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Regression Tendencies and Conflict Generation in Groups Individuality versus Collectivity Dr. Athena Chatjoulis- Department of Communication and Media Studies, University of Athens. - My experience from running groups of young adults in short or long term psychotherapeutic groups

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Regression Tendencies and Conflict

Generation in Groups

Individuality versus Collectivity

Dr. Athena Chatjoulis- Department of Communication

and Media Studies, University of Athens.


- My experience from running groups of

  • young adults in short or long term psychotherapeutic groups
  • - Issues:
  • the way in which the ambivalence expressed by the members of the group to remain or not in the group was reflecting their ambivalence to remain or not in their job or even their ambivalence to remain in their relationship

Questions: Do I want to belong to a group?

Do I want to be alone?

Do I want to be inside or

outside the system,

or inside and outside the

system – the work, the family


-> Discuss:

  • - how the study of the unconscious processes
  • that take place during group formation can help
  • us to understand:
  • -> the individual’s need of belongingness and
  • his ambivalent feelings concerning his desire to become a member of a group or stay out of it
  • how the collectivephenomena in any group, may
  • put the individual in a situation of insoluble
  • conflictby generating anxiety feelings and
  • regression tendencies


-> This fundamental ambivalence

between collectivity and individuality

is even more prominent in post-modern

flexible societies as it is

the individual’s need of belongingness


The analysis is mainly centered on

the “group-as-a-whole”approach and Bion’s

theory and

on the various stages the group goes through:

-> the “emerging group stage”,

-> the “fraternal community stage or

the “affiliated group”,

-> the “differentiated group”,

-> the stage of “fragmented group”

(Ettin, 1996, 2000, Neri, 1998)



The basic assumption for this type of analysis

is that:

the group is the primitive form of expression of

any social organization and that humans as

social animals perceive themselves only

in relation to the group they belong to.

Their “group-self” consists the

core of their personal identity.


Groups are defined

not as an aggregate cluster of persons,

but as

“collective formations of interacting individuals”,

(Lewin, 1951)


Scientists who worked

on group phenomena and mass psychology

as well as analysts of individual

psychodynamics (Le Bon, McDougall,

Freud), associated the unconscious processes

which underlie individual’s behavior with the

behavior of small and large groups and the

society as a whole, using psychoanalytical

and sociological notions and models to

describe and interpret relational and group



In addition,

research on the dual relation

between “parent-child”, and on the therapeutic

relationship between “analyst-client”

and on the notions of transference and

counter transference offered many

insights to group psychology.


For example, the studies

- on the defense mechanisms (Anna Freud), or

- on the processes of projective identifications

(Klein) were used to analyze

how people try to protect themselves

at any cost from personal and social

stress in order to maintain an integrated ego.

-Later they were used by other researchers

(Zalesnik, 1984) to demonstrate how social

systems defend themselves against collective

stress in order to maintain their organizational



“The group-as-a-whole”,

“… Perhaps we ought to reverse the traditional

assumptions,equally shared by psychoanalysts,

about the individual being the ultimate entity

and that group phenomena are to be interpreted

through the individual. The opposite is true.

The group, the community is the ultimate,

primary unit of study and the inner processes

of the individual are internalizationsof the forces

operating in the groups the individualbelongs to”



“The group-as-a-whole” approach

Lewin (1951), Bion (1961, 1970),

Foulkes (1964)

- is the result of the special model for the

analysis of group relations developed at the London Tavistock Institute of Human


Bion (1961), Rice (1963), Foulkes (1964). Rioch (1970) and Back (1972


“The group-as-a-whole” approach

evolved in a heart of a century marked

by two world wars

Two fundamental themes are emphasized

in this approach:

a)      the perennial tension between

individual and collective needs and

b)the equally ubiquitous tension

between authoritarian and

democratic patterns

of group life.


Overall these approaches suggest that the outcome of the union of any number of people who make up a group either for

clinical, organizational or political

purposes is

a new entity with autonomous, evolving, structural,dynamic and relational attributes

reflecting but overriding the individuals

it is comprised of.


As Foulkes mentions:

“the group-as-a-whole”is not just a turn of phrase,

it is a living organism, as distinct from the

individuals it is comprised of. It has mood

and reactions, a spirit, a feeling and

a particular atmosphere

(Foulkes, 1964, p. 70).


Thus, when individuals become members

of a group, their behavior changes

and a collective identity emerges:

a task group, a sports team,

a lynch mob, a utopian community,

an organization – they all become

a new whole, a Gestalt, whereby

the group is the point of focus

and the individual members

become the background.



speaks of the mental states (mentality)

of the group:

in the group there is a regressive mentality

(which in some measure corresponds to

Freud’s mass group)

and evolutive mentality

(shown, for example, in a capacity

to co-operate in order to attain an end).



-> Turned his attention to the analysis of more

primary levels of the individual’s mental life and

concluded that group phenomena cannot be

understood according to the model of the

Oedipus complex or the model of family ties.

 -> Developed his theory

Using concepts from M. Klein object-relation

theory, from Lewin’s field theory and

From the theory of general systems

(Bertalanffy, 1968).



life in any group evolves on two levels:

on the level of task, which constitutes

the ‘work group or rational group’,

and on the level of primary psychic phenomena,

which constitutes

the ‘basic assumptions group’.


The work group is characterized by a state

of co-operative and deliberate mental


The task is explicit, rational, conscious

and immediately related to objective


For Bion, the ‘work group’ is a collective

mentality and at the same time an aspect

of the individual mind.


The phrase ‘work group’ used by Bion,

is there to illustrate that a learning activity

is necessary for the achievement of

the group’s aims,


that participation in the ‘work-group’ also

implies having developed

some skills which Freud had indicated

as characteristics of the individual’s

Ego, that is attention, verbal representation

and symbolic thought.


The basic assumptions group

is characterized by an implicit, irrational,

fantasy-dominated state which emerges

when regression or emotional needs prevail.

It is a collective expression of the group

whereby the physical, psychological

and mental elements are not differentiated

but constitute a field where emotions arise

instinctively and instantly overwhelming

and dominating the mental activities of the group.

It is a primitive mentality state.


In the basic assumption group

the group operates as if certainthings were true

like, for instance, that the leader is all-powerful

and wise. This may lead to over-dependency

on him. In other words, the primary needs,

fantasies and desires of each group member

come to surface.

This may create an emotionally charged and

illogical atmosphere which prevents the group

from pursuing its task, i.e. from becoming

a ‘work group’


The “basic assumptions” are:

the basic assumption of dependency,

the basic assumption of fight-flightand

the basic assumption of pairing.

At the basic assumptions level, the group behaves

“as if” one of these states truly existed, and

“as if” certain behaviors were vital for the

survival of the group.

“Basic” refers to the survival motivation of group;

“assumption” underlines the fact that the survival

motivation is based, not on fact or reality,

but on the collective projections of the group


-> the basic assumption of dependency,

Aim to attain security and protection from a


->the basic assumption of fight-flight

“as if” its survival depends on some form

of action manifested either as an attack or flight

(flight from the group’s task,

-> the basic assumption of pairing.

establishment of bonding between two individuals

-a pair- which will give “birth” to an idea or a new

leader, a “Messiah” who will save the

group, and help it complete its task.


In Bion’s essay, “Experiences in groups”

(Bion, 1961), the two group states,

‘the work group’ and the ‘basic assumptions group’ do not exist in a continuum but appear

as both concurrent and opposite.

We could say, that the evolved man

(expression of the work group) and regressed man (expression of primitive mentality) are present in both the caveman and his modern

descendant technological man.


- Besides, the active and simultaneous presence

of these two states both in the group as a whole

and in each one of its members puts the individual

in a situation of insoluble conflict. If he participates

only in the work group, he feels deprived of

warmth and strength. If he persists in the basic

assumptions group, he knows he may find

it impossible to pursue his own goals as

a thinking individual.


The various stages the group goes through

during its formation:

-> the “emerging group stage”,

-> the “fraternal community stage or

the “affiliated group”,

-> the “differentiated group”,

-> the stage of “fragmented group”

(Ettin, 1996, 2000, Neri, 1998)


-> the “emerging group stage”,

is characterized by a collective illusion

whereby the individuals-members of the group

exist and interact as being in

“the best group of the world”,

on the one side, and by experiences

of personality fragmentation,

on the other.


-> the “emerging group stage”,

Initially, a sense of euphoria grabsthe members

of the group who are flooded by pleasant

feelings of belongingsomewhere.

“The aim is to become a team,a good team,

where everybody is able to interact without fear

of loosing their individuality”.

This collective fantasy is an answer

to the individual’s fear of fusion into the group.

It is a desire for security, a desire to preserve

a threatened ego.


-> the “emerging group stage”,

This collective illusion is also

a positive aspect in the group’s evolution

because it is a way to answer the immediate

need of members to be together,

even if they still lack the ability

to establish relationships

between them.


-> the “emerging group stage”,

Although they are

still unable to constitute a group of people

capable of working together,

‘they may nevertheless be together as if

they were in a dream where everyone

may walk his own way, speak his ownlanguage,

incomprehensible to the others,

but all of them still living in the same dream.


-> the “emerging group stage”,

On the other hand,the regression tendencies prevailing in this stage reflect the level of the “basic assumptions group” where fantasies and emotions emerge and reinforce the struggle between collectivityand individuality.

“The group should continue to exist

as-a-whole… and work together

to move on..but I don’t want to loose



-> the “emerging group stage”,

These opposing feelings however,

may bring the individual in a state

of confusion.

What members experience as “individuality”

at this stage is not autonomy but isolation.

Autonomy and isolation are confounded

for although members want to be autonomous,

they also desire to co-exist in the group.


-> the “emerging group stage”,

Thus, “autonomy can only be experienced

as withdrawal” and becomes threatening

In this stage, the need for differentiation

and the need for relationships require

a constant redefinition of self-image by

the other object, a constant need to distinguish

between the Ego, the ‘you’ and the ‘us’.


-> the “emerging group stage”,

Anzieu, Bion and Neri, analyzing this stage of illusion and non-differentiation, talk about a state of loss of boundaries, where similar feelings occur as in the passage from sleep to waking.

It is a stage where there are feelings of loss of reality, and where, although there is no detachment from experience, neither there is a possibility of directing one’s own participation in a voluntary and active way.


-> The fraternal Community Stage – or –

The affiliated Group

The processes of the emerging group state,

gradually lead to construction of new group

schemes by stimulating adequate collective

forms of thinking and information processing.

The thoughts of individuals-members

of the group become relevant to each other

as each member continues the thoughts

or words of the members speaking

before them (resonance phenomenon).


-> The fraternal Community Stage

The discussion mainly concerns the state or

experience of the group in the here and now

communications and interrelations.

It is the phase, in which there

is a growing awareness of the existence

and working potential of the group as a

collective subject, and as a community

capable of thought.


-> The fraternal Community Stage

“the moment of fusion”,

Jean Paul Sartre (1984)

He suggests that there comes a moment in the evolution of a group, “the moment of fusion”, whereby what was previously an aggregate of people is transformed into a different coherent whole,a “suprapersonal whole”.


-> The fraternal Community Stage

The true notion of collective thinking starts at the exact moment the group enters this stage of fusion whereby each individual emerges from isolation,exploitation, incapacity and takes an active part in the group.

The individual is not alone in life but as a member of the group he mayadapt to reality or try to change it.


-> The fraternal Community Stage

  • Awareness of being a group:
  • people realize that their belonging to the group
  • is no longer under discussion
  • -They become more decline to put themselves at
  • risk
  • -They see the leader as being less rigid and
  • distant, and more human and vulnerable.
  • They loose their dependence on and the fear of
  • the leader (therapist)
  • They try to locate their personal thoughts and
  • questions within the group field.

The fraternal Community Stage

  • - Characterized a collective, productive
  • and creative marriage between its members.
  • The state of Bion’s “work group” prevails
  • - Members are not fused and the group does
  • not have to be one-dimensional.
  • - People discover themselves through relationships
  • and interactions with other group members
  • This state stimulates feelings of
  • “belonging somewhere and having a
  • common purpose”.

The “fragmented group

  • Emphasis is placed on individuality and differentiation. This becomes dysfunctional, the group splits.
  • A state of decomposition characterized by unsolved conflicts or autistic communication.
  • Members are not talking to each other or, if they do, they do not address each other but rather speak of each other. They feel isolated, separated and lost. The group fails to be a source of support, safety or identity.

The “differentiated group”

is characterized by a well-organized and self-determined structure where the forces of collectivity and individualitytotally complement each other,

The investigation of “personal roles” against “group roles” as well asmaintaining an isomorphic relation between members and the whole contribute to preserving the state

of the “differentiated group”


In all stages of group evolution,

members interact and interrelate by transferring

and projecting emotions and values on

the cultural level of the group.

In the members’ consciousness,

the group gradually turns into a common

object they can share but also one

to which they may

project undesired emotions and actions.


Role of leader:

Ask questions about the status of the group

at every moment of its existence:

- “when” and “how” differences between members can be evaluated andintegrated in the group-as-a-whole?

- “when interactions between members hide aggressive feelings and conflicts?

- “What are the concealed fears behind projections?

- “What are the concealed primary needs?

- “What ambivalent feelings are floating in the group and how could they be integratedin the group-as-a-whole?


“… If the individual abandons its difference

within a group and allows the other members

to influence it by way of suggestions

and impositions, it conveys the impression

that it does it because it feels the need to

be in harmony with them and not in opposition

– perhaps it does it “ihnen zu Liebe”

(for their love).

Freud (1930) Civilization and its Discontents,


A member of the small psychotherapy group,

Michael, wonders:

“I don’t know if I’m any good

with my job, I’ve got nothing to compare it with”

and continues, “I’m not sure I want to stay

in this job”.

“I, on the contrary”, says Helen, “

will do my best, I want to keep this job,

I want to build up my CV,

I want to work for other companies too”.



-Helen is worried when people are missing

from the group; while she herself is always

there, the first to arrive.

-In contrast, Michael is always late,

making excuses for his absence,

always questioning if the group will manage

to go on, or even if it is worth to



In Late-modernity

  • Any need to satisfy feelings of belongingness
  • is considered negative, an obstacle to freedom,
  • a shameful thing, a proof of personal failure.
  • - However, in a society where people believe
  • they do not need anyone and nobody needs
  • them, they feel that they can only survive being
  • in a team.

It is only through the group that people

  • can achieve true recognition of their
  • achievements, orof their individuality.
  • It is only in relation to ‘the other’ that one can
  • feel that he exists as a separate even
  • an autonomous being.

-In post-modern organizations, workers are

encouraged (e.g. with sales bonuses, capital

shares, etc.) to make the organization or the team

they belong to as their own team, and thus

to fight for its success.

-This identification with the group or the leader

of the organization offers narcissistic

satisfactions similar to those experienced

in the primary family, while increase regression

and the fear of loss of self-limits and fear

of de-individuation


- in post-modern organizations

flexible organizations presuppose

flexible leaders

Faced with the big technological and economic

changes, today’s leaders feel weak

and incapable of demonstrating the necessary

confidence and authority like they used to do

in the past, i.e.:

to reproduce a power model to identify or fight with.

Workers have no one to transfer the feelings

of idealization and the images of “ideal ego”


in post-modern organizations

  • - leaders must overcome themselves
  • and go beyond the status assigned to them
  • pretending to be not only strong
  • but also weak and insecure.
  • However, what happens when leaders expose themselves and their weaknesses?

In post-modern organizations

..if ambivalence is manifested

in the transference and counter transference

feelings of group members vis-à-vis the leader,

does the exposure of the leader’s weakness,

the feelings of disappointment and shame

from exposing weakness, not give rise

to feelings of alienation responsible

for ‘the hidden psychological wounds

of post-modern organizations’?

(Hirschhorn, 1997)


In the small analytic group

  • Questions:
  • how much otherness can the group
  • accommodate?,
  • when and what type of cohesion is necessary to
  • develop collective thinking and a collective
  • mind in the group? or
  • how we can people to preserve their
  • individuality beyond the roles and functions
  • assigned to them by the group, without leaving
  • them in isolation

A discourse of ambivalence

…… a discourse that allows discontinuity

in life narratives, which although not

containing a series of achievements

or adventures with difficulties and sacrifices,

allow for experimentation with the new

identities which they may develop, reconstruct

or even reject… while being able to express

their need of belongingness…and being able to

exist ‘in and out of the system’ in the case of

work and in the case of relationships..