‘Fitting in’ and ‘parataxic distortion’



It is intriguing to observe how classes of adult learners quickly fall into patterns of sitting and working together. Some individuals do remain outliers, joining in as required but not seeming to feel any need to belong in an intense ‘making friends’ kind of way. More about these learners in another post, for now I want to explore my understanding of the term ‘parataxic distortion’ and the kind of impact it may have on the formation of groups in study settings.

I first met the term years ago and understood it to have a positive and affirming meaning, somewhat like this description provided by Janet K Ruffing in her book “Spiritual Direction: Beyond the beginnings” –

A very common experience of parataxic distortion occurs when we meet someone who initially reminds us in an uncanny way of someone else we have known. Usually, we become aware of such reactions fairly rapidly and can monitor them until we get to know the new person. This awareness can prevent us from acting as if he or she in the other person. As we get more familiar with the individuals’ uniqueness and history, the distortion usually dissolves on its own.

Given this interpretation I have used it to help adult learners explore their own initial behaviours in the setting of formal tertiary classes, where I know they will are highly likely to be experiencing anxiety and concern about their ability to cope with what they have committed to. Once enough time has passed for the class to settle into routines and norms of behaviour I may disrupt the emerging complacency by revealing some of the theories that explain their actions, and then invite them to examine the significance of the theories for their own teaching and learning strategies and contexts.

In one class the information is in the text and specifically designated class members are required to ‘find and explain’ it to everyone else. [XB – Manual for a Learning Organisation]. But that too is a topic for a forthcoming post.

http://academics.smcvt.edu/rputzel/xb/maximum_use_of_process_xb.htm and http://www.uow.edu.au/cedir/enrole/rp_repository.html [last item on the list J]

the very oddity of the term ‘parataxic distortion’ makes it memorable and the subject of great curiosity. We do not examine it closely, but the idea that we have this unconscious response to others encourages insights into personal responses to new contexts that are often associated with heightened emotions.

One event in my life, which I attribute to this phenomenon occurred when I arrived somewhat later than intended for the opening dinner of a conference on my first ever visit to England. When I arrived at the dining room door, the maitre d’ politely began to usher me towards one of two small round unoccupied tables, located [it seemed to me at the time] in the centre of a ring of about 150 noisy cheerful people seated at long bench tables all ‘pointing’ at that empty table. Panicking at the idea of being so exposed and alone in the middle of the crowd, I stopped dead, saying “No, not there!” “Where then?” he asked looking around at the crowded tables. I could not see an empty seat, but nonetheless, without conscious thought, pointed at a group and said “There!” Resigned, he collected the table setting and followed me over to where I’d pointed. Everyone cheerfully moved to include me and I felt so much more ‘safe’ than at that exposed lonely table.

As the evening wore on we exchanged the usual information about our work and interests bringing us to a conference on action learning. And then something strange began to unfold. Conversation at the table began to gravitate towards personal interests – and I found I had joined the one group in that large crowd who shared a passion for military history – something I had in common with them, despite being female and committed to non-violent solutions to conflict. We had a great time, that evening, sharing knowledge, ideas, and pleased surprise that – all strangers before we had met at the table – we had ‘by chance’ arrived at the one corner of the room where our passion could get an airing within a context neither devoted to ‘military’ or ‘history’!

More recently, when I researched the psychiatric origins of the term it turns out to have – as so common in psychiatry – to have strong negative overtones –

Parataxic distortion is a psychiatric term first used by Harry S. Sullivan to explain the inclination to skew perceptions of others based on fantasy. The “distortion” is in the way we perceive others, based not on actual experience with the individual but from a projected fantasy personality.

[The word] Parataxic is from the Greek παράταξις, “placement side by side”) distortion …

Parataxic distortion is very difficult to avoid completely, because of the nature of human learning and interaction.

This sort of stereotyping and classification of people in groups has a distorting effect on the clear perception of an individual.



The term was created by Harry S. Sullivan to describe inaccuracies in judgment and perception, and psychiatric literature refers the reader to literature on transference.

To my mind the neat distinction Sullivan made was to use a term that describes the experience/process as occurring within the individual, without also asserting that something will be ‘transferred’ or re-located and will then need to be withdrawn or re-adjusted before the individual can be re-stabilised.

For those working with adult learners the term can be helpful in assessing the ebb and flow of movement in a class or group, without needing to make judgments about hidden intentions.


About gamestolearn

Games designer, and teacher of games design.
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