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and the New Age Movement: A Critical Perspective
Coming of age in the 60s, pursuing a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology
in the 70s, and studying cults in the 80s have certainly exposed me to
what is today commonly called the "new age movement," or NAM
for short. The NAM defies precise definition because it is not so much
an organized movement, though organized new age groups exist, but an
indistinctly articulated world view that attracts all kinds of people
who adhere to the new age world view with varying degrees of
"purity." Although the NAM first began affecting psychology,
education, and religion nearly 20 years ago, it has only recently gained
attention in the business world, largely as a result of articles
appearing in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune,
and other periodicals.
What is the new age movement? How has it affected the business world?
How should business respond? I hope that the reflections that follow
will help others better understand this important subject.
What is the New Age Movement?
The NAM includes four overlapping but distinct "streams":
occult, intellectual, lifestyle, and transformational trainings. The
occult stream is fascinated by shamanism, crystals, "pyramid
power," and channeling, a modern form of mediumship in which
especially "sensitive" persons become "channels" for
supposedly wise spirits from ancient times or even other planets. New
age intellectuals apply new age thought to traditional intellectual
problems, such as the nature of mind, and produce books such as The Tao
of Physics. The lifestyle stream focuses on concepts such as holistic
health, alternative shelter, or communal living arrangements.
Transformational trainings are highly organized programs that purport to
"transform" individuals and organizations by helping them
"experience" new ways of viewing the world. This essay focuses
on the latter stream, which typifies the new age spirit and is the
aspect of the NAM that has most profoundly affected the business world.
New age transformational trainings grew out of the human potential
movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which popularized sensitivity and
encounter groups. William Penn Patrick's Leadership Dynamics Institute (LDI),
one of the first of the transformational trainings, carried human
potential concepts to extremes that led to the program's demise in a
tangle of lawsuits. LDI, which claimed to make better leaders and
executives, subjected participants to a range of abusive practices,
including beatings, food and sleep deprivation, jamming into coffins,
and degrading sexual acts. Many existing transformational trainings have
at least been indirectly influenced by LDI.
These trainings, of which there are dozens if not hundreds, bring
together for varying periods of time, but rarely less than a day,
several dozen to several hundred individuals, each usually paying $300
or more. The trainings organizers are customarily ambiguous, even
secret, about their content, frequently insisting that they can only be
"experienced," not described. Their professed outcomes are
equally vague and immeasurable, though almost always grandiose, e.g.,
"transforming corporate culture." Their actual content
includes not only standard human potential exercises, but also a
smorgasbord of sometimes assaultive or hypnotic group exercises designed
to produce intense emotional reactions and even altered states of
consciousness. Some participants hate the trainings, and accuse them of
being manipulative or stupid. Some become virtual "devotees"
who volunteer to promote or otherwise help the training organizations
and who take their seemingly never-ending advanced seminars. Many
participants appear to evaluate the experience favorably, more or less
continuing with their lives as before. But some, perhaps as many as 15%,
appear to be psychologically harmed. Suits for emotional damages are not
Unlike traditional training programs, which rest on principles of
learning tested in the psychological laboratory and which attempt to
teach specific, measurable skills, transformational trainings are so
vague and their goals so resistant to scientific evaluation that their
effectiveness is virtually undeterminable. Some critics contend that the
only thing at which these programs excel is creating positive attitudes
If these critics are correct, and if, as was implied above, these
trainings cause graduates to believe that one cannot judge a training
without taking it (One is not qualified to say "no" until one
says "yes."), interesting marketing consequences would ensue.
Initially, one would expect the trainings to sell themselves to
individuals, because businesses would be skeptical. When a critical mass
of enthusiasts is reached, however, the trainings would be able to
overcome hard-nosed business skepticism because many executives would
have taken the trainings in their private lives. This, according to
critics, is precisely what has happened. The business world has been
infected by a "psychological virus."
If these trainings have as little substance as their critics contend,
how could educated, intelligent executives become so enamored with them?
To answer this question, we must first examine how the new age world
view came into being.
The NAM is a logical derivative of two widely held beliefs of the
60s. The first is the belief that the world, the "old age," is
so far out of whack that nothing short of radical transformation can fix
it. The second is the belief that the purpose of life is to "feel
good," as opposed to, for example, to do what is right (which often
brings pain and demands self-denial).
The former belief sprang from the 60s political activism. The latter
issued from the "turn-on-tune-in-drop-out" mentality of the
hippie movement. When the hope of "revolution" died, many
persons concluded that the "old age" couldn't be transformed
without a radical shift in the individual citizen's consciousness.
Although not all of these spiritual revolutionaries and their
sympathizers bought into the "feel-good" dogma of the 60s, the
millions who did embarked on a road of feel-good revolution. Their
mission was to destroy and to feel good at the same time.
This mission demanded the discovery of techniques for changing
individuals' consciousness in order to make them view personal and
social transformation as desirable or even inevitable. Psychological
experimentation became almost a way of life as budding new agers hooked
up with the human potential movement. The feel-good dogma, however,
required that the psychological experimenting result in "good
feelings." But since even drugs can't produce durable "good
feelings," the psychological experiments had to be so constructed
that "good feelings" would always follow "bad
feelings." Hence, manipulated "catharsis" became standard
operating procedure. Furthermore, because being wrong usually made
participants feel badly, forms of thinking had to be adopted that would
enable adherents to interpret events so as to always "be
right." What's true for you is true for you, what's true for me is
true for me became the new age epistemology. Mystical, especially
eastern, philosophies were embraced because they supported the need to
equate perception with reality. Despite paeans to "doing your own
thing," agreement was the only way to "confirm" one's
reality. As a result, interpersonal conflict was either neutralized
through manipulation or redefined as a "growth experience,"
"agreement at a deeper level," "just semantics," or
"different realities." In some cases, say critics, a
deceptive, smiling totalitarianism emerged so that leaders could confirm
their "realities" through group agreement.
Unfortunately, most people stubbornly refuse to cooperate (because,
for example, they reject the notion that the purpose of life is to feel
good). In order to diminish the threatening discomfort their criticism
elicits in new agers, these recalcitrant masses have to be liberated
from their "old-age ignorance," their consciousness has to be
"raised." Thus, the destroy-and-feel-good movement has had to
become adept at psychological manipulation on a grand scale.
Transformational trainings are the primary vehicle of this messianic,
Not everyone imbibes the new age spirit by following the path that
began in the 60s. Since personal distress commonly makes people cynical
about the world and hungry for "good feelings," distressed
individuals who came of age after the 60s or who may not have been
caught up in its turmoil can easily get recruited by sophisticated
transformational trainings promising a "new you," or whatever.
And since executives, like everyone else, can get stressed out, they too
can be prospective recruits for transformational trainings. The most
enthusiastic of these transmit the "psychological virus" to
their organizations. Given that probably more than 1,000,000 persons
have taken transformational trainings, it is no wonder that new age
enthusiasts are affecting business.
How Has The New Age Movement Affected Business?
Transformational trainings say that they benefit the business
community. But, as noted earlier, their alleged benefits are usually
vague, difficult to measure, and grandiose: "transform corporate
culture," "release untapped creativity," "get
it," "provide new ways of seeing problems." To my
knowledge, no rigorously conducted studies involving control groups
indicate that transformational trainings improve fundamental variables
such as productivity or profit. Their main effect appears to be to alter
attitudes, especially attitudes toward the training. This effect,
however, is of dubious utility. I could, for example, devise a training
program, which consisted of watching football games followed by group
exercises designed to help employees understand the importance of
"teamwork." Participants would probably love getting paid to
watch football games, but would their positive attitudes toward the
"training" really result in behavioral changes that improved
productivity or profit? I doubt it.
Even if, contrary to the critics' contentions, some transformational
trainings did produce tangible benefits, these benefits would have to be
weighed against the harms that the trainings allegedly cause. Numerous
civil suits have been filed to recover damages for emotional distress
allegedly caused by transformational trainings. Businesses that require
attendance at trainings that cause such damages run a risk of being
entangled in litigation.
In addition to the risk of psychological damage and litigation,
transformational trainings can also breed dissension, lower employee
morale, and waste human resources. Pacific Bell, which spent $65 million
dollars on a new age training program, got bogged down in a controversy
that enraged many employees, rate payers, and the California Public
Utilities Commission, which forbade the company to pass the cost of the
training to consumers.
Some critics contend that even those not visibly damaged by new age
transformational trainings unwittingly adopt thinking patterns, which
denigrate rationality and scientific method. To the extent that training
graduates imbibe the notion that perception is reality, their
decision-making processes come to lean heavily on subjective, emotional
considerations. And because their evaluations of business decisions are
also subjective -- "success" being in the eye of the evaluator
-- the problem is compounded. Contrary to new age dogma, wise decisions
do not always "feel good."
The use of transformational trainings also raises ethical questions
for business. The affinity such trainings have for eastern mysticism has
motivated a number of employees to file civil suits alleging religious
discrimination on the part of their employers. The Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission has even published guidelines on the subject,
which comes under the Civil Rights Act of 1964--Title VII. Business has
barely begun to examine its responsibilities in this area.
Critics also maintain that transformational trainings, which attempt
to alter fundamental philosophical assumptions, may, when successful in
that goal, cause effects that go far beyond the employee's performance
at work. These effects can include marital conflict and changes in
political, as well as religious, beliefs. Proponents of transformational
trainings often applaud such changes, for they consider the corporation
to be an instrument of social change. But certainly not everyone accepts
this view of the corporation's role. Nor does everyone believe that the
new thinking patterns are beneficial.
How Should Business Respond to the New Age Movement?
In today's sophisticated world economy, American business faces
tougher and tougher competition. Understandably, executives want to find
ways of teaching people to be more effective on their jobs.
Transformational trainings cater to this need. Whether or not they
fulfill it is open to debate.
In their search to improve employee performance, executives should be
careful not to confuse the behavioral and physical sciences. The
physical sciences astound us daily with new discoveries, and regularly
provide genuine "breakthroughs." The behavioral sciences
simply can't do that. Indeed, the notion of a "psychotechnology,"
a word bandied about in the new age, is premature at best and
nonsensical at worst. Human beings cannot be "upgraded" like
computer hardware. They are far more complex. Neither can they be
"transformed" by psychological alchemists. Substantial
psychological change does not come easily, even when people seek to
change, as in psychotherapy.
Executives should not accept new age claims at face value, no matter
how sophisticated the packaging. The radical approaches that these
trainings tout should be viewed skeptically if for no other reason than
that their "newness" implies that they do not build on a body
of behavioral research, as do traditional trainings. To the extent the
business community believes new age trainings may have value, it should
support rigorous scientific evaluative research of the trainings.
Everyone likes a magic show. And everyone likes a quick solution to
his problems -- even executives answerable to the "bottom
line." If critics are correct, new age transformational trainings
may be no more useful than a magic show. Indeed, they may be downright
dangerous. At least a magic show doesn't pretend to be anything more
than it is. We leave it feeling entertained; we don't leave it believing
that magic really exists.
Jack Gordon, writing in the September 1987 issue of Training, wrote:
"There is an implicit belief held by many in the HRD [human
resource and development] profession (and not just those in the
"new Age" fringe) that their job is nothing less than to
self-actualize the American work force...What, exactly, are our
qualifications for this rather daunting task?"
I believe that Mr. Gordon has gotten to the heart of the matter.
Those of us who work with human beings should be more humble. We should
realize that in the day-to-day world of practical concerns, small
successes are better than gigantic failures, no matter how stirring the
musical accompaniment. In the final analysis, teaching an employee
skills that enable him to make two widgets where he had formerly made
one is more useful than trumpeting "be all that you can be."
The new age "virus" infected the educational system many
years ago. After a disillusioning pursuit of grandiose and airy
quick-fixes, the educational system is finally getting "back to
basics." Business should follow suit.
This is a modified draft of an article, "Beware of `New Age�
Solutions to Age Old Problems," published in Business and
Society Review, 1989, Number 69, pp. 39-42.