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Groups: Other basic assumptions

baF: Basic Assumption Fight/Flight

Basic assumption fight (or flight)

An organisation or group operating in a competitive or hostile environment has to mobilise aggression (although not to the exclusion of rationality) in order to survive and win. It also has to know when to avoid problems and to back off from conflicts it may not be able to win.

Such a group will act as if it has met to fight (or perhaps run away from) something beyond itself, which it will construe as a threat or object to be conquered. Sales teams, units in the armed forces, sports teams, and trade unions all need a degree of combativeness to succeed.

Of course, that fight needs to be directed outwards, in such a way as to bring the members of the group together: if it is not—as sometimes happens when the battle is won or the threat disappears—the fight can become directed inwards, and the group can tear itself apart in internecine strife and factionalism.

In teaching, there are occasions on which it is necessary or desirable to mobilise fight. Problem-based learning, for example, is basically a struggle with a problem. Individual or team-based quizzes or competitions can be used to enhance the learning process—but there is the possibility that this culture can become negative. The struggle can become a fight with the teacher, or flight can be mobilised to avoid the task.

Flight, of course, in the form of day-dreaming, talking about irrelevant material, encouraging teacher digressions, and the like is so common in classes as to be hardly worth mentioning. It may well be projected onto some individuals who distract their colleagues or of course just fail to turn up.

This basic assumption is named for the fundamental physiological fight/flight arousal mechanism, and like that process it is often difficult to predict just which form it will take when it is not managed or controlled.

baP: Basic Assumption Pairing

baP (also referred to as ba Expectancy) is the most difficult of Bion's basic assumptions to come to terms with, partly because his account of it is the most obviously psychoanalytic of the three. Based on an observation of the way in which two people in a small group may come to dominate its process by talking to each other, and how this may be allowed to go on for an inordinate length of time by the other members, and how considerable hope may be invested in what is going on—he argues that the group acts as if the two members (or occasionally two sub-groups) were engaged in a sexual relationship which will bring forth a messiah figure which will solve all the group's problems.

Basic assumption Pairing/Expectancy

This account is more likely to put people off accepting the idea than persuade them towards it, particularly when there are sub-groups involved or the "coupling" is single-sex. Nevertheless, the phenomenon itself is recognisable, most obviously in the hope which we tend to invest in negotiations: when two sides in a conflict start talking, the expectations of a solution emerging can be very high (even if they are often disappointed). Those expectations can support the negotiators, or pressurise them. If the negotiations fail, the disappointment can be profound and despairing.

In teaching, the tutorial is the most obvious arena for Pairing. Apart from the potential for abuse if it breaks professional boundaries, such individual attention can restore the hopes of an anxious student. Just occasionally, a class "puts up" a member to question and discuss with the teacher, with the hopes of the group riding on them to elucidate a point they cannot understand. The issue as always is whether this is an appropriate tactic on the part of the group or whether it is a diversion, or a means for the rest of the class to switch off.

In my early years at secondary school, we had a science teacher who was a sucker for this, and I was equally a sucker to be put up to ask him (in all seriousness) things like "Sir, what happens when an irresistible force meets an immoveable object?" We could get through at least half a lesson on that basis.

Sometimes, the pairing takes place within the class as an expression of no confidence in a failed leader — the teacher. Using small group working within a larger group can mobilise a degree of pairing: if used judiciously we are all aware of its potential.

This is an archived copy of Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching [On-line: UK] Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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