The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Reflections on Societal Regression

Authored by Stephanie Ferrera, M.S.W.

Murray Bowen’s unique contribution to the science of human behavior was his ability to observe family interaction and to describe the underlying emotional process that governs all families to varying degrees.  He went on to describe an analogous emotional process in societies and introduced the concept of emotional regression:

“When a family is subjected to chronic, sustained anxiety, the family begins to lose contact with its intellectually-determined principles, to resort more and more to emotionally determined decisions to allay the anxiety of the moment. …The societal concept postulates that the same process is evolving in society.”  (Bowen 1978, 386)

Intrinsic to all human relationships is the challenge for people to work out their differences.  At the level of societies, there are differences between cultures, claims to land and resources, beliefs, and much more.  From a systems perspective, conflict is defined as reactivity to differences.  Differences per se do not create conflict.  Under calm conditions, people live with differences and much of the time handle disagreements with good will and good humor.  Kerr notes:

“People do not have trouble getting along because of issues.  These issues tend to bring out the emotional immaturity of people, and it is that immaturity, not the issues, that creates the conflict.”  (Kerr and Bowen, 1988, 188)

Societal regression is underway when conflict escalates in intensity. Emotion dominates thinking so that the intellectual system is more geared to winning than to finding an accord with the opponent. Polarization is intense and people find it hard to find a middle ground. There is a sense of stalemate and discouragement, as well as increasing danger that the conflict will spread.  The level of maturity in leaders reflects the overall level of differentiation in society.

Every conflict in history is unique and deserves to be understood in its own historical and cultural context, with its own set of facts:  people, places, issues, events.  Relationships within and between societies are magnitudes more complex than family relationships, yet from the perspective of emotional process they are families writ large.  Stripped of the myriad detail that makes each conflict unique, it is possible to observe an underlying emotional process that is common to all.

All the anxiety-driven patterns that Bowen observed in families are involved in large-scale conflict.  Reciprocal grievances, blame, attack, defense, and retaliation drive people to increased polarization. Through triangling, more people are drawn into the conflict.  The result is side-taking and projection of the problem to the other side, thus creating the divided “us-them” system. As conflict expands, civil contact between opposing sides becomes increasingly difficult.  Emotional cutoff intensifies unity among “us” and isolation from “them;” which, in turn, fuels the projection process and fear of the other.

Large-scale conflict is multi-lateral; as more people are drawn into it, issues and competing interests multiply; more splinters and factions emerge. As current issues activate memories of old grievances, people who have lived together as neighbors may turn against one another.  Large-scale conflict is also multigenerational. Children born into a divided emotional field are educated on a deep, visceral level to a way of life that perpetuates the divisions.

Understanding regression is a step toward working our way out of it.  Michael Kerr writes:

“Viewing the world’s current anxiety and despair through the lens of emotional regression can provide a calmer perspective. It can help us get beyond blaming others, e.g., realizing that regressions cannot be blamed on any one segment of society, such as the government. Viewing families and societies as relationship systems makes possible a level of increased objectivity about human behavior.” (Kerr, 2023)

The history of humankind reveals that societies cycle through periods of progress and periods of regression, not in an either-or way but with a mix of progressive thinking and action going on in times of regression, and some regression during times of progress. Societies come out of periods of regression.  There have always been individuals who were able to recognize anxiety and unresolved issues as the basic problem, to see the part they were playing, to summon principles and to speak and act for more responsible courses of action.  That is what Dr. Bowen called differentiation of self.

“In a small or large social system, the move toward individuality is initiated by a single strong leader with the courage of his conviction who can assemble a team, and who has clearly defined principles on which he can base his decisions when the emotional opposition becomes intense.”  (Bowen 1978, 279)

Bowen, M.  1978.  Family Therapy in Clinical Practice.  New York:  Jason Aronson

Kerr, M. E.  and M. Bowen. 1988.  Family Evaluation.  New York:  W. W. Norton

Kerr M. E.  2023. “Perspectives on a World on Fire:  Societal Regression.”



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