Basic assumption activity is one of the two major modes of group mental functioning in Bion’s account of his experiences in groups. The other is what he called “work group activity”. In work group activity, the group is preoccupied not with a dogma, or a leader embodying a dogma, but with the pragmatic reality of the problems at hand. The work group values connection to reality as measured by practical results—progress towards the group’s realistic goals— regardless of the level of anxiety generated by this activity.
In the work mode, the group is in a position to observe the realities and problems that confront it in a realistic way. Among these realities are the limits imposed on the group by the fact that its understanding of the problems that face it is limited; that it has a finite time in which to solve these problems; that, even if it understood these problems perfectly, its power to effect solutions to them is circumscribed; and that experimentation both absorbs precious time and is hazardous. Awareness of these facts combine to produce a sense of insecurity that the group must tolerate if it is to perform its work, since work requires above all engagement with the realities of the problems on which it is working. In contrast to the sense of security associated with basic-assumption activity, work-group activity is characterized by a sense of insecurity and uncertainty.
Both work activity and basic assumption activity are present together in the group as different aspects of its functioning. A pure basic assumption group would be completely unable to face reality and would sooner or later experience an unexpected and disastrous collision with it. The members of a pure work group—a group completely unable to indulge in comforting delusions about its power—will sooner or later be overwhelmed by a sense of isolation, weakness and anxiety. A well-functioning group must somehow find a way to harbour both work group activity and basic assumption activity within itself, without either one destroying the other. This antinomy produces a tension that is characteristic of a well-functioning group.
Psychoanalysis as a group activity
Bion’s observations were specifically about his “Tavistock” groups, whose task was to study their own functioning and that had no agenda other than this reflective activity. This is, of course, the same task as that of psychoanalysis, which makes Bion’s observations about groups especially relevant to our understanding of psychoanalysis. We may consider the patient/analyst dyad in psychoanalysis as a Bionian group of two: two people meeting together for the purpose of studying what happens between them. No work group (i.e. no psychoanalysis) can evade basic assumption activity (although it may delude itself that it has), so all psychoanalyses must somehow cope with it if any work is to be done. If psychoanalysis is a group of two whose work it is to study itself, one way of characterizing its work would be to say that its purpose is to study, in a thoughtful way, the basic assumption activity that comes into play as a response to the anxieties and insecurities of the psychoanalytic work itself. Doing psychoanalysis produces insecurities in both patient and analyst that bring into play basic assumption activity, in the form of transference and countertransference, the study of which is the work of the analysis.
By studying and bringing to light the basic assumption activity in which it engages (and thereby both releasing and exposing to scrutiny the underlying anxieties against which the basic assumption activity protects the group of two), psychoanalysis creates the possibility of dealing with these anxieties without being trapped in basic assumption delusions, thus strengthening the work group and bringing about growth in its capacity to do psychoanalytic work—that is, its capacity to observe the forces shaping the relationship. All groups perform work, but the work of the psychoanalytic dyad is specifically to observe the emotional field in which it operates and thus to increase its capacity to observe the forces shaping the psychoanalytic relationship. The most powerful and pervasive of these forces are those carried on the pre-verbal register of song-and-dance.
Transference, countertransference, and basic assumption activity
Freud took transference to be the repetition of repressed past events within the current context of the analytic relationship. Today, many psychoanalysts recognize that transference is not a movement from past to present, but from inside to outside: what is transferred in transference is not the patient’s repressed memories of past experiences with external objects, but the patient’s current internal object world, and where it is transferred to is the external world of the analytic relationship. Transference is the name we give to the process whereby the analyst comes to represent not the patient’s past external objects, but his current internal objects. It is a living biopsy of the patient’s internal world.
To say that the analyst comes to represent for the patient his current internal objects in the transference is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go farther than the most superficial layer of transference. On a deeper level, the patient may evoke in the analyst through the use of unconscious, song-and-dance projective identification emotional states that are congruent with his or her role in the patient’s transference (Bion’s “realistic projective identification”). The patient projects his internal objects into the analyst, where they take up residence in the analyst’s internal world.
At the same time, the analyst’s countertransference acts to shape the patient’s internal world by driving the analyst to project his internal objects into the patient’s inner world, also at the level of song-and-dance. If the transference and the countertransference are resonant, transference and countertransference act together to form a basic assumption idea producing a certain kind of basic assumption group.
An example of such a basic assumption group is one in which the patient, in his transference, needs the analyst to be an omnipotent healer (that is, has projected into the analyst an all-powerful healing object—a kind of god—from his inner world), and the analyst in his countertransference needs to be such a healer (that is, has projected into the patient an internal object in need of healing, and for which healing he feels responsible).
This type of basic assumption group is the basis of suggestion. The patient is vulnerable to suggestion from the analyst because he accepts the analyst’s ideas uncritically in the desperate belief that doing so will cure him of his maladies. The analyst is vulnerable to making suggestions because of his need to cure himself of the problems associated with his internal objects by curing them in his patients.
Psychoanalysis brings a critical and discriminating focus to the deep emotionality involved in the uncritical, non-discriminating, and vital basic assumption relationships permeating the analysis. Psychoanalysis itself has had a long and complex relationship to the specific type of basic assumption activity known as suggestion. We shall examine this in detail in the next two chapters.
- 1 Tropism is the tendency of plants to grow in certain ways—for example, towards light (phototropism) or up from the ground (negative geotropism). The tropisms Bion decoded from the behavior of his groups correspond to what he called the “protomental” level of mental life.
- 2 As we shall see, these circumstances are the basis for the power of suggestion. If we picture the practitioner of suggestion as the leader of a group consisting of himself and his patient, both have a powerful motive to avoid scepticism. The patient believes because scepticism threatens to cut him off from the suggestionist’s authority—a source of meaning and vitality—and the suggestionist believes because any hint of scepticism will diminish his power.
Wilfred Bion. Experiences in Groups. Basic Books, New York, 1961.
Sigmund Freud. Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 18:69—143, 1921.