You can see how scapegoating is carried out in groups through subtle psychological means including “looks, gestures, postures and words.”
This group demonstrated that projective identification is a central mechanism in intimidation among abused early adolescents. Initially described by Klein (1946), projective identification is a process in which the subject is rid of threatening unconscious feeling states which are “deposited” in the recipient in a powerfully controlling way.
This fantasy is supported by behavior intended to pressure or intimidate the recipient into feeling, thinking or acting consistent with the projected content. When the recipient responds by identifying with the projected content and shows anxiety, the subject is affirmed that the content is indeed threatening. In this group feelings of helplessness, vulnerability, and weakness were extremely threatening and were “deposited” in others via projective identification. Looks, gestures, postures and words pressured the recipient(s) into identifying with the content.
The projectors feel a bond with each other, since they all unconsciously imagine they have rid themselves of an unwanted and unacceptable part of themselves. There is often a sense of virtuousness among those serving as projectors. In contrast, the recipient is viewed — and unconsciously experiences himself — as a container of the expelled, unacceptable feelings. . . . Pressure is exerted on the recipient to behave and experience himself only in a manner that is congruent with the shared projective fantasy.
The recipient’s history of physical abuse made experiencing projected helplessness and vulnerability extremely uncomfortable, although quite familiar. The recipient’s discomfort validated the threat of the disowned content. The demonstration of sufficient power to coerce others simultaneously offset the subject’s feelings of weakness with grandiosity.
In projection the subject feels an intrapsychic estrangement from the projected content. In projective identification, the subject feels an unconscious connection with the projected content. Where the recipient is very similar in psychic structure to the subject, or can be influenced to act as if structurally similar, the subject is effectively relieved of the initial inner threat and simultaneously the response of the recipient affords the subject a sense of power and control.
Additional supporting defenses, such as omnipotence, disavowal and devaluation of the subject, may be present, based upon the subject’s intrapsychic need and supported by the conscious or unconscious feelings and actions of the recipient. Where boundaries between self and other are uncertain, clear splitting may be evident. However, omnipotence and devaluation of the other can be manifest where splitting is not a primary defense mechanism for the subject.