Vicious circle

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A vicious circle , also Latin circulus vitiosus ("harmful circle") or downward spiral , is a system in which several factors reinforce each other ( positive feedback ) and thus continue to worsen a condition.


In the social sciences, a vicious circle is also referred to as a downward spiral , for example the spiral of silence or in economics the deflation spiral , the debt trap or the spiral of poverty . In contrast to the vicious circle, however, spirals can also reinforce a positive effect, such as the growth spiral. In conflict research , a vicious circle between parties with escalating violence is also referred to as a spiral of violence .

In process sociology , Norbert Elias uses the term vicious circle to refer to people who are caught in a clinch that continues to intensify. He later replaced it with the term double binder .


Original example from Watzlawick

In psychology, the vicious circle term was introduced by Paul Watzlawick to describe the pitfalls of different punctuation in interpersonal relationships. Watzlawick's original example of a married couple describes the following interaction: For some time now, the wife has been dissatisfied with the behavior of her husband, who then withdraws, e.g. B. goes to an inn. Both punctuate the cycle of the common behavior pattern differently:

wife He moves away from me. → I react and complain.
husband She nags me. → I respond by withdrawing.

Due to the different punctuation of a habitual process, the spouses see cause and effect the other way around : " Because she always nags me, I withdraw more and more." " Because he always withdraws, I complain."

Further developments according to Thomann / Schulz von Thun: vicious circle with four stations

This vicious circle idea was developed by Christoph Thomann and Friedemann Schulz von Thun into a vicious circle model with four stations, which should help to recognize the negative dynamics in a relationship, to understand the background and to grasp and resolve pitfalls. Four stations are differentiated and made visible, whereby the externally visible and effective behaviors (“expressions”) of both partners are entered in the angular boxes and their internal reactions (“ internalizations ”) to them are entered in the circles (see the vicious circle diagram) . Watzlawick's original example is thus expanded to include the inner reactions, in the example the feelings of the couple (see further development diagram) .

Diagram of the vicious circle according to Thomann / Schulz von Thun


  • Walter Milowiz: Vicious circle and life path - systemic thinking in social work . 2nd, revised edition. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2009, ISBN 978-3-525-40158-3 .
  • Paul Watzlawick : Human Communication, Forms, Disorders, Paradoxes (Original title: Pragmatics of human communication , with Janet H. Beavin, Don D. Jackson from the Mental Research Institute Palo Alto, California). Huber, Bern 1969, 10th edition 2010, ISBN 3-456-83457-8 .
  • Friedemann Schulz von Thun : Talking to one another, 2. Styles, values ​​and personal development . Rowohlt, Reinbek near Hamburg 1989, ISBN 978-3-499-62717-0 .
  • Friedemann Schulz von Thun: Talking to one another: questions and answers . Rowohlt, Reinbek near Hamburg 2007, ISBN 978-3-499-61963-2 .
  • Jürgen Beetz : Feedback: How feedback determines our lives and controls nature, technology, society and the economy . Springer Spectrum, Heidelberg 2015, ISBN 978-3-662-47089-3 .

See also