By Lars Bo Jørgensen

Basic Law of Group Dynamics

First posted 19/1/2017


The notion or concept of “Basic Law of Group dynamics” is introduced by S.H.Foulkes in his first book – Introduction to group Analytic Psychotherapy (Foulkes,1948). This appears in a discussion on how group psychotherapy and even social therapy create formation/transformation for the group as well as the individual. He uses a metaphor by saying that even you wash dirty shirts in dirty water the shirts will appear more clean afterwards.

Definition: Bringing this to a group/social scene he defines:

“A Basic Law of Group Dynamics ….  the deepest reason why these patients, assuming for simplicity’s sake Psycho-Neurotics, can reinforce each other’s normal reactions and wear down and correct each other’s neurotic  reactions, is that collectively they constitute  the very Norm, from which, individually, they deviate.” (Foulkes, 1948)

This seems at first to be a paradox. At one hand being more of the same and on the other hand develop individual differences.

Theoretically S.H.Foulkes is influenced by Kurt Lewin and his concept of Field Theory and Life space which focuses on forces as conflicts and motivational factors in creating a certain social field. Lewin stresses that the social field where two persons or a group of people meet will interact in a way that is unpredictable. (Lewin, 1947). Primarily because the individual bring his own life-space into a social field of more people and to create a common ground language is necessary.

In the first edition of the book Group Psychotherapy -The Psychoanalytic Approach (S.H.Foulkes and E.J.Anthony ,1957)  E.J Anthony elaborates the connection between Lewin’s field theory to group analysis while in later editions this has been omitted. This omission is interesting when at the same time Field theory seems so have a great impact for group analytic theory – and seems to lie as a basic factor in the group analytic theory as a whole. (se also Nietzgen, 2016).

Foulkes also brings the concepts into the fore as opposed to classical psychoanalysis, where the vertical analysis is aimed to uncover the individual’s past and attains insight in the inner psychological dynamic stemming primary from the family group. The horizontal field has a great significance in the (social) psychological development. Foulkes technical method of analysis “by the group” is thereby an important factor in the matrix of the social/collective field and in the individual.

Foulkes considered “internal” and “external” as an artificial distinction as well as the individual as an artificial construct. What is inside is also outside and vice versa. (Foulkes,1973, Dalal,1998).

The argument is that the community/ the group “determines what is normal, socially accepted behaviour”. This assumption has it roots in the work and findings by Norbert Elias, who in Civilizing Process stated “…libidinal energies which  one encounters  in any living human beings are already socially processed; … they are in other words, sociogenetically transformed in their function and structure, and can in no way be separated from the corresponding ego and super-ego structures” (Elias, 2000, p. 409).

Collective norms are not meant to be working for “uniformity” but at best (and in an optimistic way) to create the mould for personal development. Brown (1998) says, “the therapeutic group from which individuals deviate is never ideal. It is what the individual member and the group-as-a whole can make of the good and the bad that determines the therapeutic process – the strangeness of others, the struggle with fairness, and the development of a capacity for concern for oneself and others in the process of defining oneself”. In this process we need both an “I- identity” and a “We-identity”.

Where as Foulkes often refer to the optimistic group (process) is it absolutely necessary to have the “bad” group in mind – like the Anti-group (Nitsun, 1996) as well as Basic Assumptions groups  (Bion,1961) and Incohesive groups (Hopper,2012) and totalitarian groups with a “false collective self” (Klimová, 2015).

This type of groups constitutes their own emotional and unconscious norms depending on the valence (Bion expression) or vectors (Lewin expression).

Basic Law of Group Dynamics have to be understood in a context on a personal and social level with historical roots (the past) and in actual social context and dynamic matrix unconsciously and consciously (Nietzgen,2016).

S.Karterud and A. Bateman (2012) raises an important question to the group analytic approach and especially Basic Law of Group Dynamics by asking “how can “sick” people develop a functional group?” The answer is that the group requires a firm and active leader. The group cannot do it by its own. His thought derives from Mentalizing Based Treatment in Groups (MBT-G) for patients with a borderline personality disorder (BPD). This is not that a surprising answer and every therapy group needs a therapist/an analyst. From research (AGPA 2007) there seems to be evidence that a positive outcome for group psychotherapy is related to the therapeutic factor “cohesion” which might supposed to be a norm collectively constituted by the members including the therapist.

The role of the leader is prominent in any kind of group. This is also a finding from a non- therapeutic perspective as seen in the writings of Lewin who links the function of the group process to the leader’s role and point out the outcome in authoritarian-, autocratic- and democratic groups.




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