SCHMISOGENESIS [shmiz-o-JEN-e-sis]: mirroring interactions in which every move by one side makes the other respond more negatively


Wait!  Don’t click out of this just because it’s a long word!  I know, I promised that this blog would be about words we use in everyday language, but I couldn’t ignore this word that popped up in the Times the other day.  Bear with me.  It’s worth it.

Schmisogenesis is an amazing word that was created by Gregory Bateson, the anthropologist, in the 1930′s to describe a phenomenon he was experiencing in his contact with cultures in Southeast Asia.  (He was a colleague of Margaret Mead.) It occurs when two groups come up against each other, as in an argument.   One of the groups establishes a point and the other group pushes back against that point.  Even though they may basically agree on the point they are arguing, the action causes a reaction (remember your physics?) The word is from Greek, meaning schism or cleft.

Bateson describes two forms of schmisogenesis:

  • Complementary:  in which two sides come up against each other in conflict, believing that their individual points are at odds with each other, and that one (mine) is a better concept than the other (yours.)
  • Symmetrical:  in which the two sides are basically arguing the same point, but may be using a different means to make the point.  One, for instance, may be shouting and being demonstrative, while the other is calm and logical.

In his blog post, Larval Subjects, a clinical psychologist and professor known as Sinthome, cites an example of how this may work in some cases,

A person who is highly suspicious and mistrusting of other people will behave in such a way that other people may want to keep their distance. Observing people withdrawing and talking about him, he feels less secure and more suspicious that others are against him. His own behavior generates responses in people that reinforce his beliefs. Similarly, some people form the opinion that the world is a dangerous place filled with people who don’t really care about anybody but themselves. Having that opinion, they behave toward others with mistrust and anger and others naturally distance themselves. Finding people distant, the person’s worldview is reinforced and his world becomes colder and ever less friendly.

Of course, I could not cite this word, schmisogenesis, without displaying it as a behavior we experience every day when we watch the Republicans and Democrats in the playground we know as the U.S. Congress.   The games they are playing are based upon the idea that “you” can’t say something to me which is reasonable and rational.  I, therefore, have to respond to you with something equally unreasonable and irrational.   The fact that this pattern of conversation is getting us nowhere is irrelevant.   The point is that I have to prove to you that you are wrong and I am right.  Otherwise, the only way for us to solve this is to beat each other up until you submit to me.

No matter how far-fetched this may seem, it is the reality of life in the U.S. Congress these days.   I wonder if any of them have ever heard of the word schmisogenesis?  I think I’ll send this to my Congressman.


Photo Credit: Autism16

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