Bowlby: Emotional Ambivalence versus Conflict and Compromise Behaviours – IV

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Psychoanalysts are particularly interested in emotional ambivalence and conflict behaviour, such as that between approach and withdrawal. Bowlby points out that the activation of such conflicts often will result in so-called compromise behaviour. The individual plays out fragments of two different systems, points out Prof. Ashoka, in the fourth part of this erudite research, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

Zoologists and ethologists working in the field have used this restraint model of explanation for a long time. The ethologist Niko Tinbergen (1972) has described the life of animals observed in their natural habitat as “a multi-dimensional tightrope act.” The fittest are those life forms that are not eliminated by environmental pressures. Animals survive, reproduce and evolve within the restraints of many variables. Success depends upon their capacity to cope with a bewildering variety of obstacles. However, the healthy and happy man balks at such a suggestion. He does not feel that negatives have governed his success. But the cybernetic model does not imply a tragic outlook. It does not seek to explain why people behave as they do but why, at any one time, an individual behaves one way rather than another

In accordance with the cybernetic model, Bowlby (1969) suggests that we call the successful outcome of an activated behavioural system goal-corrected rather than goal-directed. Human beings constantly revise, extend, and check their working models of the environment and adjust their behaviour accordingly. As with the system of negative feedback in cybernetics, goal-corrected systems are designed to control behaviour so as to adjust any discrepancies between initial instruction and performance. This approach further implies “that no single adaptation is viewed as ideal; it is always the compromise result of many different, and often conflicting, demands. When we analyse human behaviour, we usually study one behavioural characteristic and one environmental pressure at a time” (Hamilton, 1982). We lose sight of the broader context. We may not see the competition between conflicting activities or that different environmental pressures is dictating incompatible responses. An event is not the outcome of a number of causes but the end product of a process of elimination of many factors, none of which may be causally related to the final outcome. 

Psychoanalysts are particularly interested in emotional ambivalence and conflict behaviour, such as that between approach and withdrawal. Bowlby points out that the activation of such conflicts often will result in so-called compromise behaviour. The individual plays out fragments of two different systems. Within this class of compromise behaviour, I would include tics or stereotyped and inappropriate gestures. An action may be dissociated from its context or cut across by a contrary action. A person may signal his attraction to another only to negate his own initiative by rejecting the other’s response. This compromise behaviour represents an exchange between two people. Originally the two incompatible sequences of behaviour were enacted by two separate people-for instances a mother and her child. Behavioural systems may also be “redirected” to another goal in the way that has been traditionally described as displacement. Actions or feelings are, in Bowlby’s terms, redirected from one person on to another person or object. We should not equate compromise behaviour with neurosis, however. Even a curious, securely attached child may exhibit both clinging and exploratory behaviour in a novel environment. Tinbergen (1972) discusses the compromises that birds must negotiate between safety and nourishment. Camouflage protects the birds while they are motionless. However, they must eat. As Tinbergen (1972) said: “While they could feed more efficiently if they never had to freeze, and would be better protected against predators if they never had to move, they can do neither, and selection, rewarding overall success rather than any isolated characteristics, has produced compromises”.

Both cybernetics and psychoanalysis concern themselves with the information carried by events and objects rather than with the event or objects themselves. They do not investigate forces, drives, impacts, or energy exchanges except as they confer meaning to concrete events. There is no information or communication without context. A word acquires meaning in the larger context of the utterance, which again has meaning only in a relationship. For instance, the schizophrenics’ “word salad” becomes intelligible through the study of the communicational patterns and relationships within his family. Communication between psychoanalyst and client acquires meaning in the context of the transference relationship. 

In addition to goal correction, systems theory discovers another restraint governing behaviour. “Nothing”—that which is not—can exert a powerful influence. Information theory refers to this as a zero message. Zero messages, such as absence or unresponsiveness, may cause extremely strong emotions. Bateson (1970) gives as an illustration of a zero cause “the letter which you do not write.” This letter “can get an angry reply.” Increasingly, psychoanalysts now look at the negative trauma, which is not an event such as incest, the birth of a sibling, or an aggressive attack, but rather is a lack of psychological connection. This focus emerges from the many studies of the narcissistic personality disorder over the past decade. A prolonged absence of connectedness and responsiveness often lies at the root of the despair, apathy, and detachment that characterise attachment pathologies.

(To be continued)
©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.