Western psychology has been profoundly influenced by individualism and is “quintessentially a psychology of individuals unrelated to the history, structure, and unverbalized world views of the social order” (p.ix). Mental health practice today is extremely individualistic, with little if any time given to understand much less work with, the complex context of each individual’s life. This extreme and reductionistic point of view can be seen in the change in language that occurred over the last century when "mental hygiene" became "mental health" and then was completely reduced to "behavioral" health - as if all we are is our behavior.
And for sure, if you go to a therapist you do want them to care about you as an individual – as your own unique self with your own hopes, aspirations, dreams, needs, and injuries.
Individualism as a philosophical position has been defined as a “political doctrine which declares that the aim of a political order should ultimately be to satisfy individual needs, wants, and goals, rather than the common good, the general will, or the public interest” and that when applied to the social sciences individualism asserts that “scientific explanations must be grounded in the actions of, or facts about, individuals: that is, the actions of social collectivities must be ultimately decomposable into acts, intended or otherwise, of individuals” (p. 376-377) . Individualism is a fundamental concept governing our present mental models and adapts nicely to a model that views people and their organizations as machines. It also fits well with the current dominant psychiatric focus – that most psychiatric problems can and should be solved with medications that change or stabilize neurotransmitter function in the individual brain.
Much of the consciousness of the last century - and our wealth as well - has been tied up in the debate between individualism and collectivism. The American inclination is to view any mention of communal interests with grave suspicion  and there are good reasons for this – collectivism has too easily led to totalitarianism in the past (fascism, communism, religious fundamentalism) and that problem continues to haunt the present. But we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. In our terror of communism (we could use quite a bit more terror of fascism and extreme authoritarianism), we have neglected the important power of collective will, the common good, and all group processes - even down to poorly funding group therapies.
There is, however, another side of the story, an American commentary on the social nature of human nature that has radically expanded in the last decade because of the availability of new brain studies. Although individualism has long dominated our philosophical premises in the United States and in all of Western culture, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that groups are a basic form of social and cognitive organization that is essentially “hard-wired” into our species and that our “group-self” is the core component of our sense of personal identity .
There is also another side to the psychiatric story, one of many dedicated professionals who did not believe that all of human nature or experience, much less the solution to human problems, could be found exclusively in biology. Their names and contributions are now largely forgotten in mental health practice, but the world they saw, talked and wrote about has not changed all that much, nor has human nature, and would be easily recognized by them today.
Biological and Behavioral Reductionism
For the last several hundred years, tension has existed between views of mental illness as largely biological illnesses and a recognition that interpersonal interactions and social factors are major determinants of a wide variety of dysfunctions. This is the nature/nurture false dichotomy that still plagues our human service delivery systems. The combined forces of biological reductionism and behaviorism have made it impossible for even highly trained professionals to understand their clients, their organizations, or themselves.
In a world reduced to biological causality, all problems can be attributed to biological or genetic abnormalities. In one reduced to behaviorism, all things which human being do — including acting, thinking and feeling—can and should be regarded as behaviors that can be described scientifically without recourse either to internal physiological events or to hypothetical constructs such as the mind and there is no such thing as the unconscious.
But as in all false dichotomies, the truth is usually a little bit of both. Human beings are unique individuals but that individuality emerges out of our primary group - the family - and we remain both individual and part of groups for our entire lives. This relationship between the individual and larger systems has been a central question of the last century and continues to be one for this century, as it becomes increasingly apparent that the solutions to such problems as global warming will have to be collective, not individual solutions.
This is not the first historical period that has tried to reduce complexity to simple explanations. But just as we see today, each period of extreme biological bias has been succeeded by a period of reform. In the 18th - 19th centuries, Pinel’s advancements and the era of Moral Treatment attempted to undo the terrible damage of treating the mentally ill as criminals or as demonically possessed. In the 19th- 20th centuries social psychiatry sought to reform the strictly biological premises that supported inhumane treatment in state hospitals. Today, reform movements loosely called "trauma-informed care" are afoot again to rehumanize the strictly biological and behavioral premises of current psychiatric practice and demonstrate that effective treatment depends on an integrated approach to individuals, families and organizations that takes into account biological, psychological, social and existential components of reality.
In this part of the site we will point out a few of the group dynamic processes that are important for people to understand, because unless you live as a complete recluse, you will experience these processes. Experience tells us that it's best to be conscious rather than have these forces play out their effects on you unconsciously.
1. Sarason, S.B., Psychology Misdirected. 1981, New York: The Free Press.
2. McLeish, K., Key ideas in human thought. 1993, New York: Facts on File.
3. Kovel, J., Red Hunting in the Promised Land: Anticommunism in the Making of America. . 1994, New York: Basic Books
4. Cohen, B.D., J.W. Fidler, and M.F. Etting, Introduction: From group process to political dynamics, in Group Process and Political Dynamics, M.F. Ettin, J.W. Fidler, and B.D. Cohen, Editors. 1995, International Universities Press: Madison, CT.