3 Problems Which May Arise in Group Therapy

Problems with Group Therapy

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3 Problems Which May Arise in Group Therapy

Therapy groups are a common treatment method for many disorders, including addiction, depression, anxiety, bipolar, and many more. From grief groups to therapist-led support groups, group therapy can be incredibly beneficial. However, there are a few phenomena that may arise in groups that can be harmful or impede growth. The three we will cover are group polarization, comformity bias, and cognitive dissonance. However, we’ll start by discussing the benefits of group therapy in order to offer a more holistic perspective.

The Benefits of Group Therapy

Group therapy is a common treatment method used in many different treatment models. Traditional group therapy is often psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral, or interpersonal. There are also types of group programs that may be considered a type of group therapy, such as:

  • Therapist-led support groups
  • Skills training
  • Psychoeducation
  • Anger management classes
  • Social training
  • Mindfulness-based groups
  • Art and music therapies

Group psychotherapy has been found effective in depression treatment, trauma, and addiction recovery. Often, outcomes of studies show that combining individual therapy and group therapy is most effective. Although not beneficial for treatment of every mental health disorder, group therapy can offer many benefits which are unlikely to be found in individual therapy sessions.

First, the group dynamic may offer connection with other individuals. The group offers individuals the opportunity to understand and connect with other individuals in the group. There are many benefits of cultivating a support group, and a group therapy setting can help facilitate this. The benefits of building a support group are far-reaching, and this is one thing offered largely in group settings that is missing in individual sessions.

Groups may also help individuals develop social skills, strengthening one’s ability to interact with others. Through giving and receiving support, people learn to interact with difficulties and build interpersonal skills in communication, compassion, and understanding. This facilitation can help us in the group setting, and with other relationships in our lives.

Finally, group psychotherapy can help us find a voice in social settings. As individuals participate with the group, they receive feedback both verbally and nonverbally. As individuals learn to interact with a group, find their personal voice, and discover what works in this dynamic, they can bring this to their life in order to promote recovery.

Group PolarizationPotential Pitfalls of Group Therapy

As therapy groups are social situations, there are a number of social dynamics which may arise. With modern social psychology, we can understand these potential pitfalls and learn how to work with them.

Group Polarization

Group polarization is a complex issue that impacts our experience in the world in many ways. It plays a role in politics, social justice, and many group dynamics. At it’s most basic, group polarization is the phenomenon by which a group takes on more radical beliefs than the individuals hold themselves. What happens is the most extreme part of each individual is taken, added together with the extreme parts of other individuals, and a more extreme viewpoint arises.

One of the causes of group polarization is that sharing extreme ideas is often unique, garnering attention from the group. Let’s say somebody in the group shares that they don’t know if they want to recovery from a mental health disorder. The next person to share may non-consciously want attention and share that they actually want to be with their mental health disorder because it makes them interesting. As this goes on, the group may decide that they’re better off living in the illness rather than working on recovering and building a healthy relationship with the experience. This may be an extreme example, but it shows how group polarization may arise.

The tough part with group polarization is that although the extreme viewpoints may be seen as extreme by individuals, it may happen that nobody speaks up. This is due to a number of factors, so read on for more!

Comformity Bias

Conformity occurs quite often in group settings, especially group therapy. It can play a role in group polarization, and may also stand alone as a factor in group dynamics. With this phenomenon, individuals in the group adhere to the opinions of the group as a whole, whether or not they personally agree. There are several different types of conformity.

  • Ingratiational conformity is when an individual conforms to group opinions and behavior in order to be received favorably. This is not out of fear of rejection, but motivated instead by rewards from the social group.
  • Internalization means that the individual grows to change their beliefs personally to fit with a group. This is most often caused by the perception that the group holds more information or is more knowledgeable on the topic, and the individual changes their beliefs accordingly.
  • Compliance is often seen as a temporary change, and is when an individual is compliant with group ideas although they hold different beliefs themselves. It is often motivated by a fear or group pressure.
  • Identification is a bit different. This type of conformity is when an individual feels compelled to behave in a way that their social group is perceived as a whole. Somebody suffering from a mental health disorder may behave in a way that they believe they “should” behave, due to popular beliefs about people with mental health disorders.

Conformity can arise quickly in group therapy. People want to bond, as we are social creatures. Alone, conformity can lead people to be insincere in group therapy. When mixed with group polarization, it may lead to compliance with radical or extreme views with which they do not agree.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a common occurrence, and may be the result of either of the aforementioned phenomena. It also may arise independently. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort felt when an individual holds two conflicting viewpoints or beliefs. There are many examples of cognitive dissonance in daily life, but let’s create a hypothetical situation in a group therapy setting.

The group is sharing ideas that you don’t deeply believe in. As a group, it has been stated that recovering from addiction is just a matter of willpower, and the psychoeducation, support groups, and therapy is not necessary. You believe these offerings are benefiting you and perhaps see it in your own life. However, you also value the opinion of your peers and the group, and believe their experience as well. You end up holding these two conflicting beliefs. You may justify, rationalize, or choose one idea over the other when it suits your needs.

In group therapy, cognitive dissonance can play a role in the dynamic of the group in relation to conformity and group polarization. Researchers suggest that humans want to have a collected psychological experience, and cognitive dissonance can be destabilizing to those seeking to recover from a mental health disorder.

These are just a few problems that may arise in group psychotherapy. It doesn’t mean we should avoid it, and it certainly doesn’t mean we as clinicians should not facilitate group sessions. However, we can seek to understand these occurrences and bring wisdom to them so we can work with them.

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