Basic Assumptions

by Marc G. Schramm, Psy.D., C.G.P.

It has been said that a camel is a horse designed by committee. While groups can often be quite productive, it is indeed true that groups can prevent tasks from being accomplished. I expect that everybody has experienced the frustration of groups that get bogged down. What is it that so frequently leads groups to get stuck?

This question was explored by Wilfred Bion(1906-1976), one of the most important theoreticians of group dynamics. Based on his clinical work, he suggested that groups have difficulty attending to their overt purpose due to three (not unrelated) sources of conflict: 1) ambivalence within individual group members between desires for autonomy vs. dependence; 2) differences between the needs of the group for the group's sake, and the needs of its individual members. The third source of conflict merits a more detailed description:

Groups that keep a reality orientation to their task, and pursue that task rationally, Bion refers to as "work groups." Powerful emotional drives frequently interfere with the functioning of such work groups. These chaotic, disintegrative forces can, observed Bion, be understood in a given case as springing from a single underlying unconscious assumption shared by the members of a group. Each such case is known as a Basic Assumption Group. Basic-assumption activity occurs spontaneously and instinctively, but Bion maintained that only one basic assumption can be in operation at any given time, however brief or extended.

Bion perceived three basic assumption groups: the dependency group, the fight-flight group, and the pairing group. Dependency groups operate on the assumption is that there is a leader (not necessarily the therapist) who can magically gratify the group's need for security and nurture. Another Basic Assumption is that the group must protect itself. It does this by either fighting or running away from something threatening. Naturally enough, Bion called this the "fight-flight" group. Since it is not unusual (especially in a therapy group) for the Work-Group tasks themselves to feel threatening, it is not uncommon for the nominal leader to be avoided or fought against.

Both of the above Basic Assumption Groups are more complex in their dynamics than such a brief description can do justice to. But more complex than either of these may be the "pairing" basic assumption group. In such a group there is a pairing-off of some or all members, or one pairing may be vicariously enjoyed by the rest of the group. An overt sexual tinge is not at all unusual. A further feature of the pairing group is the assumption that from the union or unions will emerge something or someone messianic in redemptive potential.

"Bion also notes that each basic assumption group has its 'dual,' where there is a reversal of roles in how the basic assumption is played out." Thus, the group-as-a-whole could treat a particular member--even the leader--as dependent. I was once in a workshop group where the leader was experienced as incompetent. He was certainly not entirely so, being smart enough not to have the scheduled break lest group members have an easy opportunity to disappear. As it was, two or three members walked out anyway. The remaining members were determined to make the workshop work, and basically hijacked leadership of the process away from the nominal leader, who became dependent upon the group (not without some efforts at re-exerting control) for its continuation. I should add that in the end everyone was fairly pleased with the group experience, even (if to an understandably lesser extent) the nominal leader.

Malcolm Pines (1992) notes that while Bion's Basic Assumption approach is not much followed by group psychotherapists today, his ideas continue to exert great influence among a wide community of clinicians. Pines' explanation for this reflects Bion's appeal to me in my own work with groups:

"...Bion gives to therapists the sense of safety that comes from recognizing that group phenomena follow definite patterns; if the therapist can recognize these patterns, he or she will be able to release the group members from their anxieties and resistances and enable the work of the group to progress."

Suggested Reading:

Bion, W. R. (1955). Group dynamics--a re-view. In: S. Scheidlinger (Ed.),
Psychoanalytic Group Dynamics--Basic Readings. New York: IUP.
Bion, W. R. (1959). Experiences in group and other papers. New York: Basic Books.
Parloff, M. (1968), Analytic group psychotherapy. In: K.R. Mackenzie (Ed.),
Classics in Group Psychotherapy. New York: Guilford.
Pines, M. (Ed.). (1992), Bion and group psychotherapy. New York: Routledge.


Marc G. Schramm, Psy.D., is a Founding Certificant of the National Registry of Certified Group Psychotherapists, a clinical member of the American Group Psychotherapy Association, and President of the Tri-State Group Psychotherapy Society. He is currently Cincinnati-Dayton Regional Director for Counseling Consultants, Inc. Call Dr. Schramm at 513-984-9222