W R Bion on Group Functioning.


(add link to On Groups)

In 1968, Bion moved to Los Angeles, California,[19]where he remained until 1977. Shortly before his death, he returned to Oxfordshire.[20]

He left a reputation which has grown steadily both in Britain and internationally.[citation needed] Some commentators consider that his writings are often gnomic and irritating, but never fail to stimulate. He defies categorisation as a follower of Klein or of Freud. While Bion is most well known outside of the psychoanalytic community for his work on group dynamics, the psychoanalytic conversation that explores his work is mainly concerned with his theory of thinking, and his model of the development of a capacity for thought.

Group Experiments

Bion performed a lot of group experiments when he was put in charge of the training wing of a military hospital.[21]Besides observing the basic assumptions recurring in these groups, he also has observed some very interesting phenomena to which he believed may well apply to society.[22]

Among his interesting findings was that in a group, the standards of social intercourse lacks intellectual content and critical judgement.[23]This observation agrees with Gustave Le Bon’s findings about groups to which he mentioned in his book The Crowd.

Another interesting observation was that whatever a group member says or does in a group illuminates that member’s view of the group and is an illumination of that member’s personality.[24]This phenomenon is what psychologists call Projection.

If the contributions of the group and its members can be made anonymously then the foundations for a system of denial and evasion is established.[25]This phenomenon is better known as Deindividuation.

And perhaps one of the most important findings in his experiments was that whenever a group is formed, it always seeks a leader to follow. The group then searches for someone who has questionable attributes with his or her mental health. Initially, the group will search for someone who is paranoid schizophrenic or someone who is malignant hysteric. If the group is unable to find someone with those attributes, the group looks for someone with delinquent trends and a psychopathic personality. Otherwise, the group would just settle on the verbally facile high-grade defective.[26]

Group dynamics—the “basic assumptions”

Wilfred Bion’s observations about the role of group processes in group dynamics are set out in Experiences in Groups and other papers, written in the 1940s but compiled and published in 1961, where he refers to recurrent emotional states of groups as ‘basic assumptions’. Bion argues that in every group, two groups are actually present: the work group, and the basic assumption group. The work group is that aspect of group functioning which has to do with the primary task of the group—what the group has formed to accomplish; will ‘keep the group anchored to a sophisticated and rational level of behaviour’.[27]The basic assumption group describes the tacit underlying assumptions on which the behaviour of the group is based. Bion specifically identified three basic assumptions: dependency, fight-flight, and pairing.[28]When a group adopts any one of these basic assumptions, it interferes with the task the group is attempting to accomplish. Bion believed that interpretation by the therapist of this aspect of group dynamics would, whilst being resisted, also result in potential insight regarding effective, co-operative group work.[29]

In dependency, the essential aim of the group is to attain security through, and have its members protected by, one individual. The basic assumption in this group culture seems to be that an external object exists whose function it is to provide security for the immature individual.[30]The group members behave passively, and act as though the leader, by contrast, is omnipotent and omniscient. For example, the leader may pose a question only to be greeted with docile silence, as though he or she had not spoken at all. The leader may be idealized into a kind of god who can take care of his or her children, and some especially ambitious leaders may be susceptible to this role. Resentment at being dependent may eventually lead the group members to “take down” the leader, and then search for a new leader to repeat the process.

In the basic assumption of fight-flight, the group behaves as though it has met to preserve itself at all costs, and that this can only be done by running away from someone or fighting someone or something. In fight, the group may be characterized by aggressiveness and hostility; in flight, the group may chit-chat, tell stories, arrive late or any other activities that serve to avoid addressing the task at hand. The leader for this sort of group is one who can mobilize the group for attack, or lead it in flight.

The final basic assumption group, pairing, exists on the assumption that the group has met for the purpose of reproduction—the basic assumption that two people can be met together for only one purpose, and that a sexual one’.[31]Two people, regardless the sex of either, carry out the work of the group through their continued interaction. The remaining group members listen eagerly and attentively with a sense of relief and hopeful anticipation.

Bion considered that “the three basic-assumption groups seem each in turn to be aggregates of individuals sharing out between them the characteristics of one character in the Oedipal situation”.[32]Behind the Oedipal level, however, Bion postulated the existence of still more primitive, part-object phantasies; and ‘the more disturbed the group, the more easily discernible are these primitive phantasies and mechanisms’.[33]Such phantasies would prove the main focus of Bion’s interest after his second analysis.

Bion on thinking

“During the 1950s and 1960s, Bion transformed Melanie Klein’s theories of infantile phantasy…into an epistemological “theory of thinking” of his own.”[34]Bion used as his starting point the phenomenology of the analytic hour, highlighting the two principles of “the emergence of truth and mental growth. The mind grows through exposure to truth.”[35]The foundation for both mental development and truth are, for Bion, emotional experience.[36]

The evolution of emotional experience into the capacity for thought, and the potential derailment of this process, are the primary phenomena described in Bion’s model. Through his hypothesized alpha and beta elements, Bion provides a language to help one think about what is occurring during the analytic hour. These tools are intended for use outside the hour in the clinician’s reflective process. To attempt to apply his models during the analytic session violates the basic principle whereby “Bion had advocated starting every session ‘without memory, desire or understanding’—his antidote to those intrusive influences that otherwise threaten to distort the analytic process.”[37]

Alpha elements, beta elements, and alpha function

Bion created a theory of thinking based on changing beta elements (unmetabolized psyche/soma/affective experience) into alpha elements (thoughts that can be thought by the thinker). Beta elements were seen as cognate to the underpinnings of the “basic assumptions” identified in his work with groups: “the fundamental anxieties that underlie the basic assumption group resistances were originally thought of as proto-mental phenomena…forerunners of Bion’s later concept of beta-elements.”[38]They were equally conceptual developments from his work on projective identification—from the “minutely split ‘particles'” Bion saw as expelled in pathological p.i. by the psychotic, who would then go on to “lodge them in the angry, so-called ‘bizarre objects’ by which he feels persecuted and controlled”.[39]For “these raw bits of experience he called beta-elements…to be actively handled and made use of by the mind they must, through what Bion calls alpha-functions, become alpha-elements”.[40]

β elements, α elements and α function are elements that Bion (1963) hypothesizes. He does not consider β-elements, α- elements, nor α function to actually exist. The terms are instead tools for thinking about what is being observed. They are elements whose qualities remain unsaturated, meaning we cannot know the full extent or scope of their meaning, so they are intended as tools for thought rather than real things to be accepted at face value (1962, p. 3).

Bion took for granted that the infant requires a mind to help it tolerate and organize experience. For Bion, thoughts exist prior to the development of an apparatus for thinking. The apparatus for thinking, the capacity to have thoughts “has to be called into existence to cope with thoughts” (1967, p. 111). Thoughts exist prior to their realization. Thinking, the capacity to think the thoughts which already exist, develops through another mind providing α-function (1962, p. 83)—through the “container” role of maternal reverie.

To learn from experience alpha-function must operate on the awareness of the emotional experience; alpha–elements are produced from the impressions of the experience; these are thus made storable and available for dream thoughts and for unconscious waking thinking… If there are only beta-elements, which cannot be made unconscious, there can be no repression, suppression, or learning. (Bion, 1962, p. 8)

α-function works upon undigested facts, impressions, and sensations, that cannot be mentalized—beta-elements. α-function digests β-elements, making them available for thought (1962, pp. 6–7).

Beta-elements are not amenable to use in dream thoughts but are suited for use in projective identification. They are influential in producing acting out. These are objects that can be evacuated or used for a kind of thinking that depends on manipulation of what are felt to be things in themselves as if to substitute such manipulations for words or ideas… Alpha-function transforms sense impressions into alpha-elements which resemble, and may in fact be identical with, the visual images with which we are familiar in dreams, namely, the elements that Freud regards as yielding their latent content when the analyst has interpreted them. Failure of alpha-function means the patient cannot dream and therefore cannot sleep. As alpha-function makes the sense impressions of the emotional experience available for conscious and dream—thought the patient who cannot dream cannot go to sleep and cannot wake up. (1962, pp. 6–7)

Knowledge, love and hate

Successful application of alpha-function leads to “the capacity to tolerate the actual frustration involved in learning (“K”) that [Bion] calls ‘learning from experience'”.[41]The opposite of knowledge “K” was what Bion termed “−K”: “the process that strips, denudes, and devalues persons, experiences, and ideas.”[42]

Both K and −K interact for Bion with Love and Hate, as links within the analytic relationship. “The complexities of the emotional link, whether Love or Hate or Knowledge [L, H, and K — the Bionic relational triad]”[43]produce ever-changing “atmospheric” effects in the analytic situation. The patient’s focus may wish to be “on Love and Hate (L and H) rather than the knowledge (K) that is properly at stake in psychoanalytic inquiry.”[44]

For Bion, “knowledge is not a thing we have, but a link between ourselves and what we know … K is being willing to know but not insisting on knowledge.”[45]By contrast, -K is “not just ignorance but the active avoidance of knowledge, or even the wish to destroy the capacity for it”[46]— and “enacts what ‘Attacks on Linking’ identifies as hatred of emotion, hatred of reality, hatred of life itself.”[47]

Looking for the source of such hate (H), Bion notes in Learning from Experience that, “Inevitably one wonders at various points in the investigation why such a phenomenon as that represented by −K should exist. … I shall consider one factor only — Envy. By this term I mean the phenomenon described by Melanie Klein in Envy and Gratitude” (1962, p. 96).

Reversible perspective and −K

“Reversible Perspective” was a term coined by Bion to illuminate “a peculiar and deadly form of analytic impassewhich defends against psychic pain”.[48]It represents the clash of “two independently experienced views or phenomena whose meanings are incompatible”.[49]In Bion’s own words, “Reversible perspective is evidence of pain; the patient reverses perspective so as to make a dynamic situation static.”[50]

As summarised by Etchegoyen, “Reversible perspective is an extreme case of rigidity of thought. … As Bion says, what is most characteristic in such cases is the manifest accord and the latent discord.”[51]In clinical contexts, what may happen is that the analyst’s “interpretation is accepted, but the premises have been rejected … the actual specificity, the substance of the interpretation”.[52]Reversible perspective is an aspect of “the potential destruction and deformation of knowledge”[50]— one of the attacks on linking of −K.

O: The ineffable

As his thought continued to develop, Bion came to use Negative Capability and the suspension of Memory and Desire in his work as an analyst, in order to investigate psychic reality – which he regarded as essentially ‘non-sensuous’ (1970). Following his 1965 book Transformations he had an increasing interest in what he termed the domain of “O” — the unknowable, or ultimate Truth. “In aesthetics, Bion has been described as a neo-Kantian for whom reality, or the thing-in-itself (O), cannot be known, only be “be-ed” (1965). What can be known is said by Bion to be in the realm of K, impinging through its sensory channels.[53]If the observer can desist from “irritably reaching for fact and reason”, and suspend the normal operation of the faculties of memory and apperception, what Bion called transformations in knowledge can permit an ‘evolution’ where transformations in K touch on transformations in Being (O). Bion believed such moments to feel both ominous and turbulent, threatening a loss of anchorage in everyday ‘narrative’ security.

Bion would speak of “an intense catastrophic emotional explosion O,”[54]which could only be known through its aftereffects. Where before he had privileged the domain of knowledge (K), now he would speak as well of “resistance to the shift from transformations involving K (knowledge) to transformations involving O … resistance to the unknowable”.[55]Hence his injunctions to the analyst to eschew memory and desire, to “bring to bear a diminution of the ‘light’ — a penetrating beam of darkness; a reciprocal of the searchlight. If any object existed, however faint, it would show up very clearly”.[56]In stating this he was making connections to Freud, who in a letter to Lou Andreas Salome had referred to a mental counterpart of scotopic, “mole like vision”, used to gain impressions of the Unconscious. He was also making links with the apophatic method used by contemplative thinkers such as St John of the Cross, a writer quoted many times by Bion. Bion was well aware that our perception and our attention often blind us to what genuinely and strikingly is new in every moment.


Bion’s concept of maternal “reverie” as the capacity to sense (and make sense of) what is going on inside the infant[57]has been an important element in post-Kleinian thought: “Reverie is an act of faith in unconscious process … essential to alpha-function'”[58]It is considered the equivalent of Stern‘s attunement, or Winnicott’s maternal preoccupation.

In therapy, the analyst’s use of “reverie” is an important tool in his/her response to the patient’s material: “It is this capacity for playing with a patient’s images that Bion encouraged”.[59]

Late Bion

“For the later Bion, the psychoanalytic encounter was itself a site of turbulence, ‘a mental space for further ideas which may yet be developed’.”[60]In his unorthodox quest to maintain such “mental space”, Bion “spent the final years of his long and distinguished professional life [writing] a futuristic trilogy in which he is answerable to no one but himself, A Memoir of the Future.”[60]

If we accept that “Bion introduced a new form of pedagogy in his writings…[via] the density and non-linearity of his prose”,[61]it comes perhaps to a peak here in what he himself termed “a fictitious account of psychoanalysis including an artificially constructed dream … science fiction”.[62]We may conclude at least that he achieved his stated goal therein: “To prevent someone who KNOWS from filling the empty space”.[63]

— Read on raymondholland.wordpress.com/2019/03/20/w-r-bion-on-group-

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 0 / 5. Vote count: 0

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

0 0 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments