Paul Watzlawick

Paul Watzlawick
Born July 25, 1921
Villach, Austria
Died Mar. 31, 2007 (at age 85)
Palo Alto, California United States
Nationality Austrian-American

Paul Watzlawick was a psychologist who invested a significant amount of time studying and researching family therapy and communication theory. Over the course of his career, he deduced a theory that people are often the root of their own suffering due to their own failed attempts at solving their own emotional ills. While assessment like these may sound like a New Age approach, Watzlawick rooted his theories and approaches in well-established principles in the psychology field.

Early Years

Paul Watzlawick was born on July 25, 1921, in Villach, Austria. He completed his high school education in his home town before eventually moving to Italy for his university studies. He attended the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. The focus of his undergraduate studies was a combination of philosophy and philology.

Watzlawick would also earn a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the school. Later, he continued his education in Zurich when he enrolled in the Carl Jung Institute. At the Carl Jung Institute in Zurich, he received a degree in analytical psychology which he completed in 1954. His educational and professional path continued when he entered the University of El Salvador in 1957 where he worked as a researcher before he ventured to the United States.

The career path of Watzlawick took a major turn in 1960 when began his research at the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto, CA. In 1967, he acquired a very prestigious position at Stanford University where he taught psychiatry. His achievements in the world of academia were only portions of the great success he gained in the field.

Contributions to Psychology

During his tenure at the Mental Research Institute, Watzlawick worked with an established research team that contributed to the introduction of the double bind theory of schizophrenia. Double bind is commonly described as when someone suffers from two or more conflicting messages that cause emotional duress. In 1967, Watzlawick published a work entitled Pragmatics of Human Communication, which was based on some of his discoveries while working with the research team.

The published material was quite revolutionary and is now considered a critically important item in the realm of communication theory. Much of Watzlawick’s insights into communication theory were considered ahead of their time and his is quite distinguished in this area of psychology.

Communications and Family Therapy

Later in his career, Watzlawick ventured into areas related to family therapy. He did not, however, completely abandon his research and work in communication theory. In fact, he would combine the two. In particular, Watzlawick spent and enormous amount of time trying to determine how communication affected the family unit. From this, he arrived at what be called the interactional view.

Paul WatzlawickThe interactional view examined what was necessary for there to be decent communications among members of a family. A lack of or failure in communication is theorized to be derived from people in the family having different viewpoints from one another. This creates a lot of tension in the home and the feedback loop is not a good one.

In short, communication really breaks down and this can lead to problems and hostilities. How individual persons in the family relate to others is examined closely to determine what exactly is happening in the communicative structure.

The network of communications within the interactional view was described by Watzlawick as being comprised of five axioms. These axioms revolved around a failure to communicate; communication has content and a relationship component that clarifies the content; relationships are based on how the parties communicate; digital and analog modalities connect to human communications; and inter-human communication centers on symmetric or complementary procedures. The brilliance of Watzlawick’s work is reflected in the innovation of the five axioms.

Legacy and Death

Paul Watzlawick career as a psychologist and an academic was a profound one. His body of work also includes the publication of 22 books. The eventual development of the four sided model on the part of Friedemann Schulz von Thun was heavily influenced by Watzlawick’s earlier strides and research.

After a long and storied career, Watzlawick passed away in his home on March 31, 2007, after suffering a heart attack at the age of 85.