history of family therapy by just searching the web. Scholars are currently busy mining the archives for articles and we hope someone will write a biography of Bowen.  Overall the archives give testimony to how Bowen observed the social system, how the family influenced people and how people can influence any social system.  The web site is one more step in promoting people’s ability to learn how to manage self in a social system.

I hope you will take a good look at the archives and join me in donating to this effort.

All I did was click over to pay pal thought this link. What could be easier?


Please give as generously as you can to TMBAP whose work is so important to me, and I believe, the world. There is so much to be grateful for as the Murray Bowen Archives web site has finally been brought to life by motivated volunteers and a professional staff, and is free to the public.

Thank you for your very kind and generous support.

Best Regards and Appreciation,


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.

IMG_5444 (1).jpg


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 ancestory.com, 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] https://www.linkedin.com/in/drnormanleejohnson. 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


[2] https://yourmindfulcompass.com/2015/07/11/when-does-an-emotional-system-guide-your-behavior/

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_B._Calhoun

[4] http://navigatingsystemsdc.com/

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