Large Group Awareness Trainings
In the 1960s the
encounter group movement was born.
Advocating enhanced communication and intensified experience,
this movement evolved into something that was part psychotherapy, part
spirituality, and part business. In
some scholarly articles, these groups were referred to as "large
group awareness trainings" or LGATs.
Erhard Seminars Training (est) was the most successful of these
groups, and it has been widely imitated.
Even though it no longer officially exists, in the minds of many
est is identified with the entire LGAT movement.
It is in a sense the progenitor of a myriad of programs that have
been marketed to the public and the business community.
Lifespring is, perhaps, the next best known program after est.
It is probably not an exaggeration to estimate that there are
hundreds of training programs in the genre that est made famous.
However, because most of these programs are businesses, they will
usually emphasize that which they want potential consumers to think
distinguishes them from their competition.
"Exciting" words and phrases, such as
"breakthrough," "unique," "your full
potential," "must be experienced," and "changed my
life" are used again and again with training after training.
The est model of
self-transformation is structured around an intense weekend experience
which brings together several dozen or several hundred people and a
"trainer" with one or more assistants.
People are together morning, afternoon, and evening.
Breaks, even for the bathroom, tend to be highly structured and
limited. Participants are
led through a long series of exercises that proponents say are designed
to cut through psychological defenses, increase honesty, and help people
take charge of their lives. Undoubtedly,
many variations of this basic model exist, and some LGATs may depart
substantially from this model.
scientific data are not available, probably at least a million people in
the United States have participated in at least one LGAT, with several
hundred thousand having gone through est alone.
observers of this phenomenon have associated such trainings with the new
age movement (NAM), LGATs have also been called "new age
transformational training programs," or "new age
to Dole and Langone, the new age can be defined as "an alternative
religious paradigm that is rooted in Eastern mysticism, eclectic in its
practices and beliefs, tolerant (or undiscerning, depending upon one's
perspective) of nontraditional practices and beliefs, and optimistic
about humanity's capacity to bring about a great evolutionary leap in
consciousness." New age transformational trainings use an eclectic mix of
psychological techniques and exercises that proponents believe will
improve one's spiritual, psychological, and material well-being.
Some observers and
scientific researchers have also associated some LGATs with at least the
potential to cause psychological distress to some participants.
Some compare the trainings to thought reform programs, or
"brainwashing," and to "cults."
The implied, if not
explicit, religious nature of many of these trainings and the potential
for psychological damage in some trainings have resulted in lawsuits
against some trainings and employers who have sponsored them.
On February 22, 1988 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
(EEOC) issued a notice on new age training programs which conflict with
employees' religious beliefs. This
notice gave official credence to the claim that some of these trainings
are fundamentally religious in nature, even though they may be
corporately organized as a business.
An article from Labor Law Journal elaborates upon the EEOC
developed a packet on LGATs, containing the articles noted above as well
as other articles. With a few exceptions, the information in this packet tends
to be critical of LGATs. This
is because the consumers who seek information from AFF are likely to
have already been exposed to the sophisticated "sales"
packages and activities that most such trainings excel at producing.\
There is no shortage of glowing testimonies and four-color
brochures lauding the benefits of these programs.
But the consumer will not so easily find material that examines
negative aspects of the practices of some of
these trainings. The
packet is an attempt to rectify the informational advantage that LGATs
The new packet
emphasizes scholarly articles because we believe that this area cries
out for scientific research. Given
the person-hours devoted to LGATs during the past two decades, it is
astounding how little solid scientific research has been conducted.
Indeed, there is not enough research to make any sweeping
generalizations about this genre of training program.
The research on est suggests that a small, though certainly not
insignificant, percentage of participants were psychologically harmed by
the training in ways that are detectable by standard measures of
psychological distress. How
much "subtle" harm occurs is still open to dispute.
I know of no
research, however, that convincingly demonstrates positive behavioral
effects of these trainings. In
my opinion, one of the best studies from a methodological standpoint was
"Research on Erhard Seminar Training in a Correctional
Institution" (Hosford, Ray, E., Moss, C. Scott, Cavior, Helene,
& Kerish, Burton. Catalog
of Selected Documents in Psychology, 1982, Manuscript #2419, American
Psychological Association). Of
313 inmates who volunteered for est training in a Federal Correctional
Institution, 150 were randomly selected for the training, while the
balance acted as a waiting-list control group and were given
scholarships to be used upon release.
The groups did not differ on demographics or variables related to
criminal history. They were
given a full battery of psychological tests and biofeedback instruments,
with half of the group pre-tested and half post-tested (to control for
the possible contaminating effect of testing). Three-month and 12-month follow-ups were conducted to assess
behavioral outcomes (incident reports, furloughs, work performance,
etc.). Although the
psychological tests reflected some positive change, these self-report
changes did not manifest themselves in alterations in physiological
measures or in actual behavior.
The research and
anecdotal evidence seem to indicate that LGATs are very successful at
producing positive opinions about the trainings -- an outcome that the
financial officers of every service business would value.
However, whether or not they have a substantial positive effect
on behavior that is not due to placebo factors, is still an unanswered
There are also a host
of ethical questions that can be raised about how many of these
trainings recruit new trainees and persuade graduates to continue to
take more courses. We hope
that the material in the new packet will help readers appreciate the
complexity and subtlety of the issues raised by LGATs.