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Bion’s Theory of Assumptive Cultures

Group psychotherapists often discuss the work of W. R. Bion, who offered up a host of insights into groups and their processes in his writings, but particularly in his book Experiences in Groups, which was published by Tavistock in 1959 but then circulated much more widely in 1961 (when printed by Basic Books).  Bion was a classically trained psychoanalyst, who with his colleague John Rickman used groups as part of treatment program carried out during World War II at a Northfield Military Hospital. The treatment they implemented there was radical for times, but includes the basic principles found in most group-level approaches to change—flattened status structures, development of a therapeutic milieu, focus on the group and its dynamics (the “here and now” perspective) rather than on events external to the group, and the development of trust and openness.

Those experiences in the group apparently puzzled Bion considerably, and he spent a number of years reconciling those experiences with his formal training with (and psychoanalysis by) Melanie Klein.  The result was his creative theory of assumptive cultures.  Like many organizational theorists Bion believed that a group members embrace a set of shared beliefs that functions in ways that are similar to the functions of “culture” in a society—defining correct behavior, establishing rituals, organizing status structures, and so on.  But Bion uniquely suggested that groups shift from one culture to another rapidly—perhaps instantaneously—and that these shifts betray the fundamental irrationality of individuals when in groups. His key terms include:

Group mentality: “the unanimous expression of the will of the group, contributed to by the individual in ways of which he is unaware, influencing him disagreeably whenever he thinks or behaves in a manner at variance with the basic assumptions” (p. 65).

Group culture: “the structure which the group achieves at any given moment, the occupations it pursues, and the organization it adopts” (p. 55).

Work group culture: relatively standard, “normal,” group structures, designed to facilitate the attainment of group goals and also satisfy group members’ needs.

Basic assumptive culture: The tendency for the group to structure itself, spontaneously, “guarding itself” from certain one of the basic fears, or conflicts, that groups illicit in their individual members. These basic fears are “fight-flight,” “dependency,” and “pairing”.

Valency: “Freud turns to discussion of something that crops up under a variety of names, such as ‘suggestion’, ‘imitation,’ ‘prestige of leaders’, ‘contagion’. I have used ‘valency’ partly because I would avoid the meanings that already adhere to the terms I have listed, partly because the term ‘valency,’ as used in physics to denote the power of combination of atoms, carries with it the greatest penumbra of suggestiveness useful for my purpose. But it I mean the capacity of the individual for instantaneous combination with other individuals in an established pattern of behavior–the basic assumptions” (p. 175).

When in the working group culture members are focused on the group’s task and its issues, they communicate with each other openly and honestly, and they react rationally rather than emotionally. But when something within the situation arouses individuals fears and anxiety (often, fears and anxieties they do not even recognize at the conscious level) then the working group culture gives way to one of the basic assumptive cultures.

  • Dependency culture: The group seems to be excessively dependent on the leader or on the group itself. Members may complain of being neglected, misunderstood, or criticized; they may compete like frivolous siblings for a mother’s attention; they may idealize the group and its leaders; or they may become passively compliant, even sullen, in response to the leader’s requests. The group may not express their needs overtly, but at an unconscious level they are disappointed that the leader is not an all-knowing sage who can magically fulfill all their needs.
  • Fight/flight culture: the group feels threatened either by an internal source–such as a clearly dissatisfied group member or an intervention by the therapist that is rejected by a client—or by an external source—such as the existence of other groups that seem superior or alternatives for their members or their leader. The group may feel it must have a powerful leader who will lead them to victory against their enemies, or guide their retreat to safety. These unrecognized anxieties trigger considerable conflict within the group, as some members of the group challenge the leader’s authority, others take sides as subgroups form to support or rebel against the leader, and some withdraw. A stubbornly quiet, low-energy group may be one that is resisting the leader, or retreating from the work that must be done.
  • Pairing assumption: the group’s focus shifts from the group-as-a-whole to one (or more) dyadic pairs within the group. During this phase the group members may find themselves discussing romantic expectations and fantasies, speculating about sexual alliances between the group’s members, and struggling to create an idea or insight that will resolve their anxieties.

Bion’s analysis is dense with insights about groups and their dynamics.  A selective sample follows:

p. 168: “The individual is a group animal at war, both with the group and with those aspects of his personality that constitute his ‘groupishness.’

p. 169: “No individual, however isolated in time and space, should be regarded as outside a group or lacking in active manifestations of group psychology.

p. 170: “A group acting on basic assumption would need neither organization nor a capacity for co-operation. The counterpart of co-operation in the basic-assumption group is valency–a spontaneous, unconscious function of the gregarious quality in the personality of man.

p. 171: “Le Bon described the leader as one under whom a collection of human beings instinctively place themselves, accepting his authority as their chief; the leader must fit in with the group in his personal qualities and must himself be held by a strong faith in order to awaken the group’s faith. His view of the leader as one who must fit in with the group in his personal qualities is compatible with my view that any leader is ignored by the group when his behavior or characteristics fall outside the limits set by the prevalent basic assumption.

p. 172: “In work-group activity time is intrinsic: in basic assumption activity it has no place. Basic-assumption group functions are active before ever a group comes together in a room, and continue after the group has dispersed. There is neither development nor decay in basic-assumption functions, and in this respect they differ totally from those of the work group.”

p. 175: “I do not in the least believe that there is a reduction of intellectual ability in the group, nor yet that ‘great decisions in the realm of thought and momentous discoveries and solutions of problems are only possible to an individual working in solitude’ (McDougall, 1920).

  1. John Knight
    February 24, 2014 at 8:31 pm

    I am using the Gourp Dynamics 5ed textbook in a course on small group dynamics.

    The book does not mention Bion, Tavistock group relations conferences, or basic assumptions.

    How can that be? Isn’t the work relevant to group dynamics theory?

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