Book review Politics Psychology

Group Psychology and The Analysis of the Ego (1922). Sigmund Freud (trs. James Strachey)

Group Psychology summarises the existing research, and offers the rudiments of a unifying theoretical framework: based on the ego-related processes of suggestibility and object cathexis. In the twin human drives of libido, and of identification with an external object, Freud locates the building-blocks for group psychology. A century on, Freud’s monograph remains a useful tool to understand phenomena of mob behaviour: the preponderance of primitive emotions, the suspension of self-interest, and the moral lows and highs between which mob behaviour often swings.

Freud begins his monograph by remarking that the fundamental principles of group psychology probably overlap with those of individual psychology. He reviews Gustave Le Bon’s characterisation of mob behaviour as dominated by primitive instincts, disinhibition, extreme and unpredictable swings, intolerance of uncertainty and moderateness, and hypnosis/heightened suggestibility – as well as the observation that though a group often lowers, it also often raises, the individual’s moral values. Freud next reviews William McDougall’s conditions for the creation of a lasting, organised, and effective group: including specific customs, and the establishment of well-defined roles. Freud then develops the two elements that characterise his own view of group psychology: suggestibility and the redirection of libido.

For Freud, suggestibility is a fundamental, irreducible element of human nature, rising from the human for imitative behaviour. Libido is all energies connected with the instincts of love: as deployed in familial, friendly, and sexual relationships, and extended to abstract ideas and intellectual projects. It is libido that suppresses the conflicts individuals would normally face in working with strangers, and that directs this hostile energy to a common goal or enemy. Using the army and the church as contrasting case-studies in group formation, Freud identifies the leader as the keystone in the individual’s displacement of the libido onto fellow-members. The leader’s bond with each group-member is equally strong; it is this bond that alchemises group-members into one family. It’s these strong mutual emotional ties that give the group its illusion of invulnerability; and it’s the breakdown of these ties – which often occurs in ways uncorrelated with the real size of the problem facing the group – that generate panic.

Freud views identification – an individual striving after a worthy role-model – as the source of all human ties. Identification and “object cathexis” (investing energy in a goal outside the ego) lay the foundation for love. Love then produces important changes in the individual:

“Traits of humility, the limiting of narcissism, and self-injury occur in every case of love; in the extreme cases they are only intensified,” with the beloved object taking entire possession of the ego’s self-love and resulting in self-sacrifice. “This happens especially easily with love that is unhappy and cannot be satisfied… [Now] everything the beloved object does is blameless, and the conscience/ego ideal is silenced… The object has taken the place of the ego ideal.”

It’s easy to see how these intrapsychic processes, which occur in simple sexual love, constitute an important force in group formation: “A group is a number of individuals who have substituted one and the same object for their ego ideal, and have consequently identified themselves with one another in their ego.” This process creates the herd instinct, whereby individuals suppress envy, malice, and other normal interpersonal conflicts to collaborate on shared goals.

After a speculative detour into father-son conflict in primitive tribes, and the emergence of the rebellious “band of brothers” who perform the “original heroic “ deed of patricide, Freud visits the question of the process whereby the leader replaces a component of the individual ego. In many individuals, the ego never becomes well-differentiated into its components (id, ego, conscience, ego ideal); a leader can therefore easily occupy the role normally reserved for intrapsychic forces.

The postscript offers remarks on a few tangential topics, including the relationship between the sexual pair-bond and group formation.

Group Psychology displays Freud’s concise style, and his incisive penetration. In his discussion of the libido, Freud remarks that, to assuage sensitive readers, he could’ve replaced “sexual” with “erotic,” but that he considers such concessions silly. This is a fine demonstration of resistance from the man who displayed admirable courage when Austrian Nazis raided his Vienna house after the Anschluss.

However, contemporary readers, even those with a grounding in psychology, will stumble over outdated psychodynamic terms like “object cathexis,” “anaclitic,” and “introjection” – which Freud does not explicitly define here, and which draw on dynamics between mental elements very different from those theorised by contemporary psychology.

Group Psychology offers no conclusive or comprehensive view of its subject; it aims only to further theoretical perspectives by tying group psychology to ego-related processes. It’s a concise introduction to academic thinking on this subject. Freud’s own hypotheses about the intrapsychic processes that allow an individual to subordinate himself to a group are a good starting-point for a student of group psychology. Freud’s terminology is dated; but his insights into the processes by which a leader substitutes for one’s own conscience, and by which the group lifts the individual out of the limits imposed by normal self-interest – remain a useful lens to turn on contemporary phenomena in mob behaviour.


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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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