Adventures in Groups, Part 2: A grand unified theory of weird group behaviour

Hi! We are back with another Adventures in Groups post, starting a conversation about unconscious processes in group life. Last week we talked about all the ways groups make us act and feel weird, do bad things, make unwise decisions, or literally make us crazy. Today we’re going to get to the heart of things – why does this happen?

An important theory as to why groups make us weird comes from psychoanalyst and thinker Wilfred Bion. He believed that groups are affected by the unconscious needs and desires of their members, and this is why groups can be so unpredictable and dangerous. Bion makes the distinction between “work groups”, which have a defined task and can achieve it, and “basic assumption groups”, which fall prey to one of Bion’s “basic assumptions” (more on those below) and lose the ability to stay on task. While they sound a bit jargon-y and weird, the “basic assumptions” do make sense if you think about it.

Bion came up with three basic assumptions which he felt explained a lot of group dysfunction:

The basic assumption of dependency. The group is dependent on a strong leader and can do nothing without them. The great leader knows all, understands all, is responsible for all. Does this sound familiar?

The basic assumption of pairing. This one’s a bit weirder, but bear with me. In this case, the group is obsessed with the coming forth of a saviour or messiah figure who will solve all of their problems. Because this sounds insane, it’s not in the forefront of anyone’s mind, but instead presents itself as an obsession that two of its members are sleeping together (and thus conceiving that messiah). Anyone who’s been part of a club, class, or workplace with a rampant rumour mill will understand this one, or who’s a fan of a series or franchise where fans are obsessed with pairing different characters off.

The basic assumption of fight/flight. Here the group comes to believe that some other group is responsible for all of their problems and so react to them with hostility and aggression, or avoid them at all costs. Does this one sound familiar too?

So if we assume that these are a useful way to describe what happens in groups, how does a group fall into one? The theory is that group members project their unconscious needs and desires onto each other, then through the process of projective identification, take on those projections and act them out. So without even thinking about it, we find ourselves convinced that we’re unable to do simple tasks without help from our managers, or that the team across the hall is deliberately messing with the office thermostat to make us uncomfortable, or that Richard and Jane are totally hooking up during those breakfast meetings of theirs. This is an unpredictable and unstable process where anything can and does happen.

What do you think? Are the basic assumptions accurate, or at least useful? And if they are, did Bion miss any? What basic assumptions would you add to the list?

Next up: A roadmap to surviving and thriving in groups, or what to do when the group does things to you that you don’t want it to.

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