First Order Change

7 Commentsby   |  11.02.09  |  Uncategorized

First Order Change

A First Order Change is a change in the message or behavior of some component or sub-system within a system. The change in behavior is then subject to the corrective influence of feedback loops, as a result of which, either the communication/behavior will return to its previous level/form, or the system will otherwise accommodate it, and because its structure remains unchanged, continue to operate much the same. Let’s say that our MFT program is the system that we’re talking about. Change might happen in this system on the first order when some surface level characteristic changed such as how many clinical hours had to be accumulated or how many papers needed to be written in order for the system to continue doing what it had always done, produce graduates/therapists. The first order change, making us students earn more clinical observation hours doesn’t mean that the system is really doing anything different than what it’s always done. It’s just that the means to the system’s end are slightly different.

If a couple is in therapy, a first order change would be happening when one member of the pair makes some kind of change in their surface-level behavior that the therapist or their partner asks them to make. An example might look like this:

Therapist: “Tom when, after our conversation a month ago, you decided that you were going to monitor yourself, and make a conscious effort to not retreat to the workshop in response to your wife’s criticism of you when she gets anxious and overwhelmed with her work-from-home duties, you made one type of change, what we call a first order change. You changed your part of the reciprocal interaction. You stopped distancing from her. Now your wife didn’t just take this change in stride and go on about her day did she…?”

Here the client has done what the therapist asked him to do. He’s made a change. But if this is all that happens, it’s only going to be a first order change. Tom’s wife is still going to be smothering him with her excessive need for closeness/intimacy, and they’re still going to be getting in fights. The only thing that is going to have changed is that she can no longer accuse him of running off to the workshop all the time, and she’ll have to pick some new manifestation of his lack of emotional empathy (like glancing at his watch all the time when she’s trying to talk to him, or keeping all conversations where she tries to share her frustrations at a surface level), or else the nature of the subject of their arguments will change (“Tom I could focus more on this work from home stuff and wouldn’t complain about it all the time if you’d take some of the pressure off me by helping me with the house more”). In such a case, their relationship has basically not changed. Compare to a 2nd-order change where the actual interaction cycle between the couple changes as a result of the first order change made by the husband:

Therapist: “If anything, she stepped up her attacks didn’t she? But it sounds like in the last week or so, she’s realized that you were never an appropriate target for her anxiety anyway, and has started to set more appropriate boundaries with her boss. Now that you’re not distancing from her, she’s not having to pursue you to get the emotional closeness that she feels she needs, and you don’t feel smothered by her and as a result have actually seen your sex drive come-back up to normal levels. This was the type of change we were looking for all along. We didn’t just want your wife to calm down, or you to be able to be interested in her again, we wanted the unhealthy behavior pattern that your family was using to handle your wife’s anxiety, or the rules that you had unknowingly developed about how to handle it, to change.”

Here, a first order change (the husband choosing to not retreat to the workshop so often) ended up upsetting the equilibrium of the interaction cycle so that the desired 2nd order change (the wife attributing her frustration/anxiety to it’s actual source, making necessary adjustments, and the husband and wife being able to enjoy one another’s company again.

Discussion Questions

Q1: Do you think the “Caring Days” exercise used in CBT for couples is an example of a 1st or 2nd order change?

Q2: It seems to me that it would be harder to engender 2nd order change in individual therapy, because all you can really do is get the client by whatever means (insight building, assigning homework, assigning a specific behavior etc.) to institute a 1st order change (something he or she can directly control) and then hope their 1st order change doesn’t get snuffed out by the family’s feedback loops: do you think that one type of therapy (individual vs. group/family) lends itself more to 1st or 2nd order change than another?

Q3: In the Self in the System book, Nichols talks about some people/families who get stuck in treatment. They become dependent on the therapist to help them hash out all of their problems. He says that this is because the therapist is jumping in to soon to moderate their abrasive comments, or offer suggestions rather than allowing the family to reach its own conclusions. Do you think this is another way of saying that the therapist is steering the family toward 1st order change instead of 2nd order change?

References

Becvar, D. S., & Becvar R. J. (2006) Family Therapy: A Systemic Integration (6nd Ed.). Boston: Pearson A & B.

Nichols, N. P. (1987). The Self in The System: Expanding the Limits of Family Therapy. Bristol, PA: Burnner/Mazel.

7 Comments

  1. Sybil Vess
    10:51 am, 11.02.09

    I think of the Caring Days as a first-order change that hopes to achieve a second-order change. It is first-order because the system still operates as it always has, with minor changes. It becomes second-order when the clients start doing the caring days not because they have to but because they want to. Initially, the clients will see the exercise as a task or homework, but the intent is for them to learn how to think differently about doing the caring deeds for each other. The hope is that the clients will start doing other caring deeds without having to be asked. They learn to express their love and appreciate each other in an entirely new way, making it second-order change.
    Great post, Kevin!

  2. Kevin Burnette
    11:07 pm, 11.02.09

    I’ve been trying to add a couple things to the main body of the post, but for some reason I can’t get word-press to accept my edits.

    Here’s a link for a video (relevant?) discussing the concept of 1st order change: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adcFYJYRbnQ

    If you’re a Foo Fighers fan, check it out.

    Bonus Q4: What should Olive Garden do? If putting in inexpensive menu items is an (unconstructive) 1st order change, what would be an example of a 2nd order change?

    Here’s another video of Paul Watzlowick (Palo Alto Group) speaking German: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7z9AVHOFg2U

  3. Sabrina Johnson
    4:09 pm, 11.03.09

    I do agree that it might be more difficult to bring about 2nd order change in a system when you only have one individual with which to work. However, I’m quite sure you can work on boundaries and the formation of the system. I’m not too sure I understand first and second order change well enough to discuss this, but here goes:

    So, example… If I have an individual who is being physically abused in a relationship but the abuser is not willing to come for therapy then the likelihood that second-order change will happen in that system is very low. However, if by individual therapy this person decides an abusive relationship is not what he or she wants or needs and he or she decides to leave the system… isn’t that formation or a new system or boundaries or something? I’m not sure that it would be second-order change because the “system” is no longer a “system”… but it would be second-order change for that individual, would it not? Aye aye aye… I wish I knew this better than I do.

  4. Ashley Roan
    12:51 pm, 11.11.09

    I agree with Sybil, caring days are a first order change initially. These things are not natural and may feel forced upon the client. Despite themselves, they do them for the other person. Though this process of making surface level changes of what they are doing, not how they feel about the caring day activity, ultimately their thinking is changed. When the person doing caring days sees the reaction of their partner, it may change their ideas about themselves, their partner, and their way of approaching several situations.
    I am a fan of solution focused therapy which I think has the same tendency to escalate from first order to second order change. Strategic therapy lends itself to first order change. The therapist may focus on just changing their behavior in order to have successful therapy.

  5. Kent Akers
    1:35 pm, 12.09.09

    I was thinking about question three. I feel like Nichols’ comments on the therapist jumping in too soon does show a therpist who is more concerned about first order change. It could be, though, that a therpist does this in order to stear a family toward second order change. If there isn’t some initial teaching or reordering in the families behavior, they would just function on the same level that maintained the presenting problem. As long as the therapist equips the family with the skill they need to reach second order change, focusing on first order change in the initial stages of therapy shouldn’t be a problem.

  6. John Andrews
    12:13 am, 10.20.13

  7. John Andrews
    12:15 am, 10.20.13

    Hello

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