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The Group Unconscious
by Brian Nichol


The group unconscious as a working proposition dramatically changes the way we think about and work with groups. No longer can we be satisfied with superficial explanations for such behavior in groups as absenteeism, fluctuations in the energy of the group, or sudden changes of topic in the discussion. When we work with the idea of a group unconscious we are bound to ask the question, "What does this behavior communicate about the group?"

We use the word "group' to mean a psychological group and not just an association of people. The members of a psychological group come together for a common purpose. They develop relationships not only with one another but also to "the group-as-a-whole". The group-as-a-whole has an existence for group members separate from that of individual members. Members become attached to the group-as-a-whole. This attachment is often sharply apparent in the feelings of loss when the group comes to an end.

The Group Unconscious
The group unconscious is that part of a group member's unconscious which he or she has in common with other members. It is a repository among other things for the group's history and culture. The individual's unconscious is in communication with each other member and collectively this network of links constitutes the group unconscious.

The group unconscious is bound up with important group processes. For example, we are all familiar with the phenomenon of informal subgroups discussing group issues and events outside meetings. This is a sign of low trust in the group. Furthermore, it can create an impediment to the development of trust within the group. We might make a ground rule that members report these subgroup conversations to the group - if the group is able to do it. However, experiences in intensive groups have shown that even if these breaches of the group are not shared, members are aware of them at an unconscious level. This awareness provokes fantasies and feelings which affect communication in the group.

The group defense mechanisms that Wilfred Bion observed constitute another aspect of the group unconscious. Bion noticed certain patterns of behavior that occur with great regularity in all groups. He termed these dependency, fight/flight and pairing. He formulated these observations as his Basic Assumption (BA) Group theory. These BA groups coexist at all times with what he called the Work Group. The Work Group is that time when the group is fully functioning and task-oriented. When an issue emerges in the group unconscious which provokes anxiety the BA group overwhelms the Work group mode. For example, instead of pursuing their stated goals, a group may fall into fighting among themselves. A group of normally resourceful people may find themselves passive and waiting to be told what to do. The group members are caught up in an unconscious collusion to protect themselves against the felt threat. The question that must be addressed is "What is provoking the group's anxiety and how can this issue be brought into the group's consciousness?"

Thirdly, the group unconscious is a mode of communication in the group, although not one that can be directly controlled. This communication is at a symbolic level. Certain symbols and figures are embedded in the group's conversation and register at a pre-conscious or unconscious level in group members. Think of it as a coded communication which bypasses our consciousness. For instance, images of policemen and spies suggest that at an unconscious level the group is experiencing considerable anxiety. In one case, a group on a Team Management training course had worked together very productively for three days and had become quite close. At the last break on the last day they began to talk about peripheral arterial disease and people losing their fingers and toes. Talking openly about a sense of loss at the end of a rewarding group felt too risky, so the group found another way to do it unconsciously. A facilitator can become attuned to these communications by listening to the group in a state of suspended attention and noticing the thoughts and feelings that emerge into his or her mind.

All of these group phenomena are very evident in intensive groups that meet together with a purpose of investigating group process (T-groups, personal development groups, psychotherapy groups). The same phenomena are also present in groups that develop in organizations. Although the character of these groups' activities and culture make the processes less visible, they are still active. They affect the group’s effectiveness, and they carry important information for the group.

The group unconscious is a controversial idea, yet we need this construct to explain a range of phenomena we observe in groups. The concept risks attributing an existence to something outside of the members of the group that has a power to influence the group. However, it is not such a strange idea if we recognize that human beings are extraordinarily sensitive at a pre-conscious level to nuances and symbols in speech. Combine this with the power of non-verbal communication, and we can recognize a considerable capacity for unconscious communication within a group.



Bion, W., "Experiences in Groups", Basic Books, New York, 1959


© 2001 All rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this article in its entirety with this copyright notice and full information about contacting the authors. The authors are Brian Nichol and Lou Raye Nichol. or call (919) 303-5848.