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The Resilience of Groups

So what is to become of the members of the Wild Boars, the soccer team trapped for 18 days in a cave in Thailand, now that they have been rescued? Will they suffer long-term psychological problems as a result of their ordeal, or will they move on with their lives, getting back to their families, their school, and the soccer field with hardly a misstep?

Many experts have warned that the experience will lead to continuing psychological problems for the boys, but there is cause for optimism. The boys were part of an intact, supportive group–a sports team–and just as the group sustained its members during the ordeal, it may sustain them in the days to come.

Groups do, of course, often get their members into trouble; the boys and their coach, as a group, did not heed the warning signs and decided to venture deep into the caves. But just as groups can be the cause of much misfortune, so they are also the source of support and relief. First reports of the 18 days spent in the caves suggest that the team banded together, marshaling its combined resources to cope with the experience, for if anyone can survive such a disaster, it is a group—and an organized one at that. Just as other groups facing such dire predicaments–for example, the trapped Chilean miners and the Old Christian rugby team stranded in the Andes–survived by relying on the group, so the trapped soccer team was able to overcome obstacles that would have overwhelmed any one person.

The boys will, undoubtedly, be troubled by the dark memories of their horrific ordeal, but just as their group helped them survive when underground, their group will also help them as they rejoin the world above. The recovery of many groups that have faced difficult circumstances–victims of bus crashes, the Old Christian rugby team, combat units, survivors of school shootings–is often more favorable when members cope collectively: when they are able to gather together and provide mutual support to one another. Family, friends, and experts can offer useful information for solving problems, making decisions, and setting their goals, but the group can be trusted: their shared experience authenticates both their sympathy for one another and the wisdom of their advice, guidance, and suggestions. Even now, early reports suggest that the boys are turning to one another for or spiritual support, as they reconfirm their understanding of the experience and develop a shared sense of meaning. When the boys experience difficulties–sleepless nights, problems coping with their new-found fame, self-doubts about their future–the group can help them.

Will conflict arise within the group, in time? Certainly, as the group struggles problems will disrupt the group’s unity (typically, blame about the cause of the predicament, emotional expressions of anger, interference by outsiders, strengthening of status differentiation), but successful groups manage to weather these threats to their cohesion and stay unified. The group will always remind members of the ordeal they experienced, but the group will also remind them they that they survived.

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Bion’s Theory of Assumptive Cultures

December 17, 2011 2 comments

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).