Large group awareness training
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Large group awareness training (LGAT) is a term coined by sociologists to refer to seminars and meetings, incorporating self help, pop psychology, and business motivational techniques. People pay a sum to attend, often learning of them through word of mouth. Within the context of a large group of people attending for the same purpose, these meetings promise to help attendees achieve personal "breakthroughs," a more positive outlook on life, or better social and business skills.
LGAT seminars typically last many hours over the course of 3 or 4 days, or a succession of two weekends. For best cultic results, keep your subjects thoroughly detached from the outside world.
LGATs are often traced back to a late 1960s seminar called Mind Dynamics. Mind Dynamics was started by Alexander Everett and was fairly nonconfrontational but placed heavy emphasis on claims to teach ESP, clairvoyance, and faith healing using the power of the mind. Another seminar called Leadership Dynamics was started by William Patrick around the same time. Leadership Dynamics was confrontational to an extreme and used, for example, sexual humiliation of participants and other bizarre rituals such as making people lie in coffins. William Patrick also headed a pyramid scheme, Holiday Magic, and required its employees to attend Leadership Dynamics. Patrick discovered Mind Dynamics and bought a partial interest in it, and had his employees attend Mind Dynamics as well. All three companies fell around the same time. Holiday Magic was shut down as an illegal pyramid scheme (rather than for having a name that sounds like a bad romance novel), Leadership Dynamics was hit by multiple lawsuits from participants who suffered emotional distress from its extreme methods, and Mind Dynamics was facing civil action by the state of California for making false medical claims.
As the Mind Dynamics/Leadership Dynamics empire was imploding, former Mind Dynamics trainers started Erhard Seminars Training (EST), PSI Seminars, and Lifespring, while Mind Dynamics' Alexander Everett soon went back into business with his own seminar, Inward Bound. Lifespring is defunct but spawned numerous offshoots still active today. PSI is still active. Erhard Seminars Training, which incorporated a heavy Zen influence, was the most popular during its heyday in the 1970s owing to est getting a sort of "radical chic" reputation in places such as Hollywood, northern California's Marin County, and Aspen, Colorado, but was dogged by controversy over Erhard's use of ego-stripping methods and denial of bathroom breaks, and later over tax issues; he repackaged est in 1985 as "The Forum," then left the country in 1991 and turned it over to his family and business associates who now run it as "Landmark Education."
Most groups referred to as LGATs can be traced back to Mind Dynamics via one of its offshoots, with Lifespring offshoots being the most numerous, but others exist which came from other sources, for example Harry Palmer's Avatar, a splinter from Scientology. Some trace the origin of LGATs back further to Dale Carnegie's public speaking seminars, Outward Bound type wilderness programs, Christian revival meetings, and Amway motivational meetings.
LGATs are often controversial. Some have been accused of being cults, or at least using morally dubious practices, such as pressuring people to sign up for (and pay up front for) future seminars near the end of the current seminar, at a time when most attendees are emotionally giddy and happy from the long hours of motivational talk and group participation. The most dubious aspect of LGATs is probably their "one size fits all" approach; many people find them helpful and swear by them, but some people who have had psychological issues or past traumatic experiences have attended LGATs and found that it made their problems worse or reawakened bad memories which they would have preferred not to have revisited. For example, Lifespring attendees were expected to openly discuss past problems to the group, including those they had kept private up to that point, and were then harangued by the trainer to "take personal responsibility" for them having happened to them. In another part of the training, Lifespring attendees had to disrobe to bikinis and bathing suits while the trainers denigrated their sex lives and made fun of fat bodies. The bad media publicity and inevitable lawsuits from these practices eventually led to Lifespring's demise.
Several of them teach a New Age philosophy and often make a concerted effort to break participants away from their old belief systems as part of the training - which can make the programs difficult and objectionable to those holding strong beliefs. In addition, LGATs exist which are closely associated with, or led by former members of, cults like Scientology, John-Roger's Movement of Inner Spiritual Awareness, or the Unification Church. Examples: Sterling Management Systems is a LGAT run by the Church of Scientology and promoted to doctors and dentists; Avatar is a LGAT led by a former Scientology leader.
Another variant on LGAT which is particularly controversial is the practice of wilderness therapy for at-risk youth. While many of these are basic team-building and motivational programs such as the reputable Outward Bound, a cottage industry of shady wilderness therapy operations has sprung up in the past couple of decades promising instant "behavior modification" which are little more than abusive teen boot camps - some of them shut down by state regulators after tragic deaths.
Promise Keepers has sometimes been characterized as an LGAT, and LGATs in general share a close resemblance to religious revival meetings (and, for that matter, to military basic training). Amway motivational meetings likewise are a close cousin of LGATs. In general, the dynamic of group participation has the effect of hindering any personal objections to what is being told the participants. LGATs may incorporate a variety of practices, some of them rooted in pseudoscience or non-peer-reviewed pop psychology. Such a combination is obviously not for everyone.
 Uses and usefulness
Many people claim to find LGATs helpful, but attending should be a matter of personal choice after researching the seminar in question and determining whether it is right for them. In addition, people's testimonials about the program's effectiveness for them do not in themselves constitute any sort of proof the program will be useful for anyone else. Some of the more confrontational programs, especially those using ego-stripping methods during the training, have had occasional reports of psychological breakdowns by participants, and recently a LGAT run by James Arthur Ray had three people die in a so-called "sweat lodge". Where the "one size fits all" approach becomes especially morally dubious is when people are required to attend (for example, as a condition of employment). Many corporations have been sold on some forms of LGATs as "team-building" or "sales motivation" exercises for their employees. Employees have found the often New Age philosophy taught clashed with their own religious beliefs, or the programs unexpectedly and objectionably intense and in-your-face.
- The Skeptic's Dictionary on the "large group awareness training program (aka self-help and actualization movement)."