“The group’s suggestion induces emotion, reduces intellect

and it is imitation, that compels the individual to obey contagion.”

Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (Freud, 1921)



For this book review I have re-read for the second time, after a period of three years, the monograph Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921) written by the founder of Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. There is not space in this short essay to provide a systematic chapter-by-chapter account of all the psychoanalytic concepts and theories in the Group Psychology monograph. Inevitably, my attention to and selection of specific concepts, is filtered through and influenced by my phylogenetic constitution, my psychical condition and position, my understanding of psychoanalysis to date and by the unconscious resistances I have to developing intellectually, academically, professionally, personally and sexually.

The essay begins with a contextualisation of the Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego monograph, placing Freud’s ideas within the socio-cultural-political context in which he lived and worked. I briefly mention the group dynamics he experienced, that influenced his theorising and I briefly show the relevance of the chronological order in which he wrote his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego essays. This is followed by the second part of the essay, in which I focus on specific chapters of Group Psychology and on specific psychoanalytic concepts and theories. Finally, I conclude with a look at some of the applications of Freud’s concepts/theories to contemporary socio-political debates.

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was the first born of eight to Hasidic Jewish Galician parents in the Austrian Empire (1804-1867). When he was four years old his family moved to Vienna, the capital city of Austria where he grew up, was educated as a neurologist and physician, where he lectured, wrote, published, practiced psychoanalysis, reared his family of six children and spent most of his life. Freud formulated his psychoanalytic theories in response to the work of earlier theorists, in response to the work of his contemporary peers and to the socio-cultural-political conditions of the region and period in which he lived. In early and mid-twentieth century central Europe, the old structures and models of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918) were deconstructing and a new political landscape was beginning to emerge. Leftist and liberal movements opposed the monarchy as a form of government, considered themselves internationalist rather than patriotic and supported the separatism of ethnic minorities, so that in 1918 the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy collapsed.

In Didier Anzieu’s Freud’s Group Psychology: Background, Significance and Influence (2001), he describes the socio-historical and personal context of Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego monograph written in 1921. Anzieu mentions the First World War (1914-1918) and writes that Freud must have been, “relieved of his wartime anxiety about his sons, who had been in peril at the front.” (Anzieu, 2001, p.39) Following the end of the First World War, around 1919 in Germany the Nazi Party was established and beginning to make use of its paramilitary wings the SA and SS. Freud’s wife Martha was severely ill and the following year his daughter Sophie died in 1920. The same year Freud introduced this concept of the death drive in his seminal monograph Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). Freud’s heavy smoking had caused him heart problems from the beginning of the twentieth century and despite his physician friends ordering him to stop smoking, he could not break the habit, so that by the mid twentieth century he would be diagnosed with mouth cancer. War, political catastrophes, professional conflicts between individuals and ideas, group dynamics, leadership struggles and personal tragedies led Freud – at the age of 64 with four grandsons, two born in 1921 – to embark on a process of revising his earlier psychoanalytic concepts and theories.


In his researches for Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Freud studied authorities on psychology, social psychology and sociology, particularly the works of Gabriel Tarde (1890) Les lois de l’imitation; Gustave Le Bon (1895) Psychologie des foules; Raoul Brugeilles (1913) L’essence du Phénomène Social: La Suggestion; Wilfred Trotter (1916) Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War; and William McDougall (1920) The Group Mind. He built on their ideas of self-preservation, sexual instinct, herd instinct, primal horde, multi-cellularity, gregariousness, imitation and suggestion for his theories of crowds and groups.

It is not possible to summarise all the concepts and theories in the twelve chapters of Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), so I have chosen to focus on a few important psychoanalytic concepts. These are suggestion, identification and the primal horde. It seems to me that these highly sophisticated and complex psychical concepts/mechanisms are operative in and connected to other important psychoanalytic concepts e.g. transference, narcissism and the Oedipus complex and they are transferable across psychology subject areas e.g. evolutionary, social, political and economic psychology, across other subject areas e.g. anthropology, mythology, sociology, politics, economics, etc., and transferable across psychoanalytic schools of thought e.g. ego psychology, object relations, clinical psychology and psychoanalytic psychotherapy.

Chapter two of Group Psychology brings together work done on crowd psychology in late nineteenth century Europe, in the context of the debates of the day, such as the hypnosis debate in psychiatry and the imitation debate in sociology. Freud explores social psychologist Gustave Le Bon’s Description of the Group Mind and key ideas such as unconscious motives that determine individual conduct, herd behaviour, the substratum of ‘archaic hereditary’ influences and hypnotic phenomena such as fascination, suggestion, imitation, infection, contagion, possession and the average character. Reading chapter four Suggestion and Libido, I was intrigued by Freud’s association of the word ‘intimidation’ with what he considers a magical word ‘suggestion’, that Gabriel Tarde (1890) called imitation. Referring again in chapter four to Le Bon’s theories, he describes two major features of groups: the mutual suggestion of individuals; and the prestige of the leader. Freud writes that this prestige is only recognizable by its capacity for evoking suggestion.

There is no doubt that something exists in us which, when we become aware of signs of an emotion in someone else, tends to make us fall into the same emotion.” (Freud, 1921, p.89)

With his chapter seven on Identification, Freud introduced his concepts of identification and the ego ideal that were subsequently taken up and developed by Object Relations psychoanalysts. French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu (2001) writes that Freud borrowed from Darwin the hypothesis of a ‘primal horde’ in which the figure of an all-powerful father served as a foundation for his elaboration of the ego ideal. The notion of a perfect or ideal self, an inner image and idea of the perfect person one wants to become, and an inner idea (ideology) of the ideal society one wants to create.

Passport ID

Identification is an expression of an emotional tie (attachment) with another person or ideology, where one individual takes another individual or idea/philosophy as their ideal object i.e. role model. Initially, identification is with a member of the same sex, i.e. a daughter takes her mother as an ideal object and a son takes his father as his ideal role model. Therefore identification plays a part in the Oedipus and Electra complex, said to originate from the confluence of: the child’s identification with the parent of the ‘same’ sex i.e. an ego ideal identification; and identification with the parent of the ‘opposite’ sex i.e. a true ego identification. The decisive experience in the Oedipus and Electra complex is son–father competition and conflict for possession of the mother and daughter-mother competition and conflict for possession of the father. The parent of the ‘same’ gender stands in the way of the child relating to the parent of the ‘opposite’ gender, so identification with something the same becomes hostile and aggressive. This shows the ambivalent nature of identification that originates in the first Oral phase of emotional organisation. It is cannibalistic, in that the ideal object that we prize out there in the external social world, is assimilated by introjection into our own individual internal ego. The cannibalistic analogy is that of eating the ideal object and in this way destroying and annihilating it. Thus identification moulds an individual ego to the ‘fashion’ of the chosen object’s ego.

Similarly, in a group, mutual emotional bonds between individual members are based upon an important shared quality, trait or characteristic. Although individual members of a group are subject to emotional bonds, the leader of the primal horde is free. Freud tells us that the leader’s intellect remains strong and independent, his will needs no reinforcement from others, his ego has few emotional ties and he loves no one but himself. This is a picture of the absolute narcissist, the primal father that prevents his sons and daughters from satisfying their sexual aims, forces his children into sexual abstinence and consequently into emotional identificatory bonds with him and one another. For Freud, the question is the relationship between direct sexual instincts and sexual instincts whose aim is inhibited, the latter being mobilized and tolerated by social bonds. Emotional identificatory social bonds between group members and between members and their leader, arise out of inhibited sexual aims and sexual jealousy causes group psychology.

Psychoanalytic concepts in Group Psychology the Analysis of the Ego (1921) such as identification, suggestion, primal horde and the primal father proved useful in the fields of evolutionary, social and political psychology and were applied to intellectual debates in anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, literary theory, critical theory, social criticism, cultural analysis, critical discourse analysis and trans-disciplinary research, etc. Freud’s theories in Group Psychology called the relationship between the public and the private, between the social and the clinical and between the political and moral domains into question.

In contemporary socio-political debates, they were used to help think about socio-political phenomena, conditions and conflicts such as the recent discontent exemplified in the Occupy movement and recent eruptions of conflict in Greece and the Middle East. Such violent civil war exemplifies underlying Oedipal competitions and conflicts, paranoid-schizoid mechanisms of defence and the psychical activities of the ego ideal, superego, life and death drives in collective and individual psyches. It is possible to identify collective and individual psychical forces and mechanisms of resistance, repression, aggression, identification and projection. Collective and individual conflicts can be read as traumatic repetitions of repressed drives and ego ideal representations such as ideologies. Psychoanalytic insight can and has shown how collective and individual anxieties and disruptions have creative dimensions, reflected in social and individual change.






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Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Translated from the German under the General Editorship of James Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud and assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson. The Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psychoanalysis, London.

— (1891) Hypnosis. SE, Vol. 1, p.103-114.

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— (1908) Civilised Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness. SE, Vol. 9, p.178-204.

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— (1920) Beyond the Pleasure Principle. SE, Vol. 18, p.2-64.

— (1921) Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. SE, Vol.18, p.66-143.

— (1923) The Ego and the Id. SE, Vol. 19, p.1-66.

— (1927) The Future of an Illusion. SE, Vol. 21, p.2-56.

— (1927) A Religious Experience. SE, Vol. 21, p. 167-172.

— (1929) Civilisation and its Discontents. SE, Vol. 21, p. 57-145.

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— (1939) Moses and Monotheism. SE, Vol. 23, p.2-137.

Le Bon, Gustav. (1896) The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Translated from the original French by Wilfred Trotter. Ernest Benn Limited, London.

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Anzieu, Didier. (1984) The Group and the Unconscious. Translated from the French by Benjamin Kilborne. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Bettleheim, Bruno (1982) Freud and Man’s Soul: An Important Re-interpretation of Freudian Theory. Chatto & Windus and The Hogarth Press, London.

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