Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Sage Advice on Being a "Good Citizen" in a Complex World

We learn citizenship skills at a young age, for better or worse.

Key points

  • Being a "good citizen" means being engaged.
  • Citizenship is especially important in today's fragmented world of shifting values.
  • People learn to be good citizens in their families, during their upbringing.
  • Working well as an individual requires us to understand how larger groups of people function and dysfunction.

I recently read Finding a Place to Stand: Developing Self-Reflective Institutions, Leaders, and Citizens, by Edward R. Shapiro, M.D.. ​​With so much worth sharing, I reached out to Dr. Shapiro, who kindly agreed to let me interview him.

Among many other accomplishments, Dr. Shapiro is former medical director and CEO of the Austen Riggs Center, and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center. He is a principal in the Boswell Group of New York, a founder of the International Dialogue Initiative, and on the Advisory Board of Partners Confronting Collective Atrocities. He is a distinguished faculty member at the Erikson Institute for Education, Research and Advocacy. He has published three books and over 50 articles and book chapters on human development, personality disorders, organizational and family dynamics, and citizenship, presenting papers around the world.

GHB: What does "good citizenship" mean nowadays?

ERS: I think the term “engaged citizen” is a better one. The decision to become more active as a citizen takes seriously our reactions when we see what’s happening in our country. For example, when we see an event in front of us that challenges us to act, many of us find ourselves asking, “Why do I have to do this?" The disengaged response is: “I don’t—someone else will do it.”

But even asking that question means that something is tugging at us in our roles as members of a community, drawing on the shared values coming from our families, our organizations, and our roles as citizens. The George Floyd murder was such an event. It brought millions of us out to the streets, across political and racial lines, to develop new social organizations, and to try to change society. The upcoming presidential election is another such event. Engaged citizenship is mobilized by values.

GHB: You write about groups and social systems. What are the basics of group relations theory?

ERS: Group relations theory recognizes that the individual affects the group and the group the individual. We are always connected to our human contexts. Donald Winnicott, a psychoanalyst said, famously, “There is no such thing as a baby.” The mother-baby dyad is the existential unit for all of us. That dyad, in most cases, is held by a third: the other caretaker, the link to the outside world. That threesome plus additional children constitute the family, our first institution. Like all institutions, the family has a mission: to develop mature adults.

We learn a great deal about institutions when we grow up in a family. We learn what being a member means. We begin to recognize how each role carries out a different function of a mission (the father role is different from the mother role; the role of the firstborn is different from that of the youngest). We experience what happens to the family when the outside world intervenes (through schools, neighbors, police). We also learn about group irrationality and irrational roles (the crazy one, the star, the black sheep), and we can experience what happens when a group loses its focus on its primary task.

We emerge from that family group—and enter other groups. We are always in groups in our lives and in our minds. In fact, one way to think about loneliness is that it is a symptom of the ways we can ignore or block our recognition of the various groups we are in.

GHB: What does the group-as-a-whole perspective mean for how we understand families, teams, groups, organizations, corporations, and related institutions?

Group relations theory focuses on the ways that groups have a dynamic of their own, beyond the individual. It provides a way of thinking about the irrationality that can take over in groups and organizations. All groups function both rationally and irrationally. Rational group functioning focuses on the task the group is gathered to perform. Losing sight of that task is marked by irrational group behavior. So, for example, the group can act as if they were not there to work but only to get their dependency needs met. They can begin to fight with or flee from the task. They can develop an idealized pair of members who seem like they can do everything, and the rest of the group withdraws from the work.

One very familiar example of group irrationality is in the family. Though dependency is a rational aspect of the family’s developmental mission, when dependency becomes pervasive, families can lose sight of their collaborative effort to facilitate the mastery of developmental stages toward maturity.

Though these irrational group dynamics can interfere with work, some institutions can also use them as aspects of the task: For example, dynamics of dependency are seen in the church, fight/flight in the army, and idealized pairing by the aristocracy and celebrities.

GHB: How does projective identification underlie large group dynamics?

ERS: The background for these group dynamics is the individual’s use of the unconscious mechanism projective identification. Here’s how it works: If I have an unsolvable conflict, for example, between my wish to be independent and my strong dependent need, I look around me to find someone who has an easier time being dependent. I locate my dependency in him, experience him as unlike me, and feel scornful about his dependency. With this solution, I can feel proud of my independence.

And, if I keep in touch with this dependent person, I stay in touch with both sides of my conflict. This defense is used in a range of conflicts. The outcome is that we lose our recognition that people are complex and interesting. Instead, we focus on one stereotyped idea and irrationally assume that we know the other person. I call this pathological certainty. It is a central aspect of irrational individual and group behavior.

GHB: Is there anything else you'd like to share?

ERS: These ideas open a lens into how groups behave, but they also provide a basis for understanding larger social systems. My book describes a developmental pathway from the family to groups and organizations to the role of engaged citizen. It offers a way to think about how we get lost with others.

We can deepen our engagement in the world. Taking our experiences in groups and institutions seriously and making sense of them is a pathway to more fully join their missions on behalf of society.


Shapiro, E.R. Finding a Place to Stand: Developing Self-Reflective Institutions, Leaders, and Citizens. Bicester:
Phoenix, 2020

More from Grant Hilary Brenner MD, DFAPA
More from Psychology Today