Group Phenomenon

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Wilfred R. Bion's work on group dynamics, developed in particular in his 1961 book Experiences in Groups, established a fundamental difference between individual and group mentalities; individual and group psychoanalysis must be treated differently, even though "the two methods provide the practitioner with a rudimentary binocular vision" and are "dealing with different facets of the same phenomena" (p. 8). In a group, individuals undergo a regression to defend themselves against the conflicts provoked or revealed by their participation in the group. This regression is expressed through formation of a "group mentality"a unanimous expression of the group's will, a defensive system of avoidance and denial, and a common repository for anonymous contributions that the individual members split off or disavow (such as their hostility toward the therapist). The individual contributes to the group mentality but is nevertheless situated in opposition to it, since it threatens the satisfactions of the individual's needs as a group animal. The group responds to this threat by means of a compromise formation, the "group culture."

Bion emphasizes the importance of the work (W ) group: the mental functioning (and not the individual participants) necessary to perform the joint task that the group has implicitly taken on. The work group must take reality into account ("reality testing"); its characteristics "are similar to those attributed by Freud [in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1920g] to the ego" (p. 143). The work group's methods are "rational, and therefore, in however embryonic a form, scientific" (p. 143), and they depend upon cooperation among the group's members, training, and the type of mental development defined by the aptitude for learning through experience. The members must undergo development rather than rely on magical efficacy.

The work group has come together to undertake a creative task, such as, to resolve the psychological problems of its members. However, the work group's rational intentions are, as a rule, impeded by obscure and chaotic emotional forces, which produce anomalies in the group's mental activity. These emotional forces are given coherence by the supposition that the group is acting as if its goal were motivated by a basic assumption. In contrast with the requirements of the work group, participation in an activity that depends on a basic assumption does not call for any training, experience, or individual mental development; it is instantaneous, inevitable, and instinctive, and it actually manifests an aggressive refusal to work or develop. The basic-assumption group does not make rational use of verbal communication; it does not develop language as a method of thought and instead uses words as a mode of action. The inability to form and use symbols, observed by Melanie Klein (1930) in an autistic child, extends to all individuals functioning as members of a basic-assumption group. The members seemingly wish to replace any process of elaboration with the ability to know magically, by instinct, without any development or learning, how to live and act in the group. Activity that depends on a basic assumption does not require any ability to cooperate on the part of the individual, but it supposes that the individualunless he or she is schizophrenicposseses a "valency," defined as "the individual's readiness to enter into combination with another in making and acting on the basic assumption" (p. 116). The hostile reaction against any process of development in the basic-assumption mentality indicates that time has no place in it, and interpretations of disturbed temporal relations elicit feelings of persecution. In fact, the basic-assumption group only exists outside of time; it neither disperses nor comes together. Inevitably, the basic-assumption group develops an intolerable frustration that can only be addressed by an awareness of the passage of time, and to counter this frustration, the group immediately and automatically puts into play behaviors and beliefs that define itself. Because he considered this theoretical model of basic assumption to be inadequate, Bion elaborated it by describing its modes of dependency, fight-flight, and pairing.

Sigmund Freud considered the Catholic Church and the army to be groups faced with the basic assumptions of, respectively, dependency (baD ) and fight-flight (baF )in effect, "specialized work groups." One of the goals of these groups is to prevent the basic assumption from being translated into action, which would require work-group methods to remain in contact with reality. The third type of specialized work group, involved in the basic assumption of pairing (baP ), Bion associated with the aristocracy and its preoccupation with reproduction and good genes. However, the psychoanalytic method itself constitutes a work group of two people centered around the basic assumption of pairing, which endows the transference with its characteristic features and only accounts for the link between individuals in terms of the libido, the latter designating only the specific quality of the valency characteristic of the pairing group.

A basic assumption can only be manifested in alternation with the two others. When one is active, it relegates the others to prototypes and confines them to the sphere of what Bion calls the "proto-mental." In this sphere, the physical, the psychological, and the mental are not differentiated and the emotional components are blurred together because they have not yet come into being on the psychological plane. The group expresses (proto-) emotions from this sphere by putting into play a basic assumption, and the psychological expression of these emotions reinforces, invades, or dominates the group's mental life. The proto-mental phase in the individual is only a part of the proto-mental system. Proto-mental phenomena cannot be understood solely as functions of the individual, but must be studied within the group. Somatic illnesses can be manifested in the individual, but their full context is in the relationship between the individual and the active basic-assumption group and in the proto-mental phases of the two other basic assumptions. The basic-assumption group that sweeps aside the essential part of individual mentality still operant in the work group thus expresses, on a level that is more neurophysiological than psychological, the primitive parts that live a group life within each individual.

Bernard Defontaine

See also: Family therapy; Group analysis.


Bion, Wilfred R. (1961). Experiences in groups. London: Tavistock.

. (1970). Attention and interpretation. London: Tavistock.

Grinberg, León; Sor, Darío; and Tabak de Bianchedi, Elizabeth. (1993). New introduction to the work of Bion (rev. ed.). Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

Meltzer, Donald. (1986). The proto-mental apparatus and soma-psychotic phenomena. In Studies in extended metapsychology. London: Clunie Press.

Pines, Malcolm. (Ed.). (1985). Bion and group psychotherapy. London: Routledge.