Although I can provide only testimony rather than scientific “proof”, I have become convinced that there are processes at work in a group that go far behind the workings or maneuverings of any single individual or even the summed effects of an aggregation of individuals. I have been observing, studying, and immersed in the workings of small group processes for over thirty years, largely in two settings - group practice and the therapeutic community. On innumerable occasions I have seen a process occur in which the outcome cannot be sufficiently explained by the input. Quite frequently we come away with better ideas, better decisions, and better plans than can be attributable to any individual, but which is instead the shared conscious processing of a group. Likewise, the power of a group to create an environment of anger, threat, or destruction goes far beyond that of any individual, and can take on a life of its own. Groupmind? I do not really know, but these repeated observations have led me to concur completely with Trigant Burrow who said, “Whether it is a question of mollusk or man, science cannot understand the part until it has understood the whole” .
Stanton and Schwartz wrote the first sociological study of the mental hospital in 1954. One of their most valuable observations centered on the role of covert conflict. They demonstrated that a covert conflict on the part of one subgroup, i.e. the staff, influenced another subgroup or the entire group in ways that were not ascribable to the individual interactions and that could lead to severe and pathological dysfunctions unless the conflict were surfaced .
In the therapeutic community literature, this phenomenon has been remarked upon repeatedly. Caudill (1958) observed that there seemed to be a “covert emotional structure” in the psychiatric hospital that could not be explained by the underlying emotional reactions of separate individuals, nor by the emotional contagion effect that takes over a mob. He noted that these “fields” were primarily emotional and led to the collective disturbances that Stanton and Schwartz had noted. He observed that these collective disturbances proceeded in a four-step fashion. First there would be a period of mutual withdrawal which would be followed by open collective disturbances, dividing the patients and the staff. In the next part of the sequence, the group would form a “paired role group response” in which different parts of the community created paired alliances with another subgroup. Finally, this unstable balance of forces would give way to restitution in which conflict was surfaced, aired, and adequately resolved. What is of great interest is that throughout this sequence emotional communication between the various role groups, of which there were four - senior staff, residents, nurses, and patients - was maintained while cognitive communication broke down, than re-formed and finally re-established. This description is reminiscent of the individual nonverbal-verbal split that occurs as a result of an overwhelming and highly conflictual experience.
Janis looked at how groups make decisions, particularly under conditions of stress. He reviewed studies of infantry platoons, air crews, and disaster control teams and felt that this work confirmed what social psychologists had shown on experiments in normal college students, that stress produces a heightened need for affiliation, leading to increased dependency on one’s group. The increase in group cohesivenesss, though good for morale and stress tolerance, could produce a phenomenon he called “groupthink”, a process he saw as a disease that could infect otherwise healthy groups rendering them inefficient, unproductive, and sometimes disastrous. He observed that certain conditions give rise to a group phenomenon in which the members try so hard to agree with each other that they commit serious errors that could easily have been avoided. An assumed consensus emerges while all members hurry to converge and ignore important divergences. As this convergence occurs, all group members share in the sense of invulnerability and strength conveyed by the group, while the decisions made are often actually disastrous. Later, the individual members of the group find it difficult to accept that their individual wills were so effected by the group. As we know, the inability to think clearly under stress is also typical of individuals as well [3, 4].
Others have looked at the possibility that the collective dynamics of an organization may lead to individual illness. Although it is well established that physically toxic environments can produce illness, these authors raised the question about the consequences of emotionally noxious environments. In their study of 13,000 employees in sixteen organizations, they found that there is a significant connection between employee health and organizational dynamics of their workplaces. The health of workers improved or worsened based on four major variables: a) the degree of difficulty in maintaining a balance between work and personal life; b) the respect afforded workers by management; c) the extent to which decision-making can lead the worker to appropriate actions; and d) the amount of racial and gender discrimination .
Another interesting observation comes from Poland. Group therapists working in a day hospital program in Poland noticed that there was a relationship between behavior in their therapeutic community and larger social unrest during 1980 and 1981 and again in 1992 and 1993. Bursts of anti-authoritarian behavior directed at nonauthoritarian therapists occurred regularly one or two days prior to the unheralded eruption of strikes or other anti-government demonstrations. This suggested to the authors that the responsivity of emotionally vulnerable groups of people may serve as early warning signals of forthcoming outbreaks of aggression in the larger sociopolitical milieu, a sort of “sociopolitical canaries” phenomenon .
1. Burrow, T., Trigant Burrow: Toward Social Sanity and Human Survival: Selections From His Writings . , A. Galt, Editor. 1984, Horizon: New York.
2. Stanton, A.H. and M.S. Schwartz, The Mental Hospital: A Study of Institutional Participation in Psychiatric Illness and Treatment. 1954, New York: Basic Books.
3. Forsyth, D.R., Group Dynamics, Second Edition. 1990, Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.
4. Janis, I.L., Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. 1972, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
5. Smith, K.K., D.S. Kaminstein, and R.J. Makadok, The health of the corporate body: Illness and organizational dynamics. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 1995. 31(3): p. 328.
6. Aleksandrowicz, J.W. and V.D. Czepowicz, Generational subgroups, the transfer of authority and the influence of group dynamics in sociopoligical and open therapeutic groups in Poland, in Group Process and Political Dynamics, M.F. Ettin, J.W. Fidler, and B.D. Cohen, Editors. 1995, International Universities Press, Inc.: Madison, CM. p. 55-68.