The Dilemma of Conflicting Messages

The most likely result of sending conflicting messages is neither the sender nor the receiver feels good about it. Continue reading to learn more about the double bind!
The Dilemma of Conflicting Messages

Last update: 01 June, 2020

Have you ever thought about the difference between what you do and say? Why would someone make a statement that’s the opposite of how they really feel? Conflicting messages are confusing. Today’s article is about them from a psychological perspective.

What’s a contradictory message? Continue reading to discover some of the keys to understanding this type of communication, including examples. In addition, you’ll learn about some of the current research, especially the studies by Gregory Bateson, a social scientist.

“Language commonly stresses only one side of any interaction.”

-Gregory Bateson-

A woman ignoring a person behind her.

What are conflicting messages about?

Contradictory messages are those that transmit dissonant information from the same source. Therefore, they’re paradoxical in nature. There have been reviews from:

  • Psychoanalysts. They work by emphasizing the logic of what’s contradictory. This is because they review the statements that operate in an antagonistic or ambivalent way, some unconscious, others not so much.
  • The Palo Alto school. According to Watzlawick, the dual-link concept was developed for the first time in this school. They did it as a communication guideline that leads to a specific behavior in schizophrenia.
  • Anzieu. He proposed that paradoxes can increase the recipient’s drive to self-destruction. In addition to that, they promote mistrust and subvert the sense of truth and the subject’s being, at least according to Dr. Miguel Cherro Aguerre.

Gregory Bateson, an anthropologist and linguist, spoke of conflicting messages. He mainly focused on the systemic model. He mentioned the double bond theory, emphasizing the association between members of a system. Also, he developed it to explain the psychological causes of schizophrenia. A condition associated with communication patterns.

Dual links are communication dilemmas that originate from the antagonism between the content of different messages with the same source. Thus, they produce confusion in those who receive them.

However, this theory has been already revised and expanded, pushing the limits of schizophrenia. Also, they applied it in other contexts and suggested that, for example, double bonds be used by some as a means of control or manipulation.

Characteristics of conflicting messages

When it comes to conflicting messages, the sender may say there’ll be bad consequences if the receiver doesn’t observe certain behavior. Also, it gives abstract orders that contradict this mandate. Here are some other characteristics of this type of messages:

  • Interaction. It can occur through any type of communication.
  • Recurring pattern. It’s not a punctual pattern. Instead, it’s repetitive.
  • One or more messages. Although there are usually two conflicting messages, there may be more.
  • Power. In most cases, this happens between a person who represents authority and another who doesn’t.
  • Confusion. The person receiving conflicting messages may feel confused, even blocked.
  • Communication patterns. Both yours and those of others influence your health.

There are researchers who even claim these are present at the origin of some pathologies. This doesn’t mean they’re the cause, but rather one of the factors that promote or spark them (triggers).

Currently, there are various investigations in this framework. For example, the article by Leonardo Gabriel and Paula Gabriela Rodríguez-Zoya published in the journal Palabra Clave (In English: Key Word) show how communication and social interaction processes can distort or hinder social representations and social communication in the dual-link theory

Also, there are other types of explorations. For example, those focused on proposals for intervention in dual-link situations in teacher-student interactions. This idea is presented by García-Castro, Saneleuterio, and García Ramos in the journal Psicología y Educación: Presente y Futuro (In English: Psychology and Education: Present and Future).

A man hearing something he doesn't like.


Anyone can receive toxic contradictory messages. Keep in mind that they can be recurring and have implicit contents that confuse, block, and can lead to:

  • Feelings of danger. It confuses people and they’re never sure of where they stand because they’re divided between the two messages.
  • Guilt. For thinking they’re not doing the right thing.
  • Anxiety disorders. For not knowing what to do and anticipating the future.
  • Toxic relationships. After remaining passive when confronted with those in power; not realizing that a dual-link is on the works.

People who generate these types of messages are also affected, neither are their desires satisfied nor their needs met. Similarly, for the dual-link to happen, a relationship must be significant. This is because the disappointment of failed expectations may be deeper.

One example of this type of message happens when a mother communicates love to her offspring while rejecting them somehow. Another example is when one partner says something along the lines of “Do whatever you want” or “Fine” to their significant other. Also, when you say you trust someone and, yet, maintain a vigilant attitude at all times.


In short, the very demand that’s manifested in the message makes it impossible to know which way to go in these situations. Thus, the conflicting messages will cause discomfort to both parties, but particularly in the person who sends the messages. This is because it’ll be very difficult for them to get the response they want. The receiver just won’t know what to do.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Aguerre, M. C. (s.f). Mensaje Contradictorio.

  • Bateson, G. (1984). La nueva comunicación. Barcelona: Kairós.

  • Bateson, G., & Ruesch, J. (1984). Comunicación: la matriz social de la psiquiatría. Barcelona: Paidós.

  • Gracía-Castro A., Saneleuterio, e., & García-Ramos, F. (2016). Descripción y propuesta de intervención en las situaciones de doble vínculo en las interacciones metalingüísticas entre profesor y alumnno. Revista Psicología y Educación: Presente y Futuro, de Alicante.

  • Rodríguez-Zoya, L.G, & Rodríguez Zoya, P.G. (2015). El doble vínculo entre representaciones sociales y comunicación social. Palabra clave, 18 (3), 905-937.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.