The Social Psychology of the Greece Crisis

by George Hatjoullis

Wolfgang Münchau writes in today’s FT that the real threat to the EU lies with the Ukraine and not Greece. I agree. Indeed it is a well documented phenomenon in social psychology that institutions and groups will divert collective energy and attention to a non-threatening and relatively trivial issue in order to avoid grasping existential problems. This may explain why the Greek problem is taking so long to solve. They do not want to solve it as they then have to grasp the nettle of Ukraine. Once my undisciplined mind had wandered into social psychology again, it was reminded of other social psychology phenomena that seem to feature in the Greek crisis. First a slight pedagogic digression.

There is no unified body of social psychology theory. There are competing theories and approaches which are not necessarily consistent. Common to all, however, is, ironically, individual identity. The idea is that group behaviour is driven by the needs of individual identity. A natural group such as a family will often experience group dynamics which can be traced back to anxieties about identity. The group may be unhappy with its identity and wish to reconstruct this identity. For example, an immigrant family might wish to ‘integrate’ by identifying with its new host and distance from its point of origin. It may find it difficult to do so if one important member of the family is unable or unwilling to make the transition and retains a visible link to the point of origin. A group dynamic may be triggered that isolates this inconvenient family member. Psychodynamic theory (one approach) might talk of projective identification of feelings of group identity anxiety into this inconvenient member, creating a ‘black sheep’ (so to speak). The effect is to make the inconvenient member experience the intense identity anxiety of the group and allow the group to move on to a new identity without feelings of guilt. The inconvenient member is left isolated without family or identity but the rest feel good about themselves because it is, of course, the fault of the black sheep.

Greece is an important member of the European family. Europe is a Greek word. European civilisation is traced back to Greek civilisation. It is the point of origin of the European family. This inconvenient truth has always bothered the rest of Europe. It has often been alleged that the modern Greeks bear no relation to the ancient Greeks after waves of invasion and occupation and that the true heirs of ancient Greece are the successful western nations of Europe. This is a crude attempt at identity theft that has failed. Europe is forging a new identity based on the Germanic model. Greece remains rooted in the old identity. It wishes to change but is finding it difficult to do so. It is not the only nation that is struggling in this respect. The whole periphery, to a greater or lesser extent, suffer from similar problems. Identifying Greece as the black sheep is helpful to these nations. It provides a convenient receptacle for their collective feelings of anxiety about the new identity. it distracts from their own failings and limitations. They are good (Germanic) Europeans compared to Greece.

The identity issue is not just about culture and civilisation. It has a modern element as well. At one point only Greece and Great Britain stood against Nazi Germany. The other periphery nations were either non-combatants or active collaborators. What did you do in the war Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy? This might seem a trite comment but it speaks to the modern Greek identity and is why this issue keeps coming up. It also speaks to the modern British identity and is partly why Britain is so ambivalent on the European project. Greece (and the UK) are cast as black sheep because it helps the social psychology of the rest. It assuages anxieties and feelings of guilt.

The reality is that the Greek crisis is easily solved. Greece is not looking to walk away from all its obligations. It is seeking recognition of past mistakes by Greece, the EU and the IMF. It has taken a terrible hit on GDP and is unable to take more pain. It is asking for more help than was given to Ireland, Portugal and Spain. It needs more help. It is willing to reform but it needs a gentler reform process. The sums involved are manageable. It is time to re-read the parable of the prodigal son and move on before the Ukraine crisis moves beyond repair.