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Philip Baron’s Paper Proposal

A Second-Order Cybernetic Approach to Social Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

When reviewing the prospectus of mainstream universities that offer psychology majors, one would be hard-pressed to find any cybernetic approaches included in their course material. Most psychological problems arise in a relational context. Thus, the role of cybernetics in psychotherapy is invaluable. Family therapy, which is closer to cybernetic thinking, has had several facelifts since its boom back in the late 1960’s. The evolution of family therapy from the time of Bowen, Satir, Minuchin, Whitaker and the Milan Research Institute, laid the foundation for an exciting future in this paradigm. With second-order cybernetics the natural progression in this field, it is inconsistent that universities did not take advantage of this approach and offer it is an equal footing paradigm. One possible explanation rests on the premise that systems thinking and cybernetics underpins the connectedness of relationships, patterns of interaction and recursion. Western thought, however, idolises the individual and their empowerment in the controlling and manipulating of their environment. The explanation of causality and its reliance on the linear model is central in the Western mind. This attitude is common in many psychology theories and is put forward by many universities. Further, traditional positivistic research methodologies are also challenged when attempting to perform studies on the success of family/systemic therapies, which advocate a different approach to research. This makes it difficult to compare these different approaches.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has one of the best long-term success rates in dealing with psychological problems (Barlow & Durand, 2005; Lambert & Garfield, 2004), including success in treating depression that has a better prognosis than antidepressants (Butler, 2005). Within the CBTs there is much diversity. However, there is unity in the core premise of CBT, including the belief that psychological distress is largely a function of disturbances in cognitive processes; that by changing cognitions to produce desired changes, preferred behaviour can be affected for the solution of problems in a time-constrained manner (Corey, 2005). The marrying of second-order cybernetics including the principles of wholeness, self-reference, autopoiesis, structural determinism, coupling, and non-purposeful drift into CBT poses several challenges. Further, the therapeutic posture commonly used in CBT would also need adjustment to embrace second-order cybernetics. Incorporating cybernetic principles to the leading therapy is an important step in the further adoption of second-order thinking into the psychologies. This paper presents a practical method of applying second-order cybernetics to CBT, while incorporating lessons learnt from family therapy.


  1. Linking CBT and second-order cybernetics sounds like a very exciting proposal. I find your explanation that second-order cybernetics have not been adopted by family therapy because of the prevalent Western paradigm of individualism. I think this might also be an idea worth exploring further (at least it is something that i would like to know more about).

  2. I will be very interested to hear how you bridge the gap.

    I’m not quite sure I see the connection between your 2 paragraphs. One is about a history in family therapy and C2, the other about the need for C2 in CBT. I hope you will make the link between the paragraphs explicit.

    There are a couple of background points that seem relevant:

    Around 1990, the ASC conferences seemed almost to be conferences in Family Therapy. At that time, Heinz was popular speaker at FT conferences. It was almost as though there was no other topic in C2 that FT. Several of us who still attend the ASC were present at those conferences, of whom I imagine Larry Richards might be the most sympathetic. You will find Fred Steier’s out of print book on Reflexivity helpful, too, both in providing some further background, and in bridging the gap.

    I wonder if another problem doesn’t come from the essentially behaviourist approach cybernetics takes. In its concern for machines and mechanisms, it becomes interested in behaviour and (through the Black Box) building explanations for behaviours through proposed mechanisms. I regard this approach to behaviourism as very liberating: it says nothing about what’s really there, or what meanings we make, and so on, thus being extremely liberating. But for those whose approach to psychology was negatively influenced by the bad press Skinner’s followers gave to behaviourism. this may be reason enough not to be interested in anything cybernetic!

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