Associated Press reports that the conviction of self-help seminar leader James Arthur Ray (photo below) came quickly, after less than 10 hours of deliberation following four months of testimony and hundreds of exhibits. The jury concluded that the man, who once was a guest on “Oprah” and interviewed by Larry King, was ultimately guilty of “negligent homicide” in the deaths of three people, who sought enlightenment through his programs.
Instead of discovering the meaning of life, Ray’s victims lost their lives in his version of a “sweat lodge.”
This is not a new story.
Ray’s seminar format fits well within what is often called “large group awareness training” (LGAT), though its proponents would prefer to generically include it within what is euphemistically referred to as the “human potential movement”.
Since beginning my work in the early 1980s I have received persistent complaints about LGATs like the one Ray led from affected families, former participants and others concerned.
The Ross Institute Internet Archives includes news reports, articles, court documents and research material about LGATs.
LGATs are a burgeoning business and have become a virtual industry in the United States. Now spreading around the world such seminars have generate many millions of dollars in sales. Before beginning his criminal trial James Ray was reportedly worth millions.
Some of the LGATs included at the Ross Institute Internet Archives are Est, Landmark Education, Mankind Project, Sterling Institute of Relationship, Lifespring, Asiaworks, NXIVM and information most recently about James Arthur Ray.
Some LGATs have a long history of bad press, personal injury claims and repeated complaints. Nevertheless, they still manage to draw in new customers, despite the fact that critical information about them is often readily accessible through the Worldwide Web.
Psychiatric casualties have reportedly been linked to EST and Landmark Education, which has repeatedly been the defendant in personal injury lawsuits. In recent years Landmark training has also been cited as background related to murders.
Litigation filed against Lifespring apparently led to that company’s demise.
LGATs are most often carefully crafted, deliberately planned and scripted programs, which seem by design to preclude or largely inhibit a participant’s critical and/or independent thinking. Many new initiates may only have a vague understanding in advance, about what they will actually go through within such training seminars. This ignorance is often reinforced through confidentiality agreements, which preclude the sharing of specific detailed information about the training with p0tential new participants.
Most LGATs appear to have the same inherent, systemic problems.
In a research project psychologist Philip Cushman listed 13 liabilities, which were first identified within encounter groups, but which Cushman later used to explain some of the core issues of concern regarding LGATs.
Cushman referred to LGATs as “mass marathon training” and identified the following key problems:
- They lack adequate participant-selection criteria.
- They lack reliable norms, supervision, and adequate training for leaders.
- They lack clearly defined responsibility.
- They sometimes foster pseudo authenticity and pseudo reality.
- They sometimes foster inappropriate patterns of relationships.
- They sometimes ignore the necessity and utility of ego defenses.
- They sometimes teach the covert value of total exposure instead of valuing personal differences.
- They sometimes foster impulsive personality styles and behavioral strategies.
- They sometimes devalue critical thinking in favor of “experiencing” without self-analysis or reflection.
- They sometimes ignore stated goals, misrepresent their actual techniques, and obfuscate their real agenda.
- They sometimes focus too much on structural self-awareness techniques and misplace the goal of democratic education; as a result participants may learn more about themselves and less about group process.
- They pay inadequate attention to decisions regarding time limitations. This may lead to increased pressure on some participants to unconsciously “fabricate” a cure.
- They fail to adequately consider the “psychonoxious” or deleterious effects of group participation (or] adverse countertransference reactions.
LGATs also often rely upon coercive persuasion techniques and authoritarian control, rather than careful consideration and independent thinking. That is why the LGAT process has been compared to the established criteria associated with “coercive persuasion” or “thought reform,” commonly called “brainwashing” in popular culture.
Sociologist Richard Ofshe identified the key factors that distinguish coercive persuasion from other forms of persuasion such as education and advertising and that also frequently seem to typify the techniques used by many LGATs.
Those factors include:
- The reliance on intense interpersonal and psychological attack to destabilize an individual’s sense of self to promote compliance
- The use of an organized peer group
- Applying interpersonal pressure to promote conformity
- The manipulation of the totality of the person’s social environment to stabilize behavior once modified
Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton detailed the social control characteristics of organizations that operate what he described as “thought reform” programs.
Lifton identified eight primary themes or properties within rigid reform environments, which taken together contribute to a milieu of manipulation and totalistic control.
These eight criteria are:
- Milieu Control, through the control of information and communication
- Mystical Manipulation, or what can be seen as emotional and behavioral manipulation
- Demands for Purity, which requires absolute conformity to the behavior prescriptions as derived from the ideology
- Cult of Confession, expressed through the obsessive demands for confession without meaningful boundaries
- Sacred Science, the implicit agreement that the proscribed ideology is faultless
- Loaded Language, or the manipulation of language as characterized by thought-terminating clichÃ©s, which become a substitute for analytic thought
- Doctrine over Person, which means the reinterpretation of all human experience and emotion in terms of the group’s doctrine
- Dispensing of Existence, or the classification of those not sharing the ideology as inferior and not worthy of respect
At least six, but usually all eight of these characteristics, are evident within many LGATs.
Cushman concluded that LGATs can be determined to be dangerous when:
- Leaders had rigid, unbending beliefs about what participants should experience and believe, how they should behave in the group. And when they should change.
- Leaders had no sense of differential diagnosis and assessment skills, valued cathartic emotional breakthroughs as the ultimate therapeutic experience, and sadistically pressed to create or force a breakthrough in every participant.
- Leaders had an evangelical system of belief that was the one single pathway to salvation.
- Leaders were true believers and sealed their doctrine off from discomforting data or disquieting results and tended to discount a poor result by, “blaming the victim.”
Psychologist Margaret Singer noted the differences in various forms of persuasion and determined that programs, which were focused on gaining undue influence over participants, most often included six primary conditions.
These conditions are:
- Obtaining substantial control over an individual’s time and thought content, typically by gaining control over major elements of the person’s social and physical environment.
- Systematically creating a sense of powerlessness in the person.
- Manipulating a system of rewards, punishment and experiences in such a way as to promote new learning of an ideology or belief system advocated by management.
- Manipulating a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences in such a way as to inhibit observable behavior that reflects the values and routines of life organization the individual displayed prior to contact with the group.
- Maintaining a closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure in the organization.
- Maintaining a non-informed state existing in the subject.
The net result of such coercive persuasion techniques is the virtual shutdown, though a step-by-step process, of critical thinking. This renders victims intellectually defenseless and subsequently quite suggestible and vulnerable to the dictates of the group and/or leader.
Ofshe and Singer specifically concluded that LGATs “appear more likely to induce mood and affect disorders.”
The researchers also cited miscellaneous reactions often associated with thought reform programs, which included anxiety combined with cognitive inefficiencies, such as difficulty in concentration, inability to focus and maintain attention, and impaired memory (especially short-term); self-mutilation; phobias; suicide and homicide; and psychological factors affecting physical conditions such as strokes, myocardial infarction, unexpected deaths, recurrence of peptic ulcers and asthma.
Rather than being an anomaly, the tragedy that took place in Arizona under the leadership of James Arthur Ray should be seen as yet another warning about the dangers posed by many LGATs.
Some LGATs are potentially unsafe and may become toxic.
The toxicity of James Ray’s LGAT became so overwhelming it ended in death.
“Coercive Persuasion and Attitude Change” Encyclopedia of Sociology Volume 1, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York by Richard J. Ofshe, PhD
“Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism” the University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill and London by Robert Jay Lifton, M.D.
“Cults in Our Midst” Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco by Margaret Singer, PhD
“Characteristics of participants in the Forum, psychotherapy clients, and control participants: A comparative study” The British Psychological Society 2005
“Psychiatric Disturbances Associated with Erhard Seminars Training: I A Report of Cases” American Journal of Psychiatry March 1977 by Leonard L. Glass, M.D., Michael A. Kirsch, M.D. and Frederick N. Paris, M.D.
“Cult of Personality” Forbes Magazine October 13, 2003 Michael Freedman
“An Espian’s Brief Life” The Albany Times-Union February 1, 2004
“Robert Jay Lifton’s eight criteria of thought reform as applied to Executive Success Programs” by Paul Martin, PhD published by The Ross Institute of New Jersey 2003
“A Critical Analysis of the Executive Success Programs Inc.” by Paul Martin, PhD published by The Ross Institute of New Jersey 2003
“Thought Reform Programs and the Production of Psychiatric Causalities” Psychiatric Annals 20:4, April 1990 by Margaret Singer, PhD, and Richard Ofshe, PhD