W. R. Bion on Group Dynamics
by Paramendra Bhagat
December 13, 1999.
W. R. Bion, in his book Experiences in Groups and Other Papers (1959), delineates his observations on Group Dynamics.
Groups are formed with a loss of individual distinctiveness on the part of the individuals composing them and are defined as an “aggregation of individuals in the same state of regression (Bion 142).” Human groups have an element of instant recognition for each other no matter what the diversity in their cultural backgrounds. They are more than the sum of the members composing them. Members are stimulated by their groups but are also repelled by the primitive fears they ignite (187). Initiation into a group has been compared to a newborn’s first contact with the mother’s breast.
Bion introduces several concepts, one of which is that of the proto-mental system, “(one) in which physical and mental activity is undifferentiated, and which lies outside the field ordinarily considered profitable for psychological investigation (153).” It is a realm that does not deal with individual or even group psychology but with the dynamics of groups the way chemists deal with the electrons but not the nucleus of the atom, or the cook deals with food but not with the composition of it the way a chemist might. This concept takes group dynamics beyond the realms of studies of individuals as individuals rather than members of groups.
Another concept Bion introduces is that of valency, borrowed from chemistry. It is described as “the capacity of the individual for instantaneous combination with other individuals in an established pattern of behavior (175).” This concept leads credence to the later assertion that individuals start with some primal instincts within them that they seek to fulfill after losing part of their individuality once gaining membership of groups.
The leader of the group plays an important role in sustaining it and is focal to its existence, but it is not true that the group is the invention of the leader, the opposite is. The group creates its leader who or, in the case of an idea being the leader, which sustains it. Some person or idea fills the role already created by the type of group that might happen to be. The freedom of the leader is considerably circumcised as that of the members of the group even though the members instinctively might feel the need to follow the leader. The group ignores the leader that moves beyond the prescribed role or the “basic assumption,” a concept to be dealt with later in the paper. Hence the leader does stand out in that he or she or it is indispensable but is not free. The leadership roles differ depending on the nature of the group.
There are two basic types of groups: the work groups, and the basic assumption groups.
The work groups meets to perform a certain task and focus on certain mental activities rather than the individuals that are its components (143). The work groups tend to rely on rational methods to perform their set tasks. The work groups engage in translating thoughts and feelings into action and behavior that hold some relationship to reality whereas the basic assumption groups permeate feelings and are indifferent to their surrounding reality.
Unlike the basic assumption groups, the work groups place an emphasis on understanding, growth and development. Hence the work groups tend to have organizations and structures whereas the basic assumption groups do without them because they can do without feelings of co-operation. Intellectual activity that might not fit in with the basic assumptions are ignored by the basic assumption groups. The valency of the individuals in the case of the basic assumption groups does what co-operation does for the work groups. The basic assumption groups rely on primal feelings for their sustenance and are not composed to seek development. In fact they experience intense feelings of vitality when they manage to resist change (159).
The work groups recognize time but the basic assumption groups do not. In fact the basic assumption groups feel threatened by any attempt to make it aware of the dimension of time and persecute any such efforts. The basic assumption groups are immune to both development and decay (171). These groups neither disperse nor meet. The experience of impatience for the work groups is translated into a feeling of anxiety on the part of the basic assumption groups.
Verbal exchange is an element associated with the work groups and not with the basic assumption groups. The basic assumption groups do not use language as a vehicle for thought and its use lacks precision and scope. There is a limited use for the formation and use of symbolic communication. The characteristic is tied in with the group's urge to do without development.
It is important for the leader of a work group to maintain contact with reality but the leader of a basic assumption group can do without it.
The basic assumption groups respond "involuntarily, automatically, inevitably" to unexplained impulses and release psychotic anxiety and basically are "emotional states that find an outlet in the mass action of the group in behavior that seems to have coherence if it is considered to be the outcome of a basic assumption (189)." The feelings of anxiety, fear, hate and love are commonly shared by the basic assumption groups.
The basic assumption groups are of three broad types: the dependence groups, the pairing groups and the fight-flight groups. There also are schismatic groups and specialized work groups.
The feelings that hold these groups are guilt and depression in the case of the dependent group, Messianic hope in the case of the pairing group, and anger and hate in the case of the fight-flight group. God or some "past" leader is at the helm of the dependent group. In the case of the pairing group it is the unborn genius or the "future" leader. The fight-flight group accepts for its leader whoever might lead it to run away from or attack an object or group that is hated or feared and can adeptly change to one mode of action from another.
The dependent group relies on its history to provide it with leadership.
Schismatic groups exist when one large group has the qualities of the dependent group and is resistant to change whereas there is a much smaller reciprocal group that is so devoted to some new idea that it therefore has few converts. The two groups avoid coming together and thus development is prevented. "Society breeds copiously from its least cultural members while the 'best' people remain obdurately sterile (160)."
The pairing group is characterized by "the air of hopeful expectation (151)." The feelings are diametrically opposite to those of hatred, destruction and despair; but it is important that the leader, not necessarily a member of the group or even a person, but perhaps an idea or an object, remains unborn and the Messianic hope remains unrealized for the group to continue its existence. Once they are realized, the group is weakened and feelings of hope are gradually taken over by feelings of despair.
Some work groups develop sub-groups that provide the channel for the need for Messianic hope without disturbing the functionality of the work group.
The fight-flight group, of all the groups, exhibits a total absence of understanding as a technique for functioning and is driven almost exclusively by the feeling of hate.
Bion proposes that groups are driven by something even more fundamental than the basic assumptions and they are the primitive phantasies about the mother's body. There is a primal impulse to pair and the resultant anxiety makes individuals seek allies. "The more disturbed the group the more easily discernible are these primitive phantasies and mechanisms … the more stable the more it corresponds to Freud's description of the group as a repetition of family group patterns and neurotic mechanisms (165)."
It is possible to raise the mental life of a group to a higher mental plane such that the basic assumption groups do not get in the way of the work groups but that is done by acknowledging rather than ignoring the emotions that drive the basic assumption groups. While Bion's observations explain the strong resistance to change extracted by groups all around us, they also posit hope that the same understanding can provide room to devise ways in which change can be implemented meaningfully.