Patricia: A Classic Example of Group Scapegoating

I recently met with a young woman named Patricia, a graduate student, who was upset because she felt “left out” when interacting with some of her fellow classmates. She felt good about herself, got good grades, got along with people, had friends. Yet she was often not invited to join informal discussion groups and her contributions in class were also often ignored. Not only did this behavior affect her academic work, it made her feel uncomfortable, and it was hurtful. She wanted to know what she was doing wrong.

First, Patricia had done nothing wrong. What she was encountering is a classic case of group scapegoating. As we talked, Patricia noted that the program was a tough one, and that a lot of her peers were worried about their ability to keep up in class. Patricia didn’t have that concern — and that’s at the root of Patricia’s “problem.”

Patricia was a threat to the group of students who felt inadequate. She was someone who stood for competence; worse, in this competitive setting, that competence could “set the bar higher”— exactly what the group feared.

She was a threat to group members’ academic “survival,” and as such, a symbol and a reminder of the group’s collective shortcomings. Targeting Patricia was the group’s way of creating comfort. With Patricia out of the picture, its sense of failure was diluted.

It’s important to realize that this kind of group reaction is very common and happens all the time in all sorts of situations — it’s about scapegoating a person based on the group’s perception that he or she is a danger to their existence, in whatever form that existence takes (in this case, fear that a “good” student will make them look and perform badly).  Arthur: Or something like that!

As I advised Patricia, it doesn’t do any good to blame the group. And it’s doubtful that individual members of the group even knew the depth of their feelings about Patricia, specifically — or even realized they were scapegoating her. That’s how powerful the group dynamic is: group-based reactions and actions stem from what the group itself needs to increase comfort reduce anxiety – getting rid of what it believes is the cause. In this case, Patricia.

Patricia, of course, was more interested in how to make the scapegoating go away. She wasn’t too thrilled with my response: Let the scapegoaters know how you feel and say how you feel directly — in her case, confrontation would be the most effective antidote to diffusing symbolic blame, but she also needs to know (and prepare for) honesty’s consequences – anger. It takes strength to stand up to scapegoating, yet the reward is just that, strength not victimization.

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