Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Emotional Process in Society

This article is posted with the permission of the Center for the Study of Natural Systems and the Family, P.O. Box 701187, Houston, TX 77270-1187. The article was published in Volume 11, Number 2 of Family Systems Forum, a publication of the Center for the Study of Natural Systems and the Family, in the Summer of 2009.
Emotional Process in Society:

The Eighth Concept of Bowen Family Systems Theory

Patricia A. Comella, JD

Foreword: Societies, Families and Planet Earth: Exploring the Connections, the 2009 Spring Conference of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family (BCSF), explored the concept of emotional process in society (“societal concept”) and its associated hypotheses about possible drivers of a sustained societal regression, such as the one we have been going through in this post-World War II era. Several members of the conference Organizing Committee asked me to provide speakers not acquainted with Bowen family systems theory and the concept of emotional process in society some readings on the theory and concept. In response, and in my role as conference moderator, I put together this brief paper that draws on my professional experience using Bowen theory over many years in regulatory, legal and public policy work regarding the peaceful uses of atomic energy and the associated risks. That work, particularly my experience in the conduct of multi-party international negotiations, triggered my passion to hold this conference to explore the human’s relationship with the Earth.

The views expressed are my own and reflect my understanding of Bowen theory, the societal concept and the associated societal regression hypothesis. The paper was not required reading for presenters, as the conference deliberately brought together experts from diverse fields, frames of reference and experience to enrich and expand exploration and inquiry during the conference.


Introduction: The societal concept comes from Bowen family systems theory (“Bowen theory”), which the psychiatrist Murray Bowen (1913-1990) developed during the middle part of the 20th century and continued to elaborate until his death in 1990. “Societal regression” is a gradual erosion of functioning at societal levels over time, evidenced by, among other things, increasingly emotionally-driven decisions that are inadequately supported by relevant and reasonably available facts. It is described in the concept of emotional process in society as a response to sustained chronic anxiety, which is defined as response to “imaginary” threat that may or may not materialize, in contrast to acute anxiety, which is defined as response to “real” threat that will almost certainly materialize. In contrast, “societal progression” is a process that has occurred during periods in which humans have been able to identify more clearly and factually what issues or problems need to be addressed, in contrast to making anxiety-driven decisions about less relevant matters. During periods of progression, the sciences often flourish and the bases for decision-making are often supported by relevant, demonstrable facts coming from advances in scientific knowledge.


Bowen theory is a natural systems theory that describes human emotional functioning at the behavioral and psychological levels. The theory was developed to be consistent with the facts of evolution and against the backdrop of the science of life on Earth as it was known and understood through the latter half of the 20th century. Observations of human relationship processes at the behavioral and psychological levels form the evidence on which each of the theory’s eight concepts (nuclear family emotional system, triangle, family projection process, multigenerational transmission process, differ­entiation of self, sibling position, emotional cutoff and emotional process in society) were constructed and admitted into the theory. Bowen allowed only what he regarded as established fact into the body of evidence underlying his theory.
The theory captures the variation observed in human emotional functioning at individual and family levels (including the nuclear family and multi-generational family), and such societal levels as organizational or institutional, community, national, regional and international. This variation is captured in the scale of differentiation, which is part of the differentiation of self concept, as well as, to some degree, in each of the other concepts. The eight concepts of Bowen theory are described in Bowen’s 1978 book, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. Chapters 13 and 18 describe the societal concept in detail. The process Bowen employed to develop his theory is discussed at length in that book and in “An Odyssey Toward Science,” Bowen’s epilogue to the 1988 book, Family Evaluation, by Michael E. Kerr, BCSF director.
Bowen recognized that confining the evidence underlying his theory to observations of behavioral and psychological functioning necessarily limited what the theory could describe of human emotional functioning. Bowen explained in his “odyssey toward science”:
The concept of “differentiation of self” and its companion concept, “the emotional system,” are essential in family systems theory. . . . The “self” is composed of constitutional, physical, physiological, biological, genetic and cellular reactivity factors, as they move in unison with psychological factors. On a simple level, it is composed of the confluence of the more fixed personality factors as they move in unison with rapidly moving psychological states. Each factor influences and is influenced by the others. The psychological is the easiest to be influenced by the individual. . . . The psychological includes relationship factors from the past and the present that influence the individual. . . . Many people are completely dependent on evolution to raise or lower “differentiation” in a lifetime. Family systems theory contains several concepts through which psychological states can be modified. These include the concepts of the “emotional system,” “triangles,” and the “multigenerational transmission process.” (Kerr and Bowen, 342, emphasis added)
He urged that the theory be kept open through a continuing process of contact with the growing body of science addressing human functioning, about the human as part of all life on Earth, about other forms of life on Earth, and about the Earth as one planet in a vast universe.
The purpose the 2009 Spring Conference was to begin a synthesis of science about the reciprocal relationships that mutually influence human societies and families and the planet on which they sojourn and from which the basic resources that sustain human societies are derived in the interdependent ecological niches they occupy and share with other life forms. The synthesis was aimed at developing a body of knowledge to connect the behavioral and psychological levels of human functioning, where so much of human drama plays out and which Bowen theory purports to describe, to the biological factors that Bowen hypothesized shape and influence that functioning, even when the human is not aware of the process.


My personal hope is that one day, by bringing those connections into better focus and awareness, Bowen theory – a natural systems theory – can be added to the suite of approaches available to devise and create processes to improve formulation of issues and implementation of public policy initiatives that concern the human’s reciprocal relationship with the Earth. The process to address public policy issues that require consideration of the human-Earth relationship often aims for consensus decisions or, failing that, seeks practicable outcomes that have enough support to be implemented successfully. The process is inherently multi-disciplinary in nature, risk-based, and highly dependent on the soundness and scope of the underlying assumptions and science and treatment of uncertainties. Understanding of the natural systems involved is always incomplete, and the potential for unintended consequences is high. The issues engaged in the process may be highly charged emotionally, which inherently biases decision-making toward achieving near-term reduction in the intensity of the emotional charge. In my experience, the public policy process can benefit from the use of approaches, such as Bowen theory, that promote the capacity for making intellectually determined choices, based on full consideration of the relevant factors in light of all the relevant and reasonably obtainable facts.

The eight concepts of Bowen theory were not added to the theory at the same time. The initial integration of the interrelated concepts did not occur until Bowen had operationalized his understanding of the triangle in about 1966. In Bowen theory, the triangle is postulated to be the basic emotional unit for managing the stresses and challenges of living in groups. Two-person relationships were observed not to be stable. When the going got rough, the mechanisms of distancing, conflict, and over-/under-reciprocal functioning, alone or in combination, were observed to be insufficient to manage stresses or challenges in a two-party relationship. There was an observable, automatic tendency for one or the other party to bring in a third party to calm things down. Bowen observed that at the same level of stress or challenge, the three parties could employ four mechanisms – the fourth being a mechanism Bowen called “projection,” which could take the form of scapegoating – indefinitely to manage their (reciprocal) functioning in what was now a three-party relationship system, a “triangle.” The degree of stress or challenge that could be managed varied according to the functioning level of differentiation of self. Bowen further observed that when the intensity of emotional process in a triangle increased enough, new parties were automatically brought into the relationship system through interlocking triangles, until the number was sufficient to maintain functioning through employment of the four observed mechanisms, alone or in combination.

An individual’s functioning is understood in the context of the “primary” triangle of the child and its caretakers, usually the parents. Nuclear family emotional functioning is understood in terms of the triangles and interlocking triangles among parents and all of their offspring. The multigenerational transmission process is understood to occur through the operation of triangles and interlocking triangles between the generations. The intensity of emotional cutoff from the emotional legacy of past generations influences the patterns of functioning in the new reproductive generation, particularly with respect to making life course decisions in significant relationships, especially when those relationships are highly charged emotionally.

Each concept describes an aspect of human emotional functioning at the behavioral and psychological levels. New levels of integration were achieved when the concepts of emotional cutoff between the generations and emotional process in society were added to the theory in 1975. The concept of emotional cutoff establishes that the degree of mature or immature functioning an adult exhibits, especially in emotionally significant relationships, correlates with the degree to which he continues to function as a child in the relationship with his parents. The societal concept integrates the theory by establishing that the basic building-block of human relationship systems (the “triangle”) functions in societal-level relationship systems as it does in family systems.

Bowen went further to hypothesize a biological link between the chronic, sustained societal regression experienced in the post-World War II era and


  • the explosion in human populations globally,

  • the exhaustion of existing resources to sustain human life and well being,

  • the absence of new territories to which humans could migrate to find new resources,

  • and the production of wastes from unsustainable human consumption that could not be absorbed by the ecological systems in which humans live and which are adversely affected and disturbed by such unsustainable human exploitation.
Bowen’s Eighth Concept of Emotional Process in Society can be summarized as follows:

Triangles operate in society as they do in the family.


  • Societies experience periods of progression and regression.

  • Societal regression is a process that, over time, reduces capacity for making intellectually determined choices, based to the extent practicable on relevant and reasonably obtainable facts.

  • Chronic, sustained anxiety is necessary to fuel a societal regression.

  • As a regression continues, choices become more and more emotionally-driven to allay that anxiety, which is an automatic, instinctual response to sustained, underlying and unknown, unacknowledged or unrecognized societal-level threat(s).
Bowen theory distinguishes between intellectual functioning and emotional functioning. The societal concept, in effect, postulates that:


  • At the intellectual and cognitive level, there is cut-off from knowledge of the underlying threat, which impairs fact-based decision-making to combat that threat.

  • At the feeling level, there is a vague, undifferentiated awareness of the anxiety elicited by the underlying threat, but that the threat remains unidentified.

  • The felt anxiety is ready to be expressed in action, such as distancing to get away from the perceived threat, conflict to combat the perceived threat, or, when escape is not possible, chronic under-functioning of some societal component(s) and chronic over-functioning of other(s). There is also the phenomenon of “scapegoating,” or blaming some societal component(s), as the cause of a society’s woes.

  • Often action, energy and resources are directed at resolving some issue, especially one perceived as threatening and around which societal conflict has erupted. The issue is inaccurately perceived as causing the felt anxiety, and the action taken in response to the inaccurate perception is largely or wholly ineffectual at relieving the underlying anxiety.

  • When the underlying threat has been addressed insufficiently, if at all, the failure to make the problem go away further heightens societal anxiety and fuels the regression.
What Bowen Theory Might Bring to the Table: If Bowen’s societal regression hypothesis is accurate, then the observable erosion of societal behavioral and psychological functioning in a prolonged societal regression is linked to an underlying biology that the human shares in common with other life forms on which human lives and human societies depend for survival and wellbeing. Further, turnaround of a societal regression, such as we are now experiencing, requires concerted action that is grounded in recognition and acceptance of the interdependence of the human and other species and the ultimate dependence of all species, including the human, on Planet Earth.

Assuming the societal regression hypothesis is accurate, Bowen theory becomes a potential tool for designing and implementing relationship processes that foster conditions for systematically and thoughtfully engaging the science of life on Earth, as it is known today, in the search for options to get beyond the “quick fixes” that are the hallmarks (and drivers) of prolonged regression. Such relationship processes operate at the behavioral and psychological level – the levels at which options are put forward and decisions made that affect for good or for bad the future of Planet Earth and the species that live there. I have used Bowen theory enough in my professional work, particularly in the conduct of multilateral negotiations aimed at achieving consensus outcomes, to have confidence that it can be used to assist in devising and implementing decision processes that can improve outcomes by, for example, creating a relationship climate conducive to thoughtful and respectful discourse and to identifying and marshalling the relevant facts.

The attachment of the human to the Earth is fundamental and inescapable. When human societies exhibit the kinds of behavioral and psychological symptoms described by the societal concept, the regression hypothesis suggests that ameliorating the chronic anxiety requires the identification, consideration and choice of options that systematically address and improve the human’s disharmonious relationship with the Earth. The human species must examine its relationship to the Earth and somehow grasp the inter-dependencies in how the human affects the soil, the plants, the animals, the air, the water, etc., which nourish the human species and upon which it depends for survival and wellbeing.

For example, the societal regression hypothesis has implications for the conduct of diplomacy. Wherever natural resources necessary for the survival or wellbeing of several potentially competing human populations or societies are implicated, the hypothesis suggests that it is not possible to reach a long-term, sustainable solution without finding common ground regarding access to and procurement and distribution of the resources in question. This would be particularly so if migration (one form of “distancing” in Bowen theory) of one or more populations were not an option, or if the relative strengths of the populations were sufficiently comparable that none could prevail in a conflict or otherwise achieve dominance over the others or control of the resources in a reciprocal relationship of under/over-functioning, as described in Bowen theory.

Conversely, the societal concept suggests that the human being’s relationship with the Earth needs examination whenever long term, seemingly intractable problems emerge, evidenced by such phenomena as:


  • mass migration,

  • ethnic conflict or “cleansing,”

  • religious wars,

  • terrorism,

  • polarization within a society, whose conditions demand cooperation in common interests,

  • collapse of institutions, especially those affecting the procurement, production or distribution of resources necessary for the welfare of society;

  • increasing disparity within a society of access to and distribution of such resources.
That is, a basic question in the face of such a “symptomatic” phenomenon would be whether it might be a surrogate for more fundamental issues involving access to or procurement, production or distribution of resources necessary for societal survival or wellbeing.


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