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an exploration of group psychology with reference to winnicott and bion

written by Crispin Balfour


crispin balfour psychotherapistIn this paper I will discuss the proposition that 'Just as Winnicott says, "There's no such thing as a baby", there is no such thing as a group', in relation to the work of Bion. The proposition implies a connection between Winnicott's remark and there being "no such thing as a group", so I will begin by exploring what Winnicott had in mind, in order to provide a context for thinking about Bion's observations in this regard. From within this context I will then outline some aspects of Bion's thinking about groups, and develop and explore possible links with Winnicott's thinking about infants in ways that might suggest there are no such things.

No Such Thing As An Infant

Wiinnicott’s famous remark “there is no such thing as an infant” took place at a Scientific Meeting of the British Psycho-Analytical Society, circa 1940. Winnicott refers to this remark in a footnote to his 1960 paper “The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship”, and links it in turn to a footnote of Freud’s in “Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning” (Freud, 1911, p.220). In his footnote Freud suggests, when one includes the care an infant receives from its mother, the psychical system of mother-and-infant can be considered as subject only to the pleasure-principle and free of any reality-principle. Winnicott attached great importance to this idea indicating Freud was suggesting there is a stage at which infant and mother form a unit. Although Freud does not elaborate, Wiinnicott proposes at the beginnings of life the very meaning of ‘dependence’ comes into question as “the infant and the maternal care belong to each other and cannot be disentangled.” (Winnicott, 1960, p.40).

donald winnicottWinnicott develops the idea that mother and infant begin by being entangled in ways that change our ordinary understanding of what it means to depend on someone. In this earliest period of life, before speech has begun to develop, an infant depends on maternal empathy rather than “on understanding what is or could be verbally expressed” (Ibid, p.40). The baby at this stage has no symbols and no ability to have one thing stand for another; it relies on a mother to make sense of the world, to ‘mentalize’ the raw data of internal and external experience and to transform it into symbols or signal affects (Mitrani, 1995, p.70).

Winnicott describes how in the "ordinary way" a mother provides a "holding environment" within which the infant can build up a “continuity of being” (Winnicott, 1960, p.47) by identifying with her baby and shifting some of her sense of self onto it. This early primitive relationship between mother and baby, which is not really a relationship between two things in the ordinary manner of things, or even something that happens between two things, but is rather a kind of agglomeration of bits attempting to obtain some sense of themselves:

On the one hand we have ‘baby’, a word we use to describe a physical entity observed from the outside as a something that is attended to. From the outside this something has projected onto it a fantasy of a psychological entity, which is really a bundle of raw sensory perceptions, sensations, unexperienced experiences, or "beta-elements" (Bion, 1962b, p.7). We can say as a physical entity the baby will not survive without a caregiver, but we can also say as a psychological entity the baby does not exist without a caregiver, in the ordinary course of things, a mother.

wilfred bion psychoanalystOn the other hand we have ‘mother’, a word we use to describe a physical entity observed from the outside as a something that attends to the physical needs of something we call a baby. We tend to assume this mother has a psychological reality: However this cannot be taken for granted and only comes into being when she is able to allow herself, and is allowed, to participate in the undifferentiated bundle of psychological stuff that is mother-and-baby by entering a state of receptivity, or what Bion called "maternal reverie" (Bion, 1962a, p.309) where the mother contributes "alpha-function" (Bion, 1962b, p.2) to the mass of "beta-elements" (Ibid, p.7) that is mother-and-baby.

From the point of view of mother-and-baby, ‘mothering’ in this primitive psychological sense, cannot be thought of as something brought to the baby. If it is ‘brought to’, in a literal sense, something about the baby’s experience of going-on-being will be lost. The baby needs to believe it is bringing alpha-function as mother. For this to be true it must be able to take itself as mother-and-baby for granted.

This is why Winnicott suggests:

“The newly integrated infant is ... in the first group. Before this stage there is only a primitive pre-group formation, in which unintegrated elements are held together by an environment from which they are not yet differentiated. This environment is the holding mother.” (Winnicott, 1965, p.219, emphasis in original).

Before this integration “the individual is unorganised, a mere collection of sensory-motor phenomena, collected by the holding environment. After integration ... the infant human being has achieved unit status, can say I AM” (Ibid, p.217).

Winnicott uses the word “integration” for this moment in development where a baby becomes a person with an inside and an outside (Ibid, p.217).

No Such Thing As A Group

“... the basis of group psychology is the psychology of the individual, and especially of the individual’s personal integration” (Winnicott, 1965, p.215)

"The apparent difference between group psychology and individual psychology is an illusion produced by the fact that the group brings into prominence phenomena that appear alien to an observer unaccustomed to using the group." (Bion, 1961, p.169)

Focussing now on Bion's observations about groups, I will proceed by referencing three aspects of group psychology he articulated to the discussion above. The three aspects of group experience are:
1) The work group;
2) Basic assumptions, and;
3) Proto-mental phenomena.

Work group

Bion observed activity in groups where the group seems "capable of establishing contact with reality and recognises the need to evolve, and to work together towards a common aim." (Lopez-Corvo, 2003, p.310) Bion called this a "work group" (Bion, 1961, p.98), but it is not really a group, rather it is a way of describing an aspect of mental states operating within a group. Learning, in these mental states, is by experience: There is a need for truth, and an awareness of the painful consequences of acting without an adequate grasp of reality. (Ibid, p.100)

Work group activity demonstrates a level of maturity such that the group undertakes mental work to achieve a task, containing and speaking about feelings rather than discharging them (Symington, 1996, p.126). I suggest this is linked to a 'capacity to be alone’ which Winnicott proposed was vital to development. (Winnicott, 1958, pp.416-420). The work group may be thought of as a psychological environment where "ego-relatedness" is primary and "id-relationships" within the group strengthen the work of the group rather than disrupt it. (Ibid, p.418). Individuals in work group mentality are able to experience being alone in the presence of others. (Ibid, p.417) Although there is no such thing as a "work group", there will be aspects of this mentality in any group that is orientated towards work.

Basic Assumptions

By altering his focus (Bion, 1961, p.48) Bion observed activity in groups which focussed on the group preserving itself, as if it had "a natural tendency to disintegrate" (Symington, 1996, p.128). The wellbeing of individuals becomes secondary to a basic assumption there is a need to maintain the group, even though there is no effort to make the group worthwhile; "adherence to the group is an end in itself." (Bion, 1961, p.63). Bion called the mental states associated with this activity "basic assumption" mentality, connecting it with "powerful emotional drives" (Ibid, p.146). This mental activity requires no training, experience, or mental development and makes use of "valency", or an individual's readiness to engage in this way. (Ibid, p.116) It is "instantaneous, inevitable, and instinctive" (Ibid, p.153).

Bion observed groups expressing basic assumption mentality through one of three mutually exclusive patterns: Dependency (baD), Pairing (baP), and Fight/Flight (baF). I suggest these patterns may be compared to three focusses a newly integrated infant might find refuge in , on the edge between integration and unintegration: baD - Orienting centre and reference point (breast, phallus etc.); baP - Order, structure and hierarchy (sexual union, primal scene); baF - Boundary, edge and covering (skin, womb, container).

Like an infant held together by its mother's skin, a group experiences a sense of integration due to the unifying state of mind of the active basic assumption. However that this is “a dangerous achievement” since the “repudiated external world comes back at the new phenomenon and attacks from all quarters and in every conceivable way” (Winnicott, 1965, p.219). Perhaps this explains why a group becomes so preoccupied with its own survival as an end in itself. Although there is no such thing as a "basic assumption group", there will be aspects of this mentality in any group, an orientation towards survival of the group and avoiding learning by experience.

Proto-mental Phenomena

Bion was led to propose proto-mental phenomena through wondering what happens to the inactive basic assumptions. He visualised the the two inactive basic assumptions existing as a matrix of proto-mental states where "physical and psychological or mental are undifferentiated" (Bion, 1961, p.102), a system containing precursors for the emotions which are present in other aspects of the group. (Lopez-Corvo, 2003, p.222) Meltzer suggests "It is not intended to describe a cause and effect series", rather refer to a level "at which physical and psychological events are not differentiated, where the emotional components are fused because incipient as observable psychological phenomena." (Meltzer, 1998, p.279)

I suggest we may compare the 'proto-mental' aspect of a group to an unintegrated infant, or “primitive pre-group formation”, of mother-and-infant (Winnicott, 1965, p.219), in a state of invisible oneness. Both refer to a state that is not physical or mental, rather the two are undifferentiated, what Bion refers to as beta-elements (Bion, 1962b, p.7) “which may manifest themselves as accident, illness, or vocal utterance.” (Symington, 1996, p.138) Just as there is no such thing as an unintegrated infant without a mother, there is no such thing as a "proto-mental group"; since these aspects only exist in relation to the mental states of 'work' and 'basic assumption' as a pre-symbolic and pre-psychological matrix of possibility.

Bion offers us these three "vertices" (Bion, 1970, p.21) from which to understand groups , and suggests it is useful to find ways that bring the basic assumption aspect (ba) and the work group aspect (W) into contact (Bion, 1961, p.126). I believe any group which is endeavouring to be creative needs to bring the ba-activity and the W-activity into relationship: Emotional states associated with the active basic assumption and mental states associated with the work group can then enter a dialectical relation where “each creates, informs, preserves, and negates the other” in the realm of transitional phenomena and potential space (Winnicott, 1971, p.107).

Employing the thinking of Ogden (1985) to develop this, I suggest in establishing contact between ba-group-activity and W-group-activity the exclusive unities of 'group' and 'individual' are transformed into a three-ness of individual, group, and individual-as-group as three distinct entities. ‘Oneness’ (the invisible group-individual existing as a proto-mental soup) becomes ‘three-ness’, since at the moment of differentiation within the group-individual unit, not only are the group and individuals created as objects; in addition, individuals are created as subjects. Individual as subject is an observer of group and individual as (symbolic) objects; each individual becomes the creator and interpreter of his symbols. (cf. Ogden, 1985, p.133)

There is no such thing as a group without these moments where the group is created as a symbolic object in the mind of participating subjects.


The proposition that "there is no such thing as a group" has been examined in the light of Bion's thinking about groups informed by Winnicott's thinking about early infant experience and later developments by other psychoanalytic thinkers. An attempt is made to develop a vertex from which contact between the mental states of basic-assumption and work-group can be understood as marking a threshold where a group can begin to exist.


Balfour, C. J. A. (1987). Going For Refuge. Bachelor of Architecture. Auckland University.
Bion, W. R. (1961). Experiences In Groups and other papers. London: Tavistock Publications Limited.
Bion, W. R. (1962a). The Psycho-Analytic Study of Thinking. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 43, 306-310.
Bion, W. R. (1962b). Learning From Experience. London: William Heinemann Medical Books Ltd.
Bion, W. R. (1970). Attention and Interpretation. London: Tavistock Publications Ltd.
Freud, S. (1911). Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning (Strachey, Trans. XII (1911-1913): The Case of Schreber, Papers on Technique and Other Works).
Lopez-Corvo, R. E. (2003). The Dictionary of the Work of W.R. Bion. London: H. Karnac (Books) Ltd.
Meltzer, D. (1998). The Kleinian Development. London: Karnac Books.
Mitrani, J. L. (1995). Toward An Understanding Of Unmentalized Experience. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 64, 68-112.
Ogden, T. H. (1985). On Potential Space. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 66, 129-141.
Symington, J. & N. (1996). The Clinical Thinking of Wilfred Bion. London: Routledge.
Winnicott, D. W. (1958). The Capacity To Be Alone. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39(5), 416-420.
Winnicott, D. W. (1960). The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 41, 585-595.
Winnicott, D. W. (1965). The Family and Individual Development. Tavistock Publications Limited.
Winnicott, D. W. (1971). Playing and Reality. Hove, E.Sussex: Brunner-Routledge.

Crispin Balfour is a psychotherapist in private practice in Auckland  » see website

Article posted 3 September 2010