Scapegoating: Dynamics and Interventions in Group Counseling

Article excerpt

According to the Biblical story, the term scapegoat originates in the ancient ritual in which a goat was sent into the desert to symbolically atone for the sins of the Israelites (Leviticus, 16:8-17; New International Version). In contemporary usage, an innocent person is assigned the blame when actual targets are excessively threatening and thought to have the potential for retaliation (Clark, 1997). In both the historical tradition and the modern definition, individuals purge themselves by transferring their iniquities to a victimized scapegoat. From the long-established perspective of family therapy, the scapegoated member of a family, who is perceived as a problem by his or her parents, is implicitly encouraged to persist with acting-out behavior (Vogel & Bell, 1960). By adopting the role of a disruptive family member, the scapegoat provides a relative degree of equilibrium by masking tensions and submerging unresolved parental issues. Within an alcoholic family, a scapegoat may perform a stabilizing function by diverting conflicts in what is an otherwise chaotic and confusing family system (Harris, 1996). In group counseling settings, the prevalence of scapegoating is common. Yet the dynamic has not received the attention it deserves, especially in light of its prominence in the family therapy literature (e.g., Scheidlinger, 1982; Toker, 1972), which suggests that it is an important factor when working with any group.

The scapegoat often performs a central function in counseling groups by channeling tensions and establishing a type of unity among group members (Toker, 1972; Vogel & Bell, 1960). While the group repeatedly focuses on the inadequacies of a group member who deviates from the norm, the dynamic serves to minimize the scrutiny of other group participants through a form of group collusion. Typically, the most vulnerable and weakest group member becomes the focal point of negative and harsh interactions, and the emotional cost for the targeted person can be high. Inexperienced group counselors may inaccurately assume that intense member exchanges that occur during scapegoating represent sound therapeutic process (Carroll, Bates, & Johnson, 1997). At the same time, if the group counselor does not understand the dynamics leading to an occurence of scapegoating and attempts to protect the scapegoated member, other participants may view this response as intrusive and unjustified (Rutan & Stone, 2000). Finally, existing literature suggests that, in many instances, particular qualities of the scapegoated member serve to trigger an attack, and the target is not always simply an "innocent" bystander (Toker, 1972). For example, in a children's group, a group participant occasionally bobs his head and makes bird sounds, and he becomes upset when criticized for his behavior by other group members. This article explores the dynamics of scapegoating in group counseling and suggests interventions for processing scapegoating in counseling groups.


Scapegoating can have a profound effect on the intrapsychic functioning of the target member, but the phenomenon also affects subgroups and the group as a whole. Scapegoated individuals range from innocent victims to group members who more "willingly" assume the role. Frequently, group participants will collude to stigmatize a single member in order to avoid assuming responsibility for their own behavior. As an interpersonal response to conflict and threat, member scapegoating in groups is associated with the defense mechanisms of displacement, projection, and projective identification (Clark, 1997, 1998a; Gazda, Ginter, & Horne, 2001; Ginter & Bonney, 1993). At the group entity level, members channel tensions and gain stability by exploiting victims, either inside or outside of the group, and thus effective interventions aimed at occurrences of scapegoating have the potential to positively affect an entire array of interpersonal involvements. …