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Group behavior and psychoanalysis


Disciplines > Psychoanalysis > Articles > Group behavior  and psychoanalysis

Self vs. group | Roles | Transmitting feelings | Leaders | See also


Group behavior, when viewed through the psychoanalytic lens gives a particular perspective.

Self vs. group

Anxiety is often a cohesive force and holds groups together and people join as a defense against anxiety. Yet groups can also be the source of anxiety.

Being in a group leads to blurring between the self and others that, whilst giving the comfort of neonatal unity also causes anxieties. As the attachment to the self to the group increases, the sense of self decreases, which leads to anxieties about integrity and hence the true and false self.

In this state, the group members regress to early stages of defense against anxiety, as in the paranoid-schizoid position described by Melanie Klein, including part-object relating, idealization, persecution, splitting and projective identification.

The person may relate the group with the mother's body who thus take on significance of inner objects. Individual members collude in creating and realizing projections. Thus there becomes a group mind.


Roles in groups are functions that individuals adopt on behalf of the whole group. They can be viewed as subject positions into which individuals are interpellated by the leader or the group.

Roles can be positive and fulfilling. They may also be experienced as prisons and alienated positions that are far from the comfort zone of the person involved. A particularly negative team role is of scapegoat where the person involved carries the guilt of the entire team. The typical scapegoat is least able to successfully project negative feelings onto others and hence accepts projections without resistance in an enforced introjection. As a part of this process they may also be depersonalized by the rest of the group to enable them to act against normal values.

Typical positive team roles have been identified in Belbin's Team Roles.


Freud viewed the bond within groups their leader as a form of 'libido' or love that works through introjective identification with a leader. The leader thus forms the common anchor and source of thinking and acting which the group members follow and through which they identify with one another.

Wilfred Bion saw a common mode of groups as dependency, in which leaders-seeking behavior appears. In his fight/flight state, the leader, with whom group members have projective identification, becomes particularly important. Army groups often act in this manner, where leadership is based on the paranoia of the group. Good, self-preserving parts of the self are projected into the leader and bad, aggressive impulses are projected into a shared external-object enemy who is seen as the persecutor. The group thus idealizes itself and denies its own guilt (including when it attacks a possibly innocent outsider).

Managers sit at the boundary of groups, projecting and introjecting for the group and otherwise connecting the group with the outer world. The role is difficult as they need to both connect with the group whilst maintaining a separation that preserves their authority. Managers and leaders both represent the 'me' of the group whilst also sustaining a 'not me' of being not just an ordinary team member, even more so than other roles.

Transmitting feelings

Groups will often pass blame (and other bad feelings) to one another. A blames B who blames C, and so on. This is done by a series of projective identifications in which the blame is experienced as a feeling-state. In this way a game of 'pass the parcel' ensues until one person is unable to pass it on (or back). This person then becomes the scapegoat.

 Other emotions, both negative and positive, may also passed around the group in this way. The feeling-state can either be released as it is passed around (as the 'pass the parcel' game) or may remain with each person as it spreads (a 'virus' effect). Bad feelings are more likely to be released after passing to another by projective identification and good feelings to be retained as they are chosen by introjective identification.

Group life includes significant splitting as parts of each ego are split off and passed around. It can be considered that one's emotions are owned by the group rather than oneself and individuals can become depersonalized. In this way the group identity grows as the individual identity wanes.

The group may project their anxieties onto the leader in forms that range from anger to fear. The manager may project these bad objects elsewhere, including onto 'bad' group members and 'safely' onto others outside the group.

See also

Hinshelwood, R. D. Social Possession of Identity


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