The double bind


"First you say you do and then you don't"


"By education most have been misled;

So they believe, because they so were bred.

The priest continues what the nurse began,

And thus the child imposes on the man."

--John Dryden, "The Hind and the Panther"

Types of knowing

  1. self - knowledge
  2. connate knowledge
    1. tacit knowing
    2. praxis
  3. instrumental knowledge
  4. creative capacity

Select one:

book Since the dawn of time, people have learned about their encounters and changed their minds because of experiences. This process of acquisition also requires people to discard older learned impressions with newly acquired information. In school we call this process, learning.


We rarely explain that new information drives out old beliefs, unless --of course-- indoctrination is the goal. Indoctrination is a means of reinforcing initial beliefs, ideas, impressions or learning so that the bias we have gained is strong enough to discard any new information that may contradict long established patterns of learning. In my classes I want to avoid indoctrination by challenging long-held assumptions, but I recognize that, having been indoctrinated myself, that many students prefer to support their biases with new information. Experiences can come from going somewhere, listening to someone, doing something differently, reading a book, watching a film, or seeing objects displayed in some pattern.

Despite the array of experiences that inform our learning there is an underlying feature of incorporating experiences that stimulate us in response to the knowledge we have already acquired. These two approaches to the process of learning about the world are 1.) suppressing the acquisition of newly contradictory information (denial) or 2.) accommodating new information even if it challenges older beliefs. The first approach presupposes that new experiences must be confined within an existing structure, the previous framework of knowledge. The second approach suggests that contradictory information must be handled carefully, accounted for, and categorized if further learning is to occur. The second approach is more complicated but may be essential to solving problems that have more than one answer. Cases are studies about situations that have numerous, often open ended problems. That means that the problem has more than one answer and may have different correct answers depending on both the context of the problem and the assumptions of the perceiver who recognizes the problem.

Approach to learning new material dominance of
suppress contradictions denial to enhance what was known.
accommodate contradictions acceptance to ease what may be learned.

Acquiring new information is essential to all learning but it is critically important to solving complex problems because a problem may be defined as the difference between an existing and a desired state of affairs. To get from here to there requires the acquisition of new information. We either accept or we discard new information depending upon our approach to learning.

Although learning is never quite as simple as the above dichotomy between retaining and older set of assumptions versus embracing a new set of assumptions, this model may be instructive for the purposes of reflecting on how we learn, how we want to learn and how we convey the objectives of learning to others who may want to learn from us. Learning is a two way street. All those participating in a process learn from each other -- they only do so in different ways. For example, even if one acquires newly contradictory information (see the example below), some learners will accommodate the contradiction as a paradox, others will hold two contradictory ideas in their minds without ever recognizing their irony and others will sequence the two different ideas with respect to the context and act relying on one or the other assumptions as appropriate. This last way is like guessing the right answer provided their are sufficient queues to what the answer may be.

Take the case of the person who enters a training program, college, or university presupposing that they will acquire new capacities with which to successfully learn about a job, a body of knowledge, or a profession. Everyone who enters a new situation carries with them a set of older beliefs that shape their assumptions. Assumptions, based on our past experience, give rise to expectations. As human animals we are capable of anticipation. Large sections of out prefrontal cortex are dedicated to just that capacity called forethought. Whether it is thinking about what we want to eat next or where we need to go, or with whom we would like to go with, the mental framework we have inherited allows us to contemplate the future before it even exists. Thus assumptions leading to expectations, to a certain extent, drive what we learn and what we do with newly acquired data. That data which has meaning to us is called information. When the information reinforces what we have already learned, then we adjust by adding the information -- through practice, memorization, or both -- to what we already know. Coming to college confronts people with an overwhelming opportunity to reinforce older assumptions because of the shocking amount of data available and the numerous processes available to practice creating meaningful information from the data deluge.

Situation Stimulus Responses
New information contradicts old beliefs accept its validity deny its veracity
New information reinforce old beliefs accept its validity  

go on

schedule | Home | Atlas | site-map


This website at a glance