Basics of group relations: Projection and projective identification

This is the third in a five-ish part series on the background and basics of group relations. Read parts one and two here.

For whatever reason, some psychoanalytic concepts have thoroughly entered the mainstream. They may not be present in the popular consciousness as fully realized ideas but as bits of pop psychological parlance – everyone knows a bit about the Oedipal complex, penis envy, the unconscious, and of course projection.

In case you’ve only run across the term as a thing people in online debates accuse each other of doing, according to Wikipedia projection is “a defense mechanism in which a person unconsciously rejects his or her own unacceptable attributes by ascribing them to objects or persons in the outside world”. Everyone can think of an example of being projected upon, and if we’re honest with ourselves we can think of times when we’ve done it ourselves. While projection is a word you hear everywhere from Dr. Phil to Facebook comment threads, I had never heard of its counterpart, projective identification.

As a sidebar, I am not a psychoanalyst or anything but I gather that projective identification is a controversial concept not accepted by all schools of thought. It was introduced by Melanie Klein, who is something of a controversial figure in her own right. So you might be reading this, rolling your eyes and saying “Not THIS again”. But whatever its status within the psychoanalytic community, I think projective identification makes a lot of sense.

In a nutshell, projective identification is when you take something projected onto you and incorporate it into yourself. All of us have had the experience of feeling like a different person in different contexts; of feeling like certain people bring out the best or the worst in us; of regressing to childhood around certain relatives. Projective identification could explain why some relationships make us into better people and some really don’t.

Like most concepts in psychoanalysis, projective identification isn’t exactly empirically testable; but it does connect for me to something that has been pretty thoroughly established, stereotype threat.

According to the originators of the term: “Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group” (Steele and Aronson, 1995). In other words, stereotype threat is when we live up to negative beliefs about the groups we belong to. Most of the studies are of test-taking behaviour, so how it applies in a real world context is unclear, but the results are pretty interesting. For example, if you tell a group of students that the test they are taking is an intelligence test, the African-American students will perform worse than the white students. If you tell them it’s a drill to prepare for another test, the achievement gap disappears. The stereotype of African-Americans as unintelligent seems to affect how the students perform; when the framing is changed so that stereotype no longer applies, the effect disappears. Interestingly enough, one small study showed an uptick in African-American test-taking performance after election of Barack Obama. Perhaps the role model of intelligent and successful Black man can help fight this particular example of stereotype threat. Now, many different explanations have been proposed for how stereotype threat works, most of which are not psychoanalytic; but you can definitely look at it as a destructive society-level example of projective identification.

What does this mean for group relations? Well, it explains why people take on sometimes uncharacteristic roles in groups. In “Projective Identification in Dyads and Groups”, Leonard Horwitz tells the story of Don, the scapegoat:

In one study group, which met daily over a period of almost two weeks, Don was extremely hostile and critical toward the consultant…The consultant incorrectly began to show obvious signs of irritation with Don…the group became increasingly inhibited about expressing their negative feelings toward the consultant, with the result that Don became even more the carrier of negative affects. Don became alienated and scapegoated, with the other participants becoming greatly annoyed with him, at least on the conscious level. They experienced his attacks as unfair, crude, and tasteless. Finally, near the end of the conference, Don left the group prematurely but only after he had made a farewell speech in which he went around the room and picked apart each member, describing their Achilles’s heels with telling accuracy. One of the more dramatic aspects of the episode was that, at the conclusion of his speech, he proceeded to commit a symbolic suicide by throwing open the tall French windows in the room, dropping a few feet to the ground, and exiting with a memorable flourish.

I suppose Don might have been a unlikeable jerk in other contexts, but somehow I doubt he would have behaved this way without the collective projections of the group.

I have a vivid memory of a group for “gifted” children I took part in when I was around 12 or 13. I’ve always been an outgoing and gregarious person, but for some reason in this group I was shy and withdrawn. I remember feeling confused and uncertain about my own behaviour, like I was acting in a play and didn’t know my character or my lines. In every other arena of my life I was impossible to shut up; why in this context couldn’t I speak up and take part? Thinking back on it in now, I remember that the other students in this group were not my friends; one girl in particular had made it clear that she strongly disliked me. Perhaps because the rest of the group, or maybe just this one person, didn’t want to talk to me, I found myself silent and unwilling to speak.

Projective identification is part of how groups manage regressive forces, part of how we form identities within different contexts. Indeed, all my reading on the subject reassures us that projection and projective identification part of normal relationships – there’s some interesting writing on how projective identification works in intimate relationships that I’m not going to get into here – but can be harnessed by regressive forces in groups under stress. So I suppose our challenge is, how do we deal with the projections we’re faced with without losing ourselves? How do we own our bad and unacceptable feelings to keep our own projections from harming others?

Up next: Group defenses against anxiety.

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