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Fred Wright, Ph.D.

Xena H. Hoffman, M.A.
Elissa M. Gore, M.A.

Theory and research related to the scapegoat role and scapegoating

processes in primary groups are reviewed. This review and evaluation
of the literature leads to the conclusion that scapegoating phenomena,
though often highly stressful, can contribute significantly to individ-
ual and group development. Treatment issues and approaches are

Blaming the devil and scapegoats is a universal phenomenon. The scapegoat

role has existed throughout civilization and occurs in groups which are cul-
turally, developmentally, and geographically diverse. The term originated in
ancient Judaic ritual. Two goats were selected by lot. One goat, the "good"
goat, was dedicated to God and sacrificed as a burnt offering in the temple.
The second goat was dedicated to Azazel, a fallen angel. After being symbol-
ically laden with the accumulated sins of the group, this goat was exiled into
the wilderness. The dichotomy between the now ~'purified" scapegoaters and
the "badness" of the banished goat reflects the polarization in some aspects of
scapegoating. For instance, as Baum (1985) observes, leaders are often expe-
rienced as both magically insightful and as ignoramuses.
The psychological literature approaches scapegoating both as an expression
of an individual's internal personality structure or disposition and as an expres-
sion of external environmental and group forces, which either induce behaviors
that provoke scapegoating or irrationally target an innocent person or group
for the role. The psyche of individuals and their culture or group are so in-
tertwined, however, that it is usually impossible to say where one begins and
the other leaves off.
Despite this, we believe an examination of a variety of viewpoints on this
neglected topic (Scheidlinger, 1982) of scapegoating in primary groups will
have value for group workers. Therefore, we will review the following: 1) the

Fred Wright, Ph.D., and Elissa M. Gore, M.A. are at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and
Xena H. Hoffman, M.A., is at Yeshiva University and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Address
correspondence to: Fred Wright, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, John Jay College, 445 West
59 Street, New York, NY 10019; Xena H. Hoffman, 438 West 47 Street, #3B, New York, NY
10036; Elissa M. Gore, 583 West 215 Street, #A3, New York, NY 10034.

GROUP, Volume 12, Number 1, Spring 1988, Brunner/Mazel, Inc. / 33

34 / GROUP, Volume 12, Number 1, Spring 1988

scapegoat from an intrapsychic frame of reference; 2) scapegoating as a process

in disturbed families; 3) scapegoating as a mechanism of norm regulation; 4)
scapegoating as an aspect of stages in group development; 5) the scapegoat as
a group role specialist; and 6) scapegoating as an interpersonal dynamic gen-
erated by projective identification. Issues and approaches that may help group
leaders and therapists deal with this difficult phenomenon will also be dis-


Traditional intrapsychic psychodynamic theories and dispositional points of

view assume that it is patients' personality traits, transferences, defenses,
problem-solving techniques, and internal object relations that get them into
troubling interpersonal situations. Workers from this paradigm in group ther-
apy (e.g., Wolf & Schwartz, 1962) tend not to use sociopsychological and group-
as-a-whole concepts like "group defenses," "normative structures," and "role
specialization." Group dynamics, in fact, are seen as resistances to therapy
rather than as useful analyzable material (Rutan & Stone, 1984). They also
do not address the scapegoat role per se. Rather, what is emphasized is the
individual's personality style or traits and the latent motivation for such.
Perera, a Jungian analyst and author of The Scapegoat Complex (1986), is
somewhat of an exception to this tradition. As the title of her book indicates,
she defines a scapegoat type and discusses the intrapsychic dynamics at play.
Central to the "complex," says Perera, is a pervasive sense of feeling unreal
so that one's own feelings and ideas seem "crazy, wrong, or bad." Children
targeted to be scapegoats in dysfunctional families are often thought to be
~'dangerous viewers of reality." The denial or distortion of their perceptions by
anxious family members results in poor self-esteem and excessive dependence
on external validation.
Splitting, according to Perera, is an integral part of the complex. With early
histories of poor maternal bonding and burdened by ongoing parental deval-
uation, the instinctive energies of these children become repressed and not
integrated. Being assertive becomes identified with being punitive and de-
structive, thus, bad. Unable to tolerate ambivalence, assertion often takes form
in sudden, uncontrolled outbursts.
Scapegoats can forgive others for shortcomings they find despicable in them-
selves. To Perera, this forms the base of the masochistic self-hate characteristic
of the complex. Although they have frequent fantasies of redemption and feel
that the world owes them recompense, she finds that scapegoats experience
the gratification of wishes and fantasies as dangerous and anxiety provoking.
Fearing that gratitude and pleasure may lead to a dependency on emotional
nourishment, they ward off support by argumentativeness, anger, or spite.
During a group therapy session, a 40-year-old woman who had been scape-
goated by her group and who had initially entered analysis because she was
scapegoated so often ~'by friends, family, on the job, and in relationships," told
the following story:

When I was 12, a friend brought me to her home for the weekend. I had
really tight clothes on, teased hair, tons of eye makeup, white lipstick.
My friend's mother ignored all this and treated me like I was special. The
nicer she got, the more uncomfortable I got. When it was time to go to
sleep she tucked me in, hugged me, and told me that I was beautiful. I
was trying not to cry. When she left the room I could see that she felt
Perspectives on Scapegoating / 35

really sad for me. I started to cry into the pillow. This went on for a few
hours and then I sort of spaced out. I got up and stole some stuff lying
around the room and snuck out of the house. I hung out in the Village
the rest of the weekend getting high on drugs.

To some, vulnerability can be more painful than being scapegoated. Rec-

ognition that individuals can have a characterological predisposition toward
warding off love and support or toward feeling victimized may help to explain
why certain group members retaliate less when scapegoated and tend, instead,
to remain distant.


Many role acquisition concepts are rooted in a social systems perspective which
emphasizes family dynamics. The selection, appointment and adaption to cop-
ing or noncoping family roles are related to a variety of social and situational
factors. For example, Spiegel (1968) finds that roles do not exist in isolation,
but are patterned to mesh with complementary or reciprocal roles, which vary
with family organization and needs. Role stress, a product of failure of com-
plementarity, leads to disequilibrium, tension and anger. Since role transac-
tions are implemented in order to achieve equilibrium, scapegoating is the
special case of a family achieving cohesion by blaming a selected child.
According to Spiegel, there are several ways for family roles to be allocated.
They can be ascribed, that is assigned as a function of, for example, age o r
gender. They can be achieved, requiring effort, or they can be adopted, which
requires the compliance of the role occupant. Spiegel posits six methods which
lead to role induction. Three can be linked to scapegoating processes: ~coerc-
ing," which is the manipulation of present and future punishment; ~evaluat-
ing," which includes blaming, shaming, or approving as a manipulation of
reward and punishment; and ~masking," which entails the withholding of
correct information by evading, censoring, lying, or deceiving.
Spiegel finds that through identification with the unconscious wishes or
fantasies of parents, a child can act out their conflicts. The projections enacted
by the child serve as a defense for parents, who then see the problem as being
in the scapegoated child. Roles are occupied as long as there is a need to achieve
family equilibrium. Unsettled family role conflicts become internalized, lead-
ing to difficulties in later interpersonal relationships.
According to Vogel and Bell (1964), intrafamilial hostility, when too dan-
gerous to resolve directly or to project outside, will be projected onto a family
member to prevent an explosion. A child is targeted because her or his dys-
functioning will have the least impact on family productivity. They suggest
that parents often scapegoat a child who best symbolizes the conflict issue. For
instance, if the parents have unresolved problems concerning intellectual
achievement, the least intellectually capable child might be chosen. Or, a
parent may scapegoat a child who physically resembles the resented spouse.
Literature on children of alcoholics (Wegscheider, 1981) suggests that each
sibling compensates differently for inadequate and confusing nurturance. Birth
order is considered a significant variable in the adoption of the resulting ~'sur-
vivor roles." Four types are described in order of first- to fourth-born siblings.
The occupant of the scapegoat role (usually the second born) either becomes
delinquent or adopts a ~loser" attitude. There is some empirical evidence sup-
porting Wegscheider's hypothesis (Hoffman, 1987).
The Scapegoat, in Wegscheider's system, defines his or her role in opposition
36 / GROUP, Volume 12, Number 1, Spring 1988

to the firstborn Hero. Once the Hero's strategem of denial and perfection is
unsuccessful in uniting the family, the scapegoat enacts the self-defeating and
pathological forces inherent in an alcoholic family system: impulsivity, defen-
sive acting out, and other traits linked to addiction. This unites the family by
focusing the blame and providing a diversion for the alcoholic and the ~para
alcoholic" spouse, and is also a mechanism for maintaining their denial system.
As the fable goes, nobody wanted to be the first to point out to the emperor
that he wore no clothes. Compliance with the norms and mores of a group has
always proved the safest route.
Scapegoats are not necessarily victimized because they exhibit weakness,
passivity or aggression. Instead, they are often singled out because of their
independence and unwillingness or inability to conform to the customs and
standards of the group (Eagle & Newton, 1981; Kahn, 1980). According to
Durkin (1964), to the extent that members depart from the preferred theme
of the group, they will be targeted. J a n i s (1971) has corroborated this point
with his description of~groupthink '' phenomena, which are frequently observed
group-induced distortions that keep members from thoroughly and objectively
considering all possible alternatives. He finds that those who express doubts
about the group's shared illusions are either directly or indirectly pressured
to conform or are attacked.
Collusive group denial is often ~intruded" upon by members who do not
know the group norms regarding what is discussable and what is not. B a u m
(1985) finds that the member, often a newcomer, who identifies or discusses
the undiscussable is perceived as ~creating" the problem, which has not, as
yet, been acknowledged. By creating it the newcomer is held responsible for
it. The newcomer, as creator, becomes the carrier of the sin. This process, sin-
of-newcomer-scapegoat, absolves group guilt since the new arrival's ~'insanity"
(i.e., violation of group norms) is rationalized as deserving blame. The group
is covertly saying: ~We're not irrational and mean. You are."
A male newcomer in a therapy group soon noticed that three women, as
well as the female therapist, were attacking a very beautiful female
member for what he saw as either nonexistent or unimportant flaws. The
newcomer was puzzled and wondered out loud about what seemed to him
to be a peculiar reaction to this woman. The whole group, including male
members, began to verbally attack him. This attack was joined by the
beautiful woman. At one point she told him that he was ~like a breath
of fresh air," but then she resumed her attack.
The newcomer was so shaken by the intensity of the attack that he
never returned to the group.
In our clinical vignette, the newcomer's discussing the undiscussable created
shame and guilt in group members. Extruding the scapegoat offered immediate
promise of relief. In this revolving door of denial and scapegoating, joining in
on the attack and helping to push the newcomer out also allowed the original
scapegoat reentrance into her group.
Observers of group process identify several stages, characterized by specific
concerns and conflicts which occur in a regular fashion across most groups. A
Perspectiveson Scapegoating/ 37

number of authors (Beck & Peters, 1981; Eagle & Newton, 1981; Levine, 1979;
Livesley & MacKenzie, 1983) have noted that scapegoating processes are likely
at particular developmental points in group life.
Eagle and Newton (1981), who studied self-analytic groups, found that scape-
goating occurs at the ends of phases and follows a specific order. First scape-
goating events revolve around task issues, i.e., whether the group should
analyze itself or talk about feelings. These scapegoats are accused of intellec-
tualizing and/or seeking structure to avoid feelings. Second instances of scape-
goating take place when groups are preoccupied with separating from the
leader. Those targeted are accused of being rebellious and counterdependent.
Third scapegoatings relate to competition for group leadership. These scape-
goats are accused of wanting to dominate and to play the leader role.
In psychotherapy groups, Levine (1979) found that during the first phase,
affective bonds of members are to the therapist rather than to each other.
Ensuing struggles concern trust versus mistrust and approach versus avoid-
ance. Scapegoats emerging in this stage are members who characterologically
solicit the role, often by antagonizing the group. They then can feel rejected
for their behavior rather than for personal insufficiencies. Levine's second
stage begins with pairing and subgrouping. The centrality of the therapist
decreases as members establish relationships with each other. Power is a
central concern as members vie for full acceptance and influence. In this phase,
the fear of rejection is universal, so members tend to target a scapegoat by
projecting their fear onto one group member, thus feeling less likely to be
rejected themselves.
Livesley and MacKenzie (1983) also find that the stress of participating in
a new social system elicits coping strategies that rely on predominant aspects
of character, resulting in a defensive exaggeration of normal interpersonal
behaviors. Role behavior is therefore more obvious, and scapegoatings more
frequent, in the two initial stages of group development. In addition, they find
that scapegoating, by focusing blame for group stasis, is particularly operant
during the second stage of development when the emphasis is on individuality
versus oneness. The group acts as if it cannot contain divergent or deviant
views, and may eject a member in order to preserve cohesion.
Beck and Peters (1981) maintain that certain role behaviors are required
if the group is to master stage-related tasks. Those behaviors appropriate to
phase expectations are selectively reinforced by the group. Scapegoats enact
the conflicts between self-assertion and conformity and between aggressive
and submissive impulses. In early phases they may be objects of hostile feelings
resulting from leadership struggles, structure building, and peer competition.
Hostility generally subsides when the group moves into a cooperative period
of self-disclosure and self-exploration.


This perspective posits that the scapegoat is one of several specialized roles
which perform necessary group functions and can be adopted by, adapted to,
and/or assigned to members. The systematic examination of role specialization
began with the work of Bales (1950), who found that when specialists are
missing, group disequilibrium follows. This leads to negative affect, which is
often displaced onto a scapegoat.
Systematic studies of the dynamic significance of role specialization as re-
lated to group developmental processes were carried out by Mann (1967), Dun-
phy (1968), Beck, Dugo, Eng, Lewis, and Peters (1983), and Livesley and
38 / GROUP,Volume12, Number1, Spring 1988
MacKenzie (1983). These authors stress the effect of a role on the entire group
and conceive of roles, at least partially, as expressions of needs and fantasies
of the whole social system.
In a detailed study of interpersonal styles in self-analytic groups, Mann
(1967) analyzed major recurring roles. He defines the scapegoat as the rep-
resentative of unacceptable and projected fears and facets of members' per-
sonalities, particularly emphasizing sexual inadequacy and impotency.
Like Mann, Dunphy (1968) attributes the scapegoat role to the group's pro-
jection of anxieties about personal weaknesses as well as to anxieties stemming
from an overdependence on leaders. Both Dunphy and Mann conceptualize the
major roles as serving integrative functions of a ~nonrational" (i.e., affective)
nature and find that the conflict of impulse expression versus suppression is
central to the role specialization process. Specifically, a member occupying the
role of ~seducer" will take the lead in undoing affective restraints, while an-
other, called the ~resister," may focus on restricting expression and experience.
On an intrapsychic level, Dunphy finds that the scapegoat symbolizes fear of
insufficiency, while on a group level he or she serves to unite the majority of
members into a cohesive group by acting as a displacement object for negative
affect generated by the conflict between the seducer and the resister.
Dunphy also suggests that each major period of group evolution is marked
by a collective myth or fantasy which represents an ideal image of group
relationships and the leader. Role specialists become the symbols of these
myths. For example, the first myth centers around the leader's role and her
or his magical abilities. Inevitably, the leader disappoints these fantasized
expectations, frustrating the group, which then scapegoats a safer target.
The research of Beck et al. (1983) emphasizes that role specialists perform
several necessary group functions: impulse expression, group maintenance,
and tension release. They describe four key roles that influence group devel-
opment: task leaders, emotional leaders, scapegoat leaders, and defiant leaders.
Scapegoat leaders (i.e., the person or persons being scapegoated) are oriented
toward clarifying their own reality to other members, although viewed by the
group as deviant with respect to some important criterion for membership.
Assertive, yet not self-aware, they are highly committed members who make
strong contributions toward resolving group issues.
Livesley and MacKenzie (1983) also emphasize the constructive value of role
behavior that might typically be perceived as negative, viewing roles in terms
of their functional significance for the social system. They choose to call the
scapegoat role the ~divergent" role to underscore its operational significance
in groups. Divergent role specialists provide alternative points of view, thus
preventing premature closure on important issues. Furthermore, the contin-
uous challenging of the status quo by this role specialist counters group re-
sistance. They emphasize that a social system needs varied roles, just as an
individual needs to acquire role flexibility.
After studying psychotherapy groups, Bogdanoff and Elbaum (1978) also
concluded that positive outcomes necessitate role fluidity and flexibility. They
refer to the absence of fluidity as r lock," a phenomenon in which a char-
acteristic way of relating leads to an ~interpersonal trap." Once '~trapped," an
individual cannot see alternate ways of relating. This lock is maintained in
order to ~remain sick, to exclude change, and to defeat therapy" (p. 248).
Eight typical role locks are described, and three are designated as more
likely to be targeted as scapegoats: r patients," ~helpful Hannahs,"
and ~isolates." Professional patients often act as pseudotherapists. Initially,
they are valued as ~experts" able to evaluate the group's progress and the
Perspectives on Scapegoating / 39

abilities of the therapist. The atmosphere facilitating this role is a desire for
competence to allay fears of incompetency. Eventually the group becomes dis-
appointed with this member, who is then attacked for falseness and ineptitude.
Helpful Hannahs present themselves as ~do-gooders," with a remedy for
every problem. These role specialists avoid hostility, aggression and conflict,
hiding behind altruistic shields. The group dynamic feeding the emergence of
this role is the search for someone who can be helpful and trusted not to inflict
hurt. At first, members turn to this specialist whenever disappointed with the
therapist. Later they become exasperated by this person's repeated platitudes,
and they may turn on and attack this ~'helper."
Isolates are emotionally separated group members, appearing to have either
schizoid or passive dependent traits. The issue leading to the focus on such a
personality is fear of alienation, and dead, pointless experience. Isolates, by
virtue of their mysterious silence, become easy targets for members' displace-
ments and projections of this fear.
Ringwald (1974) developed a typology of roles based on an analysis of re-
actions to central figures in self-analytical classroom groups. People who fell
into the same role clusters often had dissimilar interpersonal styles, suggesting
that group needs supersede individual needs in role assignment. The absence
of a normative structure in the groups, resulting from leaders' refusals to
prescribe solutions to tasks and problems, sets in motion a search for peer
leadership. This leads to a recruitment process whereby potential task leaders,
idealized role models, sexual objects, and scapegoats emerge. Scapegoats are
found in two clusters labeled as ~outsiders" and ~fall guys."
Outsiders make few attempts to implement their integration into the group
or to analyze their feelings. They profess disinterest and detachment. In short,
they refuse to collude with the group's collective image of them. Scapegoating
of outsiders allows the group an increased sense of cohesiveness. Fall guys are
defined by Ringwald as products of splitting mechanisms. Initially viewed by
the group as substitute leaders (like Bogdanoff and Elbaum's ~professional
patients"), fall guys eventually become convenient targets for the group's dis-
placed hostility and the split off projected ~bad" object (leader) imago. In the
absence of a fall guy there is notably less idealization and more ambivalence
displayed toward the leader.
Ringwald views role specialization ~partly as an external dramatization of
widely shared internal conflicts, with actors and actresses accepting the roles
assigned them with greater or lesser enthusiasm" (p. 221). Gibbard, Hartman
and Mann (1974) point out that without some collusion on the part of indi-
viduals, role specialization cannot occur. They find that group members' at-
titudes toward individuals who do accept salient roles vary as a function of
two dimensions: the extent to which the role is seen as enhancing group cohe-
sion, and the extent to which individuals are willing to collude with the roles
assigned them. Thus Ringwald's outsiders, who refuse to collude with the
group, are punished for refusing to play the prescribed ~game."
Gibbard et al. believe role specialization is an antidote to the functional
disruptions caused by anomie and internal conflict, making it ~a special case
of the general rule that internal conflict and the threat of chaos give rise to
splitting, externalization, and compartmentalization" (p. 194). In this way, the
formation of the scapegoat role can be conceptualized as a response to a real
or imagined threat to the group-as-a-whole as well as to the inner security of
individual group members.
40 / GROUP, Volume 12, Number 1, Spring 1988


The concept of projective identification is rooted in Kleinian psychoanalytic

theory and based on an object relations perspective. According to Klein (1946),
early ego development is dependent on two major processes: introjection and
projection. Infants fuse with people encountered, absorbing them into their
inner life--thus, introjection. They attribute to others their different feelings
and somatic sensations--thus, projection.
Klein's theory is essentially an individual-centered concept of dyadic inter-
action. Bion (1959) was the first to apply Klein's theories to group psychology.
He believes that archaic self-object representations are retained as a layer of
psychic structure so that early introjects and identifications are reactivated
in group life. Immersion into group life can trigger anxieties and fantasies
leading to regressions in both object relations and ego functioning.
Horwitz (1983) points out that Bion's description of projective identification
puts its emphasis on the interpersonal aspect of the transaction. That is, he
focuses on the effect of the impact of the projected content, describing the
targeted person as one who has the experience of being manipulated by some-
one else's fantasies. Dicks (1967) describes this process as a permeability of
ego boundaries between people so that each becomes a representative of the
other's self.
In summarizing Klein's theory, Segal (1973) wrote that projective identifi-
cation ~'may result in the object being perceived as having acquired the char-
acteristics of the projected parts of the self, but it can also result in the self
becoming identified with the object of its projection" (p. 126).
Scheidlinger (1982) feels that scapegoating processes can be divided into two
types: a short-lived one characterized by projection, and a more complex, per-
sistent type characterized by projective identification. He extends the hypoth-
esis that scapegoating by projection is related to common group disturbances
such as threats to the collective self-esteem or separation issues, while scape-
goating by projective identification is more expressive of individual member
pathology and more prevalent in groups comprised of patients with borderline
personality organization.
Horwitz (1983) differs with Scheidlinger on this point, and finds that pro-
jective identification frequently occurs in groups. He stresses that group forces
can act in powerful ways to pressure or ~suction" a person into a needed role
so that she or he becomes a container of others' projections and is manipulated
to act out particular behaviors. Horwitz also finds that the contagion effect of
group emotions, threats to autonomy, and the reactivation of early conflicts
engendered by envy and rivalry exacerbate scapegoating processes.
Hartman and Gibbard (1974) find that splitting and projective identification
can lead to the scapegoating of group leaders or therapists. Initially, the group
may fantasize that the leader is a godlike figure who will provide unlimited
help and nurturance. Through splitting processes, all good is projected onto
the leader and negative feelings are displaced or dissociated. After the inev-
itable disappointment, the group reverses the splitting process, making the
leader the object of hostility and revolt. Members then reintroject their leader's
power and consequently feel strengthened, and feel that the destructive and
abandoning potential of the group has been defused.
Several authors (Dunphy, 1968; Hartman and Gibbard, 1974) describe an-
other form of scapegoating by groups via projective identification. When a
group wants to feel nurtured and protected, or wants to rekindle the nurturing
aspects of the leader, it can designate one member, often highly dependent,
Perspectiveson Scapegoating/ 41

as a needy recipient. The group then identifies with this member and partic-
ipates vicariously in the dependency expressed and the resulting feedback.
This person, in effect, ~houses" the group's dependency needs and feelings.
However, the group can exercise some control over such feelings, choosing
either to endorse them or to ridicule and show hostility to these projected
Dunphy (1968) and Hartman and Gibbard (1974) indicate that scapegoating
in groups through projective identification processes takes a number of forms.
Ringwald's (1974) conclusions on this matter seem to best summarize the
relevance of these phenomena. In the groups he studied, roles that emerged
were found to be a function of members' efforts to represent and control aspects
of the self by projecting them onto others and then controlling these external
representations through group norms and group reactions. In this way, scape-
goats and idealized group members both represent aspects of the individual
self. The group role structure that emerges through this projective identifi-
cation process allows individual group members to experience their inner and
outer environment as controlled and predictable.


Scapegoating in groups is difficult for all participants. Despite the difficulties,

we contend that it is a useful group process which has potential for providing
important healing and growth experiences.
Livesley and MacKenzie (1983) have been clear in developing thispoint. As
noted earlier, they find that processes surrounding scapegoating in therapy
groups are necessary for group and individual development. The group expe-
rience is an analogue for the individual's development, according to these
authors. It needs the input of divergent and other roles, just as the individual
needs to learn role flexibility. Therefore, they recommend that therapists in-
sure that group members have the opportunity ~to experience all social roles
and thus move toward a broader repertoire of interpersonal behaviors and
modulation of previously maladaptive interpersonal patterns" (p. 133).
An important marker of individual change is role fluidity or the demon-
stration of diverse role behaviors. These authors find that a danger in groups
is that individual behavior can be incorporated into normative expectations.
When this occurs, a member may be coerced into continuously playing the
same role. They caution that therapists may need to intervene actively in order
to free individuals from such limiting expectations.
An obvious concern for group leaders adhering to the position that scape-
goating is useful is the well-being of the scapegoat. Rutan and Stone (1984),
while agreeing that analyzing scapegoating is necessary and helpful to the
group, urge therapists to proceed as quickly as possible to promote under-
standing so that the danger of hurting a patient is diminished. They emphasize
the importance of helping the attackers scrutinize their own insecurities, often
triggered by the behavior of the scapegoat. They remind the attackers "that
it is not the behavior of the scapegoat that is so troubling, but rather it is the
feelings that are evoked within the attacker" (p. 175).
Shulman (1967) cautions group workers against "preemptive intervention."
He considers "scapegoat" a neutral term which group leaders endow with
emotional connotations due to ~protective" feelings toward the attacked person.
He suggests that many preemptive interventions may actually be leaders'
countertransferential responses to feeling powerless or out of control. Conse-
42 / GROUP,Volume12, Number1, Spring 1988
quently, interventions may really be bids to return the control from interacting
members to themselves.
Shulman also indicates that quick reassurances or ending a tense silence
may stifle an opportunity to deal with significant concerns. He encourages
leaders to mediate and clarify rather than control or cut off the action in
scapegoating. Levine (1979) agrees with this position and believes that it is
best first to allow full expression of the hostilities, then to tackle them issue
by issue until the underlying emotional polarizations, inherent in scapegoating
conflicts, become apparent to all concerned.
Therapists who have strong needs to control the group process or to be
idealized and perceived of as hero, protector, or savior are apt to suffer con-
siderable anxiety during scapegoating episodes. While acting out these roles
is generally not therapeutic, noting such countertransferential reactions can
be useful in that they may cue the leader to the nature of the group pull or
process. Noting such urges may provide the therapist with an opportunity to
open the topic for group exploration.
Another salient issue for therapists is related to their willingness to explore
the extent to which scapegoating a particular patient is a displacement of
members' negative feelings toward authority figures like themselves. Again,
if therapists need to be perceived in an idealized fashion, they will have trouble
holding the negative or denigrating projections of patients. Interrupting or
preventing these projections will not allow patients a chance to work them
through, and this implicitly encourages scapegoating.
Group leaders also need to be alert to the importance of both leadership style
and gender in scapegoating and displacement processes. For example, Lewin,
Lippitt and White (1939), in their classic study on leadership style, found that
there is far more scapegoating in autocratically led groups than in democrat-
ically led groups. Wright (1976) concurs and also finds that gender plays an
important role in these processes. In self-study groups, he finds that male and
female members tend to express more hostility to peers when leaders are
impersonal and nonreciprocating than when they are warm and reciprocating,
and that women become more negative in affective reactions toward peers than
do males. He also notes that when nonreciprocating leaders are females, the
displaced negative feelings are greater for both female and male group mem-
The theory espoused by a number of authors we have referred to, that in-
dividuals become role specialists or locked into roles, is, we believe, a useful
one. From this perspective, scapegoats contain, express, and thus represent
the warded off feelings shared by any or all of the other group members.
Therefore, the occurrence of scapegoating can give the therapist an opportunity
to interpret role specialization and the attendant projections. By calling at-
tention to processes of individual and group contributions to role specialization,
leaders can provide members with the opportunity to explore their stereotyp-
ical thinking and behavior regarding attributions, and to reclaim their pro-
Bogdanoff and Elbaum (1978), in discussing role lock phenomena and in-
tervention issues, underscore the principle that two interacting processes need
to be focused on in scapegoating events: the member enmeshed in the role lock,
and the group as a supporting system. Since group members find it easier to
scapegoat and fix responsibility for the lock on one targeted member, they
stress the importance of the therapist in maintaining this "dual focus." Dual
focus is the most anxiety-provoking approach because it requires both members
and targeted individuals to consider if and how they contribute to the lock.
Perspectives on Scapegoating / 43

Schain (1980) recommends that in order to help patients in group see both
sides of upsetting issues, therapists keep up an ongoing interpretation of pro-
jective identification. She feels that envy is universal in group settings and
that repeated interpretations allow patients' conscious control over the de-
structiveness of unconscious envy, which can lead to scapegoating. Mondy-
kowski (1982), a family therapist, sympathizes with both sides in a scapegoat
conflict and reprocesses interactions by '~re-labeling" them. For example, if a
mother says her son is being '~no good," she will relabel his behavior as ~afraid."
There are times, however, when group members are unable to face their
projections. In such cases, working ~projectively" with highly defended patients
may be productive. In this strategy, the defended patient is urged to analyze
the dynamics of the '~other" in the conflict and may, as a consequence, profit
by the process.

Tim and John frequently criticize each other in group because of the
other's aggression. Tim is quite unable to perceive his similarities to John
in this area, but he is very adept at describing the dynamics involved in
John's aggressiveness. Asking Tim questions like ~Why do you think
John is that way?" or ~What do you think threatens John that makes him
so hostile?" proves fruitful for Tim in that he projectively, or vicariously,
focuses on matters of relevance for himself.


In group life, no bit of behavior occurs in isolation. The significance of an event

can be evaluated from the individual's perspective, and as part of a larger
configuration of events. This needs to be recognized and, when necessary,
attended to by group leaders and members.
While scapegoating processes can be both painful and ugly, they can also
serve as useful stepping stones for group and individual growth. There is a
good deal of psychological research and psychoanalytic theory now available
to help further a richer understanding of these formidable and regularly oc-
curring processes. ~,~
Finally, resolution of scapegoat-related tensions and conflicts requires as
thorough a working through of the issues and emotional needs involved as
possible. It is the therapist's task to facilitate this by not taking sides, sup-
porting differences, and creating an empathic atmosphere which allows for a
safe and full expression of negative as well as positive feelings by all partic-
ipants. Premature closure will teach members that negative feelings or ideas
are not safe or allowed in the group. This, in turn, limits the group to a narrow
range of experience and precludes the intimacy and cohesion that is so im-
portant in curative group therapy.


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