Exploring Human Behaviour in Groups – Idries Shah Foundation


Knowledge of group dynamics and how groups behave has largely entered mainstream culture. Yet despite awareness of ‘ulterior motives’ and an understanding that a group’s real activity may differ from its stated one – and may indeed be performing a therapeutic need – it is commonly imagined that any variance is marginal and effectively subservient to the formal group task.

The findings from group psychology research, however, suggest that the stated purpose of any group may well be less influential on the group’s behaviour and effect than other, hidden, intra-group factors.

In this extract from his lecture, John Allaway does not explicitly talk about attention needs and how these might be fulfilled in a group setting (for example through status play or disruptive behaviour), but he does outline the basic shapes that groups contort themselves into, according on his very wide experience in the 1960s of running many groups and observing their behaviour.

Allaway outlines the work of Wilfred Bion as forming his basic theoretical framework. Bion suggested that all groups are actually three in nature: their surface, stated, purpose; a basic assumption group; and a proto-mental group – a source reservoir of basic assumptions that might arise.

Allaway suggests, however, that Bion’s framework is incomplete, and that ideas from political theory are also useful in understanding how groups work.

One of his most interesting findings is how groups of more than 30 members tend to encourage hostility and allow people to feel less responsibility for their hostile behaviour.

Bion’s Group Theory

Bion’s theory was first set forth in a series of articles which appeared between 1948 and 1951 in the journal Human Relations, and later in book form under the title Experiences in Groups (Tavistock Publications, London, 1961).

It holds that every human group is simultaneously three groups: a work group which is there to perform a task and as such is rational, time bound, and conscious; a basic assumption group which is irrational, motivated by near-conscious and unconscious wishes and oblivious of time and consequences; and a proto-mental group which is deep in the unconscious of the group’s membership, and in which the basic assumptions are, as it were, held in solution.

To repeat, every group, and not merely every psychotherapeutic or study group, is at one and the same time a work group, a basic assumption group and a proto-mental group.

Three forms

The basic assumption group takes three different forms. When the group acts as if it were there to find and follow a leader who will take care of it and somehow, almost effortlessly, solve all the work group’s problems for it – to find and follow, as Bion puts it, a dependent leader – then it is in a state of dependency.

When the group acts as if it were there to find and follow a leader who will mobilise it for flight from, or fight against, the work group’s task, then it is in a state of fight-flight.

And when the group acts as if it were there to find and encourage a couple of its members to ‘mate’, and somehow produce a means to the work group’s salvation, free of any effort on the part of the remainder of the group, then it is in a state of pairing.

What is expected of the leadership of each type of basic assumption group is some sort of magic.

Rational solutions within the limits of the work group’s task are frequently hard, difficult and sometimes distasteful: hence the resort first to one type of basic assumption group and then another.

The proto-mental group is a kind of underground reservoir, a source from which the various basic assumptions take their rise and to which they also return.

One at a time

Bion maintains – and experience seems to corroborate his view – that only one form of basic assumption group is operative at anyone time. There can be rapid shifts between states of dependency, fight-flight and pairing, within a group, but when anyone of these is manifest the others are quiescent – they are latent within the proto-mental group.

What I have given are, of course, only the barest bones of Bion’s theory of group mentality. We might also draw attention to such processes as selective inattention, splitting and scapegoating that occur within any group.

Experience has shown that the Bionian framework for the interpretation of ongoing social-psychological processes is insufficiently wide to take in all that happens in Inter-Group (or Inter-Sector) situations. Pending the emergence of a theory comprehensive enough to enable this to be done, Bionian theory has to be supplemented by theoretical notions derived from political science.

The Large Group is an anxious group, anxious most of the time. Pressures build up in it for dependent leadership, especially from the Staff, and when this is not forthcoming strong hostility manifests itself.

In the Large Group hurtful things are done by individuals and the Group to other individuals without their arousing any compassion for the victims. And, quite commonly, those who do those things blandly deny any responsibility for them.

The Large Group presents many learning opportunities to its members as to what happens in assemblies of upwards of 30 people, but it seems that resistances to learning are greater here than in smaller groups.


According to Eric Berne [author of Games People Play], two-handed, three- and four-handed transactions take place between persons in one or other of three Ego States, namely, those of Parent, Adult and Child.

A person’s Parent is his own parents (or parental substitutes) whom he as a child internalised in two forms, that of perceived Nutrient Parent and that of perceived Judgmental Parent; a person’s Child is himself as he actually was as a child, and it also appears in two forms, that of the Natural Child, demanding, creative and spontaneous, and the Adapted Child, who is as he perceived his parents as wishing him to be; and a person’s Adult is the reasoning, data processing and reality-testing part of himself.

The theory maintains that all the while any person is engaged in transactions, he is in one or other of these Ego States, but never in more than one of them at the same time.

Shifts in Ego States can, however, be frequent and rapid. Moreover, transactions between persons in their different Ego States can take place at two levels simultaneously: at a social level, that is, overtly and at a psychological level, or covertly.


Normally, Berne tells us, transactional behaviour is not random; it is patterned and the patterns fall into three broad classes. These are operations, pastimes and games, the last constituting elements of life scripts. ‘Pastimes and games,’ says Berne, ‘are substitutes for the real living of real intimacy.’ (Transactional Analysis, p.86). The spotting of these, as they are being played, and their analysis, are the main functions of the Transactional Behaviour Group.

Games are the more important and a game is defined by Berne as follows (Games People Play, London, 1967, p.48):

‘… an ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined predictable outcome. Descriptively it is a recurring set of transactions, often repetitious, superficially plausible, with concealed motivation; or, more colloquially, a series of moves with a ‘gimmick’. Games are clearly differentiated from procedures, rituals and pastimes by two chief characteristics (1) their ulterior quality, and (2) the pay-off.’

Non-verbal communication

I come now to the most recent of the new ventures in group work with which I have been actively associated. In all but this, the intra- and intergroup relations or the transactional behaviours which are the subject of study find expression mainly through the medium of speech. The encounters studied are largely verbal encounters.

True, as I have pointed out, the words are often accompanied by bodily movements – body language, I have called it – but these play only a minor part, at least in the eyes of the group participants. For some time I had wondered whether it might be possible to design group settings in which the members could learn intra- and intergroup relations and transactional behaviours experientially by non-verbal means.

Once again manna dropped as from heaven. Dennis Rice, Warden of Vaughan College, Leicester, on returning from America, where he had been introducing Leicester/Tavistock type Study Groups to Fordham University, made me a gift of a copy of William C. Schutz’s book, Joy: Expanding Human Awareness (New York, 1967) and in this I found what I thought I had been looking for.

The Esalen Institute

Schutz is a psychologist who has held senior appointments at Harvard and Berkeley, in the University of California, and is the author of a substantial book FIRO: A Three-Dimensional Theory of Inter-Personal Behavior (New York, 1958). He has had much experience conducting group dynamics and sensitivity training groups as well as consultancy work with big business concerns. He is now Director of the Residential Programme at the Esalen Institute, Big Sur, California, of which he was one of the founders.

The work done there arose out of his asking himself where would the joy of his infant son Ethan go as he grew up. For, ‘in most of us,’ he says, ‘it (the joy) becomes depleted, distorted, contorted. Guilt and fear begin to defile it. Somehow the joy… goes never fully to return.’ (Joy, p.10).

I doubt whether Schutz has yet found the complete answer to his question, or ever will, but his search for it led to the discovery of ways in which older people could at least recapture some of the joys which once were theirs in childhood.


About the ways he discovered Schutz remarks (Joy pp.10–11): ‘A cornerstone of this approach is honesty and openness. This may sound simple, but it is not. Training people to be direct and not devious, to express their feelings honestly – this is difficult and often fraught with risk, but enormously rewarding. Directness deepens and enriches relationships and opens up feelings of warmth and closeness that are rare in most of our experiences.’

He points out that the approach goes against the grain of our culture. It involved doing something rather than just talking, which may be useful in seeking intellectually to understand personal experience, but is a poor means for helping a person to experience – to feel.

He also emphasises the point that the ways he discovered, and which are pursued at Esalen, do not suit the needs of everyone, but that many get from them an enormous sense of release from the unproductive tenseness of much everyday living.

What Schutz did was to devise a series of exercises and activities having as their object either (1) the development of personal functioning, through the sharpening and expansion of the range of the individual’s sensory awareness – of sounds and sights and bodily feelings, or (2) the development of inter-personal functioning of a dyadic nature and in groups of different sizes, including the Large Group, or both in combination.

Esalen method

At the risk of giving a rather one-sided impression of what happens in an Esalen type of inter-personal encounter I will offer one example – there is no time for more.

And here, I shall speak as through the mouth of the Trainer: Open your eyes and look about you. When I tell you to do so, move about on your haunches, and find a partner with whom to sit back to back. Will you please find your partner, now?

If you cannot find a partner, a member of the staff will help you to do so. Lean on your partner, giving and taking as much support as you need. Relax your buttocks and haunches and explore with your own back that of your partner. Now try to communicate with him NON-VERBALLY.

Express your feelings through your back. Become aware of the rhythms of breathing – suck in and blow out. Can you feel the head, shoulders, spine? Are you giving or taking support? Close your eyes, but continue relating to each other.

Now (after about four minutes have passed) slowly open your eyes. Rise and face your partner and non-verbally express something of your feelings at that moment towards him. And now, without words, thank your partner and take leave of him.

Human awareness

Without direct personal experience I was unwilling to experiment along the lines of the work being done at Esalen, but in July of this year (1970) Joe Richards and I were fortunate in being able to participate in a venture in London, conducted by members of the staff of the Esalen Institute, including Schutz himself.

About 400 people took part in it. My colleague and I were deeply affected by our experience and felt that we must share it with as many people as possible. So we devised a one-day Esalen type of course bearing the title Expanding Human Awareness. This, very fortunately, we were allowed to hold on Saturday, 26 September, in the Education Centre at the St. Crispin Hospital, Northampton.

The maximum number of places we could offer was 40 and all were at once taken up. Our impression of this course is that it succeeded in doing what it was intended to do, at least for many of its members, and Joe Richards and I are under constant pressure to repeat it.

Joy in living

In general it would, I believe, be true to say that the system of education in this and most other countries in the Western world has always been, and still is, strong on the education of the intellect and weak on the education of the emotions, good at equipping people to manipulate ideas and things but poor at helping them to relate meaningfully and positively to each other.

This one-sidedness is reflected, so it seems to me, in the stunted personal and social development of so many of its people, and more especially of its more highly educated and intelligent people.

The kinds of group work with which I have been closely identified for almost a decade and a half has had as its most general objective a restoration of balance, by helping people to become more aware of, and responsive to, the emotional aspects of the social situations within which they find themselves and to improve their personal and inter-personal functioning therein.

Insofar as this can be achieved it should, so it seems to me, enable them, as I believe that it has enabled my colleagues and myself, to give and to get more joy in living.

The Author

John Allaway was Professor of Adult Education at the University of Leicester. This excerpt is from a monograph and transcript of a lecture delivered to the Institute for Cultural Research on 12 December, 1970.

Leave a comment