Psychoanalytic Considerations on Large-Group Psychology and Suicide Bombers

This post was carried over from the previous website.

A Discussion: Psychoanalytic Considerations on Large-Group Psychology

Vamık D. Volkan

I applaud the Newsletter editors’ efforts to improve interaction and dialogue among the College members and thank them for inviting me to start a discussion on large-group identity and large-group psychology in general. Revising Erikson’s (1956) description of individual identity, I define large-group identity—whether it refers to tribes, ethnicity, nationality, religion or political ideology such as “We are Apache,” “We are Kurds,” “We are Polish,” “We are Muslims,” and “We are Communists”—as the subjective experience of thousands or millions of people who are linked by a persistent sense of sameness from childhood on while also sharing some characteristics with others who belong to foreign groups. Members of a large group share what Mack (1979) called, “cultural amplifiers,” which are concrete or abstract symbols and signs ranging from physical body characteristics, language, nursery rhymes, food, dances, flags to myths and images of historical events.

In a large-group setting a “normal” degree of shared narcissism attaches itself to large-group identity and creates a sense of uniqueness in cultural amplifiers and usually makes them a source of pride.  When large-group identity and its amplifiers are threatened, the result is a shared narcissistic hurt associated with shame, humiliation, helplessness or feelings of revenge.  An exaggerated large-group narcissism describes a process within a large group when people in it become preoccupied and obsessed with the superiority of almost anything connected with their large-group identity, even when such perceptions and beliefs are not realistic. A society’s assimilation of chronic victimhood and utilization of a sense of suffering in order secretly to feel superior or at least entitled to attention represent the existence of a masochistic large-group narcissism. Malignant large-group narcissism explains the initiation of a process in a large group when members of that large group wish to oppress or kill “others” either within or outside their legal boundaries, a process motivated by a shared spoken or unspoken notion that contamination by the devalued “others” is threatening their superiority.

The above definitions of large-group exaggerated, masochistic or malignant narcissism are only simple definitions. In reality they are usually mixed. A study of shared sentiments, where they come from and how they become involved in large-group identity is complicated. Shapiro and Carr (2006) state that the attempt to understand societies is a daunting prospect, and that it may be “a defense against the experience of despair about the world, a grandiose effort to manage the unmanageable” (p.256). I join them in their opinion, while I believe that making efforts to understand large-group processes from a psychodynamic angle nonetheless is necessary. Such efforts also are required to include psychoanalysis among the sciences employed to understanding massive human behavior patterns. Starting with Freud (1921), while discussing large-group psychology psychoanalysts primarily explained what a leader represents for the followers, for example as an oedipal father, and later they focused on what a large-group itself represents for the individual group member, for example as a milk-giving mother. The time has come to evolve and expand a psychodynamic large-group psychology in its own right and explain how large groups interact in certain patterns in times of peace and war.

Over 30 years ago I became involved in international relations. My interdisciplinary team from the University of Virginia’s Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction (CSMHI) conducted years-long unofficial diplomatic dialogues between Arabs and Israelis, Americans and Soviets, Russians and Estonians, Croats and Bosniaks, Georgians and South Ossetians, Turks and Greeks and studied post-revolution or post-war societies   such as Albania after the dictator Enver Hodxa was gone and Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion was over. We observed that large-group identity, an abstract concept, lies under the real-world economic, legal, and military issues in international relations. Large groups, with the guidance or manipulation of political leaders will do anything to protect, maintain and repair their large-group identities, even if such activities include massive extreme sadism as well as extreme masochism. When large-group identities are threatened, the personality organization of the political leader, even in democracies, becomes a major factor in giving adaptive or maladaptive direction to large-group’s movements (Volkan 2004). There are always subgroups and dissenters within a large group, but unless they evolve a huge following that leads to a drastic modification of large-group identity, they do not substantially change how large groups react and deal with “others” who are foreign to them.

Large groups do not have one brain to think or two eyes to cry. When thousands or millions of members of a large group share a defense mechanism such as projection or a psychological journey such as mourning, what we see are societal, cultural and political processes. In order to explain this I will give three examples.

The first example: In our daily clinical practice we see behavior patterns in our analysands that can be explained by the concept of regression. In order to evolve a psychoanalytically informed large-group psychology we should ask how large-group regression exhibits itself. Kernberg (2003a, b) rightfully explains that regressed large groups experience narcissistic or paranoid reorganization. We need to be more specific if we want to contribute to the understanding of a particular international conflict. Elsewhere I came up with 20 signs and symptoms of societal regression (Volkan 1997), but here I will mention one key sign.

When individuals regresses they “go back” and repeat their childhood ways of dealing with conflicts contaminated with unconscious fantasies and mental defenses.  When a large-group regresses the large-group also goes back and inflames certain shared images of its ancestors’ history. For example, under Slobodan Milosevic Serbians inflamed the 600-year-old image of the Battle of Kosovo. I call such images of the past “chosen traumas” and “chosen glories.” Each chosen trauma or chosen glory belongs to only one specific group. Wounded Knee only belongs to Sioux Native Americans. When the images of these  traumas are reactivated they change function (Waelder,1930) and become key identity markers that confirm the existence and the continuity of the large group. They are “chosen” to patch up the wear and tear of the large-group’s identity and maintain the narcissistic investment in the large-group identity.

When enemy representatives get together for unofficial diplomatic dialogues they become spokespersons for their large groups. When one side feels humiliated they reactivate the images of historical events. For example, while discussing current international affairs, Russians might begin to focus on the Tatar invasion or Greeks may refer to the loss of Constantinople; both events occurred centuries ago.  When such images of past historical events are reactivated within a large group, a “time collapse” occurs. Shared perceptions, feelings, and thoughts about a past historical image become intertwined with perceptions, feelings and thoughts about current events. This magnifies the present danger. Unless a way is found to deal with the time collapse routine diplomatic efforts will most likely fail. Today’s extreme Muslim religious fundamentalists have reactivated numerous chosen traumas and glories. We need to study and understand them in order to develop new and hopefully more effective strategies for a peaceful world.

The second example: We are very familiar with a person’s externalizing his or her unacceptable self and object images or projecting unacceptable thoughts or affects on another person. This creates a personal bad prejudice. “I am not the one who stinks; my neighbor is the one who stinks!” If we want to develop a large-group psychology in its own right and understand at least one key aspect of societal prejudice, we will try to describe what happens when a large-group uses externalization and projection. When a large group finds itself asking questions such as “Who are we now?” or “How do we define our large-group identity now?”—usually following a revolution, a war, a humiliating economic trauma, or freedom after a long oppression by “others”—it purifies itself from unwanted elements. Such purifications stand for large-group externalizations and projections. After the Greek struggle for independence Greeks purified their language from all Turkish words. After Latvia gained its independence from the Soviet Union its people wanted to get rid of some 20 dead “Russian” bodies in their national cemetery. After Serbia became independent following the collapse of communism Serbs attempted to purify themselves of Muslim Bosniaks and that led to tragedies such as the one in Srebrenica. There are non-dangerous as well as genocidal purifications. Understanding the meaning and psychological necessity of purifications can help to develop strategies to keep shared prejudices within “normal” limits and from becoming destructive.

The third example: Large groups like individuals also exhibit complicated mourning. In our clinical setting we see many individuals who suffer from perennial mourning (Volkan 1981). Here I will mention only one key sign of unending mourning among some large groups. Decades after a major shared trauma and loss at the hands of enemies, a large group may develop what I call political entitlement ideologies—a shared sense of entitlement to recover what has been lost in reality and fantasy. Holding on to such an ideology reflects a complication in large-group mourning, an attempt both to deny losses as well as a wish to recover them. What Italians call irredentism (related to Italia Irredenta), what Greeks call the “Megali Idea” (Great Idea), what Serbians call Christoslavism, what Turks call Pan-Turanism and at the present time what extreme religious Islamists call “the return of an Islamic Empire” are examples of entitlement ideologies. Such ideologies may last for centuries and may disappear and reappear when historical circumstances change. Often they contaminate diplomatic negotiations. They may result in changing the world map in peaceful or dreadful ways. The influence of complications involved in large-group mourning is one of the most significant aspects of studying international relations from a psychodynamic angle (Volkan 2006).

For discussion: The above is a very condensed summary of some aspects of large-group psychology. I invite the College members to discuss them with the hope that such communications will take us to certain clinical issues such as connections between individual and large-group prejudices, the intertwining of external and internal wars, intergenerational transmissions of shared massive traumas, and the analyst’s need to learn and examine his or her “foreign” patients’ large-group histories and the related psychological processes that such histories might initiate. In my latest book (with Chistopher Fowler), Searching for a Perfect Woman, I hope that I illustrate in detail the impact of the American large-group psychology and the history of the Civil War and race relations on a male analysand’s psychic organization (Volkan and Fowler 2009).This discussion will also raise two questions: Can psychoanalysis offer serious information about international relations and can we evolve further psychoanalytically informed large-group psychology in its own right?


Erikson, E. H. (1956). The problem of ego identity. Journal of the American
Psychoanalytic Association, 4: 56-121.

Freud, S. (1921). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. Standard Edition, 18: 65-143.

Kernberg, O. F. (2003a). Sanctioned political violence: A psychoanalytic view—Part 1.International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 84:683-698.

Kernberg, O. F. (2003b) Sanctioned political violence: A psychoanalytic view—Part 2.International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 84:683-698.

Mack, J. (1979). Introduction. In Cyprus: War and Adaptation by V. D. Volkan, pp. ix-xxviii. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia.

Shapiro, E., and Carr, W. (2006). “Those people were some kind of solution”: Can
society in any sense be understood? Organizational & Social Dynamics, 6: 241-257.

Volkan, V. D. (1981) Linking Objects and Linking Phenomena: A Study of the Forms, Symptoms, Metapsychology, and Therapy of Complicated Mourning. New York: International Universities Press.

Volkan, V. D. (1997) Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Volkan, V.D. (2004). Blind Trust: Large Groups and Their Leaders in Times of Crises and Terror.Charlottesville, VA: Pitchstone Publishing.

Volkan, V. D.  (2006). Killing in the Name of Identity: A Study of Bloody Conflicts.Charlottesville, VA: Pitchstone Publishing.

Volkan, V. D. (with Christopher Fowler) (2009). Searching for a Perfect Woman: The Story of a Complete Psychoanalysis. New York: Jason Aronson.

Waelder, R. (1930). The principle of multiple function: Observations on over-determination. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 5:45-62 (1936).

Comments from previous blog:

Subject: Newsletter Discussion Groups, Vol.XL111, 2010 Spring

Critique; Vamik Volkan M.D. Initial Statement, pp.4-6. A Discussion: Psychoanalytic

Considerations on Large-Group Psychology

The definition of large group identity (LGI) by Vamik Volkan is: “The subjective experience of thousands or millions people through a sense of sameness from childhood on”. This is a staggering idea to link to psychoanalytic basic concepts. Psychoanalysis centers on deeply and often disguised meanings. LGI is enormously complex and covers ethnicity, class, nationality, total range of human psychopathology, cultural values, language, and human conflicts of war and peace.

The assumption is expressed that LGI has a narcissistic overlay present shared with countless other humans. Does this concept engage the exquisite individual uniqueness of psychoanalysis? LGI is a verbal example of rhetorical performance of individuality.

A major task of psychoanalysis is to differentiate the individual from his or her family linkages, small group and large group patterns of behavior. Each individual needs separation from the engrained social baggage of life’s experiences imprinted into his/her core of cognition and unconscious behavior. LGI assumes class indoctrinations for all of us, national and ethnic chauvinisms, cultural residue values of religion, sexuality, occupation and behavior that may appear the same to an outsider, but are vastly individual on inspection.

To utilize psychoanalytic concepts rooted in the individual like paranoia, identification, projection without specific examples of how couples, families, groups nations utilize the same words (ideas) provides a shell of group sameness over vastly different individual psychodynamic complexities.

There can be a fallacy in LGI that confuses social group sameness for psychological-depth sameness. One should not shift a conceptual level of speech to a different group level. Subjective individual associations and patterns of behavior cannot be shifted to collectivized group levels without loss of accuracy. The same words can sound applicable to the individual and group, but require careful distinctions in application, in order to avoid semantic leaps of false connection.

The same words shift meaning in different contexts, especially under conditions of stress. A huge Nazi-Nuremberg rally of hundreds of thousands of uniformed youths is still not a LGI composite separate from their individual depths and private motivations. It seems that LGI is a mélange concept that blurs the hierarchy of scales of human complexity into sameness.

To borrow regression, identity, projection, psychopathology concepts from psychoanalysis to LGI is not yet a workable social operation. LGI is on a different semantic level from psychoanalytic thinking and requires a different language when it merges the individual into the mass community. Groups do not repress, identify, project, or write poetry.

Perry Ottenburg

Response to Dr. Vamik Volkan’s discussion “Psychoanalytic Considerations on Large-Group Psychology”

Dr. Volkan’s concise and lucid presentation led me to think that all patients have one or more large-group identifications. The analysis of these identifications, and of their origins in large groups, would then seem to be necessary if our analytic efforts are to be complete. Without attending to our patients’ large-group identifications, we may be leaving our patients with points of fixation around which they may be vulnerable to later regressions.

Dr. Volkan’s examples – of chosen traumas and chosen glories, of externalizing unacceptable self and object images, and of resistances to mourning – seem, in my experience, to often all be present in one patient and focused around the same large-group identifications. For example, I recently analyzed a man who lost his father as a teenager. His family had come from the deep South and his great-grandfather had fought in the Confederate Army and there was a strong family tradition of bravery, refusal to surrender, and of being able to outfox opponents. These traits were very evident in my patient’s professional work and in family relationships. His large-group identification with the wily and brave figure of a Confederate fighter protected him from mourning for his father and served as a chosen glory that also served as a way to externalize his anger with his father to external figures. It also led to his at times feeling like a victim, as Southerners might feel about the Yankees. Near the end of his analysis he did some genealogical research about his family’s background and this was helpful in deconstructing his large-group identification.

Dr. Volkan’s examples clarify superego pathology. Dr. Leo Rangell, who recently joined the College, has written about “the compromise of integrity” in which the integration of the superego is sacrificed to ego interests and narcissistic gratifications. These ego interests and narcissistic gratifications are often associated with large-group identifications. Dr. Rangell’s observations are made from the standpoint of individual psychodynamic issues (in leaders in psychoanalysis) while Dr. Volkan’s observations are made from the standpoint of observing large groups. From Dr. Rangell’s observational position, the role of the individual’s superego integrity may appear paramount while from Dr. Volkan’s observational position the role of the large-group identity may appear determinative. It is challenging to bridge the gap between these two observational standpoints. Further understanding of how potentially successful, and often charismatic, leaders are able to mobilize large-group identifications in people they deal with would be helpful here. How do the willing leaders find and inspire the willing led?

David Edelstein

I admire the sheer intellectual power of Vamik’s entry into the labyrinth of the psychoanalytic exploration of group identity and group psychology. More than anyone else since Freud, Vamik has given us something new to consider in a most profound way. We are lucky to have had him as President of our College and I for hope he will continue to lead us to a greater understanding of group functions.

What strikes me more than anything else is the ego identity of the leader who can captures the ethos of a large segment of the population. Part of the answer seems to be a shared narcissism, such as hero worship. For example, American professional style football fans incorporate certain players through wearing sports shirts with the name and team number emblazoned on them as their mode of an ideal self. Vamik makes it very clear how political leaders say certain catch phrases that appear to summarize a number of group members’ inner most and dearest notions of a patriotic, economic, or military nature. Some religious leaders use some of the same strategies to appeal to group prejudices and hatreds, and then may serve the purpose of catharsis of some real or imagined source of rageful hatreds.

I look forward to learning more from Vamik’s rich experiences with various nationalities, political and professional. Indeed, our own profession and especially our College deserves a closer look from his perspective.

David Dean Brockman

I have had the great pleasure of counting Dr. Volkan as a good friend for 23 years and am familiar with his excellent work. The Center for Psychopolitical Studies at the University of Virginia eventually was amalgamated into the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction; I received the Center’s newsletter for years, and am the proud owner of most of Vamik’s books. In these, he details many of the concepts that he reviews in his ACOPSA paper: large groups’ chosen traumas and glories, malignant/masochistic regressions, identification of a population with a charismatic and/or manipulative leader (cf. Jim Jones-Guyana), and of course the projection of unwanted individual and/or group characteristics onto some other groups (e.g., Nazis’ belief that Jews were dirty and greedy).

Dr. Volkan has covered most of what there is to say about large groups. Perhaps I can add a few more dynamics that I have observed, studied, and experienced in both small and large groups, to further our discussion.

To begin with, any group experiences group dynamics (Slavson, 1964) that often lead to prejudice by enhancing the tendencies toward projective blaming and generalizations aimed at others. Interstimulation refers to the process of group members affecting each others’ thoughts about any given issue. Mutual induction refers to group members inflaming certain emotions like hatred (cf., Blum [1995], Gaylin [2003]) in other group members. Both of these mechanisms can further undergo intensification through mutual identifications.

Moreover, in groups which show more or less cohesion, there is usually some membership criterion such as language, dialect, or skin color. For example, in groups of African-American ghetto boys between 10 and 12 years of age, whom I treated through the New Orleans School System (in the late 1970s and early 1980s), I noticed that the occasional Caucasian boy would quickly adopt ghetto lingo to avoid ostracism (identification with a group qualification to defensively avoid social anxiety). In other words, group forces occur as well as individual dynamics, and contribute to the identity issues that Vamik so ably describes.

Another interesting mental operation has been described regarding the effects of totalitarianism on people in different countries during different eras. Lifton (1986), in The Nazi Doctors, describes “doubling.” This phenomenon, which occurred in German physicians during the Nazi reign, refers to how some of the physicians formed a split-off self-image, based on an identification with Nazi beliefs, as a defense against the realangst of being killed. That identification did not become integrated with prior identifications with ethical mentors. Natan Sharansky (a.k.a. Anatoly Shcharansky), in The Case for Democracy, similarly argues that liberating large populations from repressive leaders allows those who have identified with the tyrannical regime (he specifically cites this phenomenon in the former Soviet Union, where he had been a renowned Refusenik) to drop that conflicting identification, which he terms “doublethink.” Similar to Lifton, he opines that the second identification had been a defense against realangst, and that once free from external threats (by a malignant group), the healthier identifications that had contributed to the original self-image (and superego), based on childhood experiences (of resolution of conflict), resurface. At that point, the same people who had been going along with the “true believers” drop their identification with those people and become more egalitarian.

Finally, a question for Vamik about outliers. What are the dynamics of a Boris Yeltsin, a Claus von Stauffenburg (Nazi Germany), a Vaclav Havel (Czech Republic), a Lech Walesa (Poland), a Nelson Mandela, a Natan Sharansky, and for that matter, a James Madison, John Adams, and/or Thomas Jefferson? How have these personages avoided the group pressures under totalitarian rule, avoided being killed, avoided the split self-image of “doublethink” (Sharansky) or “doubling” (Lifton), and avoided the tremendous pressures that belonging to a group (chosen traumas, etc.) brings with membership?


Blum, Harold (1995). Sanctified Aggression, Hate, and the Alteration of Standards and Values. In: The Birth of Hatred: Developmental, Clinical, and Technical Aspects of Intense Aggression. Edited by Salman Akhtar, M.D.; Selma Kramer, M.D.; and Henri Parents, M.D. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson

Gaylin, Willard (2003) Hatred: The Psychological Descent into Violence. New York: Public Affairs.

Lifton, Robert Jay (1986). The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York: Basic Books

Sharansky, Natan (2004) The Case for Democracy: the Power of Freedom to Overcome the Tyranny of Terror. New York: Public Affairs.

Slavson, S. R. (1964). A Textbook in Analytic Group Psychotherapy. New York: International Universities Press.

Volkan, V. (multiple volumes over multiple years)

I have little experience with group therapy or group process analysis. But I wonder if there is solid good data, or even the possibility of obtaining such data, to critically evaluate benefits and outcomes of specialized groups

The shared sentiments of groups led by charismatic leaders has an impact while the group functions. Tito was terrific as was FDR-but the effects afterwards remain an enigma to me.

Appreciating the complexity of identities – diffuse and/or defined- has a strong obvious base. Erikson, Kernberg, and Volkan are luminaries to me. Large group processes are more mysterious than the charismatic writers on the subject.

Ralph N. Wharton

Dr. Vamık Volkan’s response

I am delighted that the Newsletter editors’ efforts to encourage interaction among the College members worked very well, and I welcome responses to my initial statement on psychoanalytic considerations on large-group psychology, which was published in the 2010 Spring Newsletter. Reading these responses, I sensed that what I mean by large-group psychology in its own right needs further explanation.

In my initial statement I said that tribal, ethnic, national, religious or ideological large groups do not have one brain to think or two eyes to cry. When tens of thousands or millions of members of a large group share a psychological journey, such as going through a complicated mourning after a massive trauma at the hand of the enemy or using the same psychological mechanism such as “externalization” in response to a conflict with “others,” what we see are social, cultural and political processes that are specific for the large group under study. Considering large-group psychology in its own right means making “formulations” as to the unconscious and dynamic aspects of shared psychological experiences and motivations that exist within a large group and that initiate specific social, cultural, political, ideological processes that influence this large group’s internal and external affairs, just as we make formulations about the internal world of our individual patients in order to summarize our understanding of their internal worlds and interpersonal relationships.

Freud’s (1921) large-group psychology reflects a theme that mainly focuses on the understanding of the individual: the members of the group sublimate their aggression toward the leader and turn it into loyalty in a process that is similar to that of a son turning his negative feelings toward his oedipal father into identification with the father. The members of a large group idealize the leader, identify with each other, and rally around the leader. Much later, others (Anzieu 1984; Chasseguet-Smirgel 1984; and Kernberg 1980) wrote about fantasies shared by members of a large group. They suggested that large groups represent idealized mothers (breast mothers) who repair narcissistic injuries. It is assumed that external processes that threaten the group members’ shared image of an idealized mother can initiate political processes and influence international affairs. But even so, these theories again primarily focused on individuals’ perceptions, and they did not offer specificity concerning what exists within a special large group’s psychology itself and what might be useful in a diplomatic or political strategy to tame or prevent massive aggression.

My interest in developing a large-group psychology in its own right is to study what shared psychological phenomenon exists within a large group that only belongs to that large group, how it started, how it changed function to become a large-group identity marker, how it can be manipulated and reactivated to initiate massive violence and create major obstacles against peaceful realistic diplomatic negotiations, or how it can create an atmosphere for peaceful co-existence with “others.” There are various types of shared psychological phenomena that are present within a large group. In my initial statement last Spring I referred to a phenomenon that is initiated by a historical event the ancestors went through, and I described very briefly the shared mental representation of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo (a chosen trauma) that only exists in the Serbian large group and how it was reactivated by Slobodan Milosevic. Interested readers can find the detailed study of this story in my book, Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism (Volkan 1997). In this study they will also note that the same chosen trauma had been reactivated at other times in history before Milosevic appeared on the scene and that these previous reactivations also had drastic violent consequences, including symbolically and realistically initiating World War I after the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand on the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo.

The Serbian chosen trauma started with a massive trauma at the hand of “others” in 1389. Milosevic and people around him reactivated it 600 years later. In my book I describe the amazing story of how they did it. They even dug up the 600-year-old remains of Prince Lazar, the Serbian leader during the Battle of Kosovo, and took the remains from Serbian village to Serbian village for a year, symbolically burying them one day and reincarnating them the next. This caused a “time collapse,” in that perceptions and feelings about, and malignant prejudice against, the ancestors’ enemy merged with emotions and ideas about the present enemy, leading to a magnification of the present danger.

Starting with the original massive trauma we can make a formulation about what Milosevic and his associates reactivated in Serbia when they came to power.

Massive Trauma at the hands of “Others” (The Battle of Kosovo, 1389)


Transgenerational Transmission


Change of Function


Serbian Chosen Trauma: Large-Group Identity Marker

(a psychological gene of the large group)


Reactivation of Chosen Trauma and Entitlement Ideology known as Christoslavism (1989)


Enhancement of Leader-Follower Interaction


Time Collapse


Entitlement for Revenge


Increased “Bad” Prejudice and Magnification of Current Large-Group Conflict


Irrational Decision-Making


Mobilization of Destructive Large-Group Activities (genocidal events at

Srebrenika, 1995)

Making a formulation about a patient’s internal world is necessary for good analysis because it gives us direction for what we will be treating. Similarly, making a formulation about what exists in the psychology of a large group can give us direction toward helping those diplomats and others dealing with that large group to consider helpful strategies to prevent massive violence (See, the Tree Model, Volkan, 2006).

During the last two years I have been working on the “Kurdish problem” in present-day Turkey. More than 30,000 persons have lost their lives because of this “problem.” I have noticed a preoccupation with the “memory” of the 1925 Sheik Said Rebellion as a chosen trauma of the Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin. This rebellion was primarily tribal and religious in nature against Turkey’s then-new Kemalist secularizing reforms. Now it is emerging as a reactivated ethnic Kurdish chosen trauma in Turkey. We have been working to tame its possible negative and violent consequences.

Sometimes what becomes reactivated within a large group is a past trauma that is contaminated with religion. During the last three years Lord John Alderdice, a psychoanalyst from the United Kingdom, Roberto Friedman, a group therapist from Israel, and I have been bringing together, at least twice a year, an international group of individuals to understand the complexity of present-day world affairs primarily from a psychopolitical perspective. The group includes other psychoanalysts and therapists, former diplomats or politicians, political scientists, journalists and others representing (unofficially of course) Israel, Iran, Jordan, Turkey, India, Russia, Germany, United Kingdom and the United States. One area of our focus is Iran. We already have collected some data suggesting the need to understand the strong reactivation there of the mental representation of the massive trauma of the Battle of Karbala in 680 and also the image of the “missing imam” who entered occultation in 941. The Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad continues to encourage Iranians to write letters to the “missing imam” and drop these messages into a well at the holy city Qom. Strong reactivations of shared phenomena that already exist in Iran need to be understood and studied carefully—above and beyond typical diplomatic and political considerations—in order to develop psychopolitically informed strategies if and when the United States enters into diplomatic dialogues with this country.

What I wrote in the 2010 Spring issue of the Newsletter primarily refers to applied psychoanalysis. Other psychoanalysts also are attempting to study what exists within societies from a psychoanalytic angle. For example, Michael Šebek (1992, 1994) wrote about shared “totalitarian objects” of people who lived under communism for a long time. Maurice Apprey (1993, 1998) focused on the influence of transgenerational transmission of trauma on African Americans and their culture. In her recent book Nancy Hollander (2010) studied what has been reactivated in the American psyche after September 11, 2001. I am trying to expand our knowledge of large-group psychology in its own right and show that the shared psychology of thousands or millions of persons who will never meet in their lifetimes differs from our psychoanalytic understanding of the psychology of individuals, couples, families, therapy groups, organizations or mobs.

Individuals and smaller groups, however, can “reach up,” so to speak, and put themselves under the umbrella of large-group psychology. It is easy to show that, above and beyond their individual inner motivations stemming from developmental issues or individual traumas, suicide bombers are under the influence of large-group psychology. When political leaders or diplomats are strongly under the spell of large-group psychology, obstacles against finding solutions for large-group conflicts also appear.

Perry Ottenberg, who responded to my initial statement, reminded us that groups do not write poetry. Of course this is true. Groups do not have one hand that holds a pen. But, poets who are under the influence of large-group psychology become spokespersons for their large groups and illustrate what exists in their societies. For example, there are an estimated 20,000 lines of Serbian poetry and folk songs dealing with the mental representation of the Battle of Kosovo. During the last years of the Soviet Union and during the Ronald Reagan-Mikhail Gorbachev dialogues on ending the Cold War, I was intensively involved in unofficial dialogues with Soviet people. My first appreciation that the influence of complicated mourning among the Soviet population is strong however occurred in June, 1985. I was invited to a special meeting on US-USSR relations at Chautauqua, New York where I met two Soviet poets, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky. This was my first experience with people from the “other” side of the world. As I got to know these poets, they took my breath away. Even though some of their poems dealt with fairly lighthearted themes, many were preoccupied with war and death (Yevtushenko 1979; Voznesensky 1986). For example, Yevtushenko’s “Lament for a Brother” is about a goose grieving for a brother goose that has been shot down and bemoaning his own punishment for surviving, having been spared—this time. The poet is keenly aware that “survival guilt” (Niederland 1968) complicates the process of mourning for lost victims or possessions. Each poet functioned as a “mouthpiece,” illustrating what existed within his large group. During the Cold War when Americans and Soviets were seeing each other through extremely prejudicial lenses, in the United States we seldom thought about the incredible losses and suffering of the Soviet people during World War II and rarely appreciated how such shared trauma affected their large-group psychology.

Ottenberg is also against borrowing terms such as regression and projection when we speak of social operations. Large groups are made of people. Individual psychology, when it is shared by thousands and millions, is reflected in societal, cultural, political processes. As indicated in my initial statement, I use the word “purification” when I see the reflection of shared projection. I am still searching for a good word for shared regression. The words used and what is borrowed from individual psychology is not the main issue; the important thing is to make formulations about unseen shared psychological processes within a large group and to go beyond the classical psychoanalytic ideas about large groups and to focus on specific issues in understanding the operations within each large group under study.

Like suicide bombers, some political leaders, diplomats and poets, some of them analysands (and/or some analysts [Blum, 1985]), may be under the influence of large-group psychology—of course in various degrees according to their own individual internal worlds and according to the level of inflammation of the large-group process. This brings us to our clinical work. I agree with Ottenberg that during clinical work our aim is to help the individual to separate from “engrained social baggage.” But, this means that the analyst should be aware of what exists in the analysand’s large‑group psychology. How does studying large-group psychology in its own right help us in our offices? I am delighted that David Edelstein gave a brief case report to illustrate this. I supervise a few younger analysts in Europe, some with patients who are immigrants from Bosnia, Serbia, the former Soviet Union, Tunis and other places where the shared images of some past historical events are inflamed and the patients are under the influence of their large-group psychology. While on the couch, aspects of large-group psychology function like tar on a sandy beach. Without first examining and removing the tar it may be impossible to analyze the nature of the sand, their individualized internal worlds.

I am grateful to all who responded to my initial statement. Both David Dean Brockman and Ralph Wharton brought up the role of charismatic political leaders. Jerome Blackman asked an important question about some political leaders who avoid the tremendous pressure that belonging to a large group brings with membership. I tried to answer questions about the role of political leaders in my book, Blind Trust: Large Groups and Their leaders in Times of Crisis and Terror (Volkan 2004). There is much to say about the role of a political leader in shaping or modifying large-group psychology. In my statement in the 2010 Spring issue and in this discussion I am only dealing with a limited aspect of large-group psychology. I hope that the members of College will continue to respond so that we can together expand the application of psychoanalytic thinking about human nature.


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