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Robert Todd Carroll

 the truth is in here!

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In which the author struggles to escape the psychological shackles of a self-help seminar by Kirsten Marcum

Cults in our Midst by Margaret Thaler Singer


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large group awareness training program

A large group awareness training (LGAT) program is a personal development training program in which dozens to hundreds of people are given several hours to several days of intense instruction aimed at helping participants begin to discover what is hindering them from achieving their full potential and living more satisfied lives. LGAT programs have also been developed for corporations and public agencies, where the focus is on improving management skills, conflict resolution, general institutional strengthening, and dealing with the eternal problem of employees who drink too much or use too many drugs. 

LGAT gurus claim to know how to help people become more creative, intelligent, healthy, and rich. They focus primarily on the role interpersonal communication plays in self-esteem and in defining our relationships with others.

LGAT gurus claim to know why their participants are not happy or why they are not living fulfilled lives. They assume everyone is being hindered by the same things and that one approach will suit all. Some LGAT gurus use public television and books as their vehicles. Others give seminars in hotel ballrooms. Some use infomercials and peddle books and tapes to the masses to help get them on the path to self-realization and success.

The U.S. Army might think it takes a few years to "become all that you can be," but the gurus of self-help think it can be done in a few hours or days.  These gurus might all take the one-size-fits-all cookie cutter approach to self-help, but the founders of such programs as est, Landmark Forum, neuro-linguistic programming, Tony Robbins seminars, etc., use their own unique cookie cutters.

Though some advocate visualization, self-hypnosis, and other techniques for achieving self-realization, most LGAT programs focus on communication skills and the effect of language on thought and behavior. Those running the programs must excel in those skills. The trainers are motivators. They must use their powerful communication skills to persuade others to believe that (a) they (the trainers) know something valuable about fulfilling one's potential; (b) the valuable knowledge can be transmitted to the participant in a short time; (c) the trainee can expect to reap tangible, even if subjective, benefits in a short time (such as improved relationships with others or feeling better about oneself); and (d) the trainee has only experienced a small taste of the wonderful pleasure and fulfillment that awaits those who sign up for advanced training. In short, the trainers are not just teachers; they are sellers. Their main job is to motivate participants to buy more services, i.e., sign up for more courses. The fact that trainers are unlikely to do any follow-up on their trainees, except to try to persuade them to take more courses, indicates that their main interest is not in helping people lead more fulfilling lives. The trainers have a sales job to do. They are paid commissions for the number of people they recruit and train, not for the number of people they truly help. It is not in their interest to do follow-up studies on their trainees. It is in their interest to do follow-up recruiting calls.

A short amount of reflection should make it apparent that the gurus of personal development training are like those infomercial stars who promise to share with you their secrets on how to make millions of dollars by taking out classified ads or by buying repossessed properties. The real money is not in taking out classified ads or buying repossessions; otherwise, that is what the infomercial star would be doing instead of making infomercials. The real money is in selling the idea to others. If the trainers who work for Tony Robbins or Landmark Forum could realize their true potential in a meaningful, lucrative way, would they take a sales commission job? Would they work for a guru for a relatively small sum of money, while investing a rather extensive amount of time in the hopes of some sort of breakthrough? No. If they want to reach their own true potential they must break away and start their own personal training program. Which is exactly what many of them do.

Personal training programs are likely to be successful, however, if only because (a) the participants are strongly motivated toward self-improvement and (b) the trainers force participants to reflect on themselves, their lives and their relationships. Such motivation and reflection will result in either perceived insights or renewed effort to gain such insights. Being surrounded by many others in search of the Promised Land serves to energize participants and to give them hope. Ultimately, the main product being sold by human potential gurus is hope itself. It should be obvious that in itself this is not a bad thing. We all need hope. Without hope, there is no point in making plans for the future. Without hope, there is no point in working on a relationship or setting goals. Thus, insofar as participation in Large Group Awareness Training increases one's hope for finding one's way and for achieving one's goals, it is good. Even false hope may be better than no hope at all.

Since fear is a major obstacle to hope, the human potential trainers must help participants overcome those fears which hinder development. For example, there can be no hope of achieving a goal if the fear of failure is so strong that one avoids setting goals in order to avoid failing. After all, if you don't try something, you can't fail at it. Likewise, no troubled relationship can improve if one fears rejection by the other to such a degree that one will not even try to heal the wounds. One must overcome fears of failure, rejection, ridicule, humiliation, etc., if one is to have any hope of achieving a very meaningful existence as a human being. One is powerless to achieve anything if one is paralyzed by fear. Empowerment to achieve requires empowerment to overcome one's fears and thereby gives one hope. The most direct way to empower someone would be to convince them that if what they most fear were to happen not only would nothing be worse than it already is, but most likely things would be even better than they are. Another way is to convince people that their own beliefs are hindrances to success and that they can replace those beliefs at will.

No one knew this better than Leo Buscaglia, one of the more successful LGAT gurus of the 1970s and 1980s. He used books, lectures and public television programs to promote the idea that the key to everything is love. He popularized notions that  Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell and B. F. Skinner had written about, e.g., the psychological power of loving those you fear. "Love your enemies," he would say. "It'll kill them!" Your enemy doesn't have to be another person, however. Your own fears can be your enemies. Embrace your fears, it'll kill them. If your relationship fails, what is the worst that can happen? The relationship ends. You can dwell on it, crawl into yourself, withdraw, surrender. Or you can learn from it, grow, develop, be prepared for a better relationship in the future. It's up to you. As the Stoics said: know what's in your power and what is not. Don't try to change what is not in your power to change. You can't control what others say or do, but you can control your attitude, your emotional response, to what they say or do. In short, if you don't try, you can't succeed. If you try and fail, you can still succeed. It's up to you. It is up to the human potential guru or trainer to convince you of this.

Self-growth programs such as est, Landmark Forum, neuro-linguistic programming (and even cults like Scientology) can point to many "successes." They can demonstrate that their programs "work." They can bring forth to testify on their behalf hundreds, if not thousands, of satisfied customers, many of them famous celebrities such as John Denver, John Travolta, Yoko Ono, Cher, Valerie Harper and others. Many people apparently find that their lives are better after they get involved in est, NLP, Landmark Forum, or Scientology. Those of us who have been trained to study philosophy and psychology, who have a deep sense of the nature of speculation and empirical research, are able to recognize the pseudoscientific nature of such programs. We know that testimonials do not validate a self-help program. We know that there is significant post hoc reasoning by both gurus and their followers. We are aware of the role of subjective validation, confirmation bias, wishful thinking, the regressive fallacy, and communal reinforcement in the success of such programs.  We know there is little or no research done by the promoters of these programs to (a) test causal claims that might establish some degree of effectiveness to their methods; (b) establish clear criteria for what counts as "successful" training; (c) keep records of "failures" or those who feel ripped off or harmed by the program.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of proof that these programs work the way their advocates claim, and despite the fact that many trainers are overly zealous in their recruitment of participants in seminars and advanced seminars, many participants feel they benefit greatly from such programs. However, research has shown that the feelings of having benefited greatly from participation in an LGAT do not correspond to beneficial changes in behavior (Michael Langone, "Large Group Awareness Training Programs," Cult Observer, v. 15, n. 1, 1998). Also, many of those who feel they have benefited do not understand that others may not feel they benefit at all from such programs. To their healthy friends and family members, the zealot may appear to have been brainwashed. Their enthusiasm seems unnatural and disproportionate. If they were unbalanced before taking the program, they may appear to have gone beyond "breakthrough" into "breakdown."

See also est, firewalking, Landmark Forum, and neuro-linguistic programming.

further reading

reader comments

Barry, Dave.  "Altered States"  in The Miami Herald, April 13, 1997. (Humorist Dave Barry takes Peter Lowe's SUCCESS 1997 12-hour success seminar featuring Anthony Robbins, Elizabeth Dole, Rabbi Harold Kushner, Brian Tracy,  Lou Holtz, Jim Morris, Peter Lowe, Pat Riley, Dr. Ted Broer, George Bush, and Dan Kennedy.)







ęcopyright 2007
Robert Todd Carroll

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Last updated 12/03/07

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