BEWARE OF MIND-HUNTERS
On the Dangers of Large Group Awareness Training (LGAT)
Ms Lee appears to be a happy go-lucky person but behind the facade is a worldly-wise business executive. It wasn’t surprising that she shrugged her shoulders when I asked her what she thought of the motivation training that her company had just sent her to. “Well,” she grinned as she replied. “Some of the teachings were bizarre, the exercises were comical, but we go through company requirements and get on with life.” David, who was sitting next to her, added, “I do think the teachings are inconsistent with my Christian beliefs, but strangely, when I was required to stare intensely into another person’s eyes, I experienced a strange ‘connection’.” Jenny, a new acquaintance they met in the recent seminar, merely listened in silence to our discussion on what to make of the motivation courses or LGATs (Large Group Awareness Training) that have become vogue in recent years.
My two friends had much to tell, some of which I found rather disturbing. Trainees are subjected to an oppressive regime by trainers who will not tolerate any disagreement. Any trainee who protests that the rules are unreasonable will be publicly humiliated by aggressive trainers. Indeed, the trainer may even deliberately provoke resistance just so that he may openly assert his dominance and thereby subjugate the will of the trainees.
The trainees are then herded into teams and asked to compete with one another in games designed to bring out the competitive instincts of business professionals. My friends recounted the games they played. I recognised that they were based on a famous problem well known among philosophers as the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’. In this dilemma both sides will gain only if everyone decides to place the competitor’s interests above his own interests. Of course, no one follows this strategy since participants are all urged by the trainers to play to win. The game inevitably results in disastrous consequences for all competing teams.
The trainers then cynically exploit the situation and severely reprimand the trainees for their competitive attitude. The guilt feelings are generated to soften resistance and reinforce the authority of the trainer. Compliance becomes even easier when trainees are emotionally drained by further exercises which induce an emotional roller-coaster ride. Being physically exhausted as the training extends late into the night trainees become increasingly willing to co-operate with the trainers.
At this point, trainees are encouraged to re-enact childhood traumas or gratify childhood fantasies. In the process, trainees regress into infantile behaviour such as giggling and moaning. These exercises are based on an eclectic mixture of popular psychology like ‘primal scream’ therapy and oriental mysticism, which considers reality as nothing more than a product of our mind. The idea is that one should purge oneself of bad and negative attitudes/energy from within one’s systems and thereby redefine one’s life-world.
Trainees are asked to enter into imaginary worlds—their mental workshops where they can design their worlds any way they like. At best, this is nothing more than an act of self-indulgence. At worse, it ensures that the trainees’ consciousness become more susceptible to psychological suggestions of their trainers. In a psychologically regressed situation, trainees become anxious to secure the affirmation of authority figures. Feelings are deliberately intensified and analysis of beliefs discouraged so that trainees increasingly rely on the trainer to interpret reality.
Another feature are ‘rewards’—such as the ‘hug line’ and ‘love bombing’ techniques—used to initiate trainees into heightened emotions. It must be noted, though, that the moods are self-oriented good feelings rather than expressions of mutual attachment. In fact, the ‘love bombing’ process serves to expose anyone who may still harbour reservations about the training process. Love is extended to those who co-operate but severe criticisms and rejection are meted out to recalcitrant participants. Nothing works better than the carrot and stick approach to win over these individuals.
It is obvious that trainees become vulnerable to psychological manipulation in a situation where resistance to the authority of trainers is perceived to be futile. How do people respond to psychological exercises designed to bring about a roller-coaster emotional trip? You may be surprised that enough trainees reportedly experience euphoric emotional release, especially at end of each humiliating and exhausting session. To the sceptical observer, however, the euphoria may be the result of endorphins hormone which is discharged in the body when a person undergoing intense and prolonged pressure suddenly experiences release.
Being both fascinated and troubled by the accounts of my friends I sought to find out what the professional authorities had to say of such techniques. Not surprisingly, I found that the American Psychological Association had released its own report expressing concern that the LGATs may bring about more psychological harm than good. These experts conceded that it would be unfair to regard such training techniques as amounting to a form of brainwashing. Nevertheless, they do voice concerns that those who employ such methods may be guilty of coercive persuasion and thought reform.
Emeritus professor Margaret Thaler Singer from the University of Southern California, has nicely captured the tactics of thought reform deployed in many of these motivation courses.
1. Keep the person unaware of what is going on and the changes taking place.
2. Control the person’s time and, if possible, physical environment.
3. Create a sense of powerlessness, covert fear, and dependency.
4. Suppress much of the person’s old behaviour and attitudes.
5. Instil new behaviour and attitudes.
6. Put forth a closed system of logic; allow no real input or criticism.
E. Schein offers a more striking model of the coercive persuasion process:
1. Unfreezing, which aims at undercutting the trainee’s psychological basis for resistance and destabilising his sense of identity. Techniques are applied to demonstrate the person’s inability to control his fate through degrading ceremonies which induce feelings of guilt and emotional turmoil.
2. ‘Change’ phase, which encourages the trainee to escape the humiliating, destabilising process by demonstrating that he has learned the proffered teaching.
3. Refreezing, which is intended to reinforce behaviour that is expected by the controlling organisation. Any evidence of zeal and commitment to the trainers’ program that results from a supposedly reborn social identity will be rewarded.
It should be emphasised that there is no physical abuse in LGAT programs. Coercion is induced at the psychological level. However, the techniques of coercive persuasion have been so well refined that few individuals have the strength to resist.
The Encyclopaedia of Sociology (ed. Borgatta) notes that the effects of thought reform tend to be short term. People will fall back to their previous beliefs unless they are continually subjected to these elaborate training programs. That being the case, the main aim of these training programs is to induce compliance at the behavioural level and instil greater willingness to accept directions from a higher authority. In this regard, advocates of LGATs argue that their programs are merely the corporate counterparts to the punishing but accepted basic training that all army recruits are required to undergo.
The long discussion I had with my friends certainly proved enlightening. Still, I admit that I cannot empathise with them regarding the psychological pressures they had had to endure. More likely than not, I would have walked out of these training sessions rather than submit to the absurd regime. My two friends, Ms. Lee and David, were able to shrug off any possible psychological damage because of nonchalance for one, and religious convictions for the other.
Jenny, who had remained quiet, eventually shared—somewhat hesitantly, since she was surrounded by three sceptics—that she did gain some benefits from the training. She confessed that she had always been a timid person. However, she felt that the trainer correctly impressed upon her that she could not remain passive to circumstances around her. She should instead become more assertive and take responsibility for her action. It appears that Jenny would represent the ideal employee which any corporation hopes will be transformed from a timid employee into an aggressive sales executive. However, I cannot help but recall the psychological studies which indicate that behavioural changes in LGATs are only temporary and therefore the jury is still out in Jenny’s case.
Regardless of some possible benefits, I wonder whether corporations have the right to impose such coercive training on their employees. I suspect, though, that there are enough employees who are willing to give such training a try. I believe the reason for this is that while we have become a generation that is more educated than ever, nevertheless, we feel acutely a spiritual emptiness that our education system has failed to address. This vacuum naturally causes us to respond to experts who promise to help us realise our fullest potential. Truly, the LGATs wonderfully exemplify what Philip Rieff calls “the triumph of the therapeutic.” Let’s beware, however, lest we be taken captive by the sophisticated mind-hunters of today.