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Reader beware! Bion did something great here. In a detailed analysis of people's behavior in groups, he shows us that some strange and often unsettling subterranean processes are at work within groups. While these processes (and the events that follow them) may defy the understanding and description of most, Bion offers insights that are at once straightforward, bizarre and sublime. In the end, his ideas provide the reader with simple, psychodynamic explanations of group behavior.
Bion points out that much of psychic human life occurs inside groups. Bion shows us that each group has a specific and directed goal to accomplish (i.e., a corporation seeks to make money and a family seeks to raise their children and provide support for the members within it). He then provides a fascinating and detailed account of the ways that these groups are often subverted from their main purpose. Bion focuses on the "basic assumptions" that lead people in groups to function in unusual ways that are frequently, if not always, outside of their awareness.
Bion suggests that there are "basic assumptions" which take over in a group. Some of these assumptions are that of "Fight/Flight" or "Pairing". Bion suggests that at times, a group will abandon their work in order to unite for either fighting or fleeing. He suggests that humans are `herding' at these times-we find ourselves in a group and we think we either need to get ready for a war or to run for the hills. This unconscious assumption, based solely on being together in a group, can severely detract from the work the group was originally brought together to accomplish. Think of those peewee football leagues gone awry. We thought they were supposed to be fun for the kids but they turn out to be an education about winning by all means necessary.
In contrast to the fight/flight assumption is the pairing assumption in which the group mobilizes its resources to pick two people in the group to bring together. With much hope the members try to play matchmaker and work at uniting the should-be-lovers. The unconscious purpose here is a wish to provide the group with a special child, or savior, whom the group believes, will bring them much greater successes than they have already achieved. In both of the assumptions I have mentioned, there are interesting dynamic reactions to the group's leader; will the leader be competent to lead the attack or does she/he need to be usurped in order to make way for the special new child? In this way, Bion helps the reader develop a finer appreciation for the psychodynamics that group members express toward authority figures.
In each assumption, the members in the group start to replicate earlier patterns of group behavior. This repetition has a sociobiological flavor; Bion suggests that it was once quite advantageous for people to be preparing for either war or escape when they were in a group. Today, however, this behavior is not so appropriate and it always interferes with the work the group was brought together to complete.
The nifty thing about these points is that they are supported by current research findings. Scientists in the area of social cognition show us that people often act in ways that are outside of their awareness and quite difficult to explain. One only need to be somewhat familiar with the easily observed in-group out-group biases (a.k.a. prejudice) to realize that there are powerful forces at work around which people organize their perception about group membership and the treatment of outsiders.
And we do not need to go to research to see these processes at work. Bion's greatest success comes from calling attention to the behavior that we all have noticed, organizing our ideas about it and making it acceptable to consider. In this way, we finish the book changed. We now will be more sensitive to and ready to challenge the subtle flirtations or overt preparations for conflict that we see in the groups to which we belong.
The one drawback to this piece comes in the end of the book. Bion starts to focus on the meaning of money. As he tries to talk about the influence of this human creation, his sharp thinking softens and his writing becomes tangential, difficult to follow and at times absurd. You want to put the book down at this point. Despite this, I still recommend this book wholeheartedly. It is a short read but it will change your experience of groups. I think it is essential for anyone working in groups as a clinician....Read more