Large Group Awareness Trainings

From Cult Observer, Volume 15, No. 1, 1998

Large Group Awareness Trainings

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

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.

Although reliable 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.

Because many 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 trainings." According 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 document.

Recently, AFF 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 have.

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 question.

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.