Letting the LGAT out of the Bag

Thursday, December 16, 2004

If someone you know and trust suddenly seems very insistent that you take a class "for your own good," but is skimpy on details, I have something for you to read!

The following is a slightly edited version of a column I wrote a few years ago, but did not publish, about my first and last experience in large group awareness training (LGAT). Retrospectively, I will grant that some individuals can benefit in the short term after attending such courses, but I still do not recommend them for anyone. Whatever benefit can be derived will be either by chance (and only until the poison of the bad ideas wins out) or after a huge (and emotionally exhausting) amount of filtering out the poison.

If you're in a rough spot and think you need some kind of help, look into self-help books or see a good cognitive psychologist instead.

* * *

Multiple sclerosis was used recently to make sales. So were cancer, incest, battery, personal loss, homosexuality, and fear of always being alone. During a recent days-long sales pitch, the personal tragedies and inner secrets of a paying audience were all fair game. Pretending to offer a self-improvement course, a multimillion-dollar American corporation is running a scam. Based on the litigious past history of this corporation, I will not identify it or describe it in any detail: I'll just call it "Excelsior."

From early in the morning to approximately midnight for three consecutive days, I attended a class offered by Excelsior. Participants were very strongly encouraged to be punctual about attendance. Talking when not called upon and note-taking were verboten. There were two thirty-minute breaks and one meal break during the marathon sessions. Assignments, often consisting of making phone calls to relatives, friends, and co-workers were assigned for every break, especially at the end of the day. During these calls, we were to insist that whomever we contacted drop everything to attend a later part of the class "for their own good." Even bathroom breaks were discouraged.

Decide for yourself whether you would be a decent judge of what is "good" for yourself or anyone else if you were sleep-deprived and ate hurriedly, if at all, over the course of several days. Consider also that these will be the least of the handicaps placed on your judgment. For one thing, you may have already submitted even the freedom of going to the bathroom to someone else's authority.

So why did I, the ultimate skeptic, attend at all? A trusted relative recommended the course to me, though I did not know her state when she did. Another close relative paid for the course since I could not afford it. Excelsior is an unholy mixture of food and poison, the food serving as bait and being offered from the hand of someone a potential customer trusts. The program, like some that advertise honestly, is a mixture of valid psychological techniques (I recognized some from cognitive psychology.) and some very loony and even dangerous ideas from Eastern, modern, and new-age philosophies.

The leader of the class began by gaining the trust of his audience. He made lots of uncontroversial statements that nearly everyone agreed with. (Many nodded enthusiastically.) We were encouraged to introspect about ways that our psychological defenses are rooted in traumatic events from earlier in life. Many participants, myself included, gained useful insights during this time. The relief that these insights offer some people is one of the best marketing gimmicks Excelsior has. Many participants seem to gain confidence after confronting their demons, making their acquaintances curious. Up to this point, many feel that they have profited greatly from the experience. Many begin to show great trust in the speaker and offer to discuss their insights - with his "help" - before the whole room.

The speaker consistently violates that trust thereafter. These "help sessions" seem designed to bring the audience member to tears in front of the whole room, during which time, he is often urged to patch things up with a friend or relative and (surprise!) encourage that person to take a class from Excelsior. Major past events are dissected. The audience member is made to realize that he may have in fact misinterpreted the event, which is often at least partially true. But in questioning his interpretation of that event in particular, he is encouraged to question his judgment in general. The significance that a person sees in a given event is systematically severed from the event itself and then that significance is discounted entirely.

After several hours of this, the dose of the poison increases. Interspersed with the "help sessions," the speaker digresses into monologues using contorted language and everyday analogies to sell ideas that many people would normally reject out of hand. In his most revealing lecture, the speaker described the critical faculty in a sort of Excelsiorspeak. We all have internal conversations with ourselves about everything we hear. The speaker pointed this truth out and belittled it. He tried to convince us that the automatic nature of this faculty invalidates it. We should, he held, try not listening to this inane internal prattling. We were to tune it out while he introduced more and more outlandish notions.

Would you shut your eyes if you were walking alone at night and saw a menacing figure approach? Then why would you not judge the merits of what someone is saying, particularly when he keeps telling you what to do? When someone tells you to stop thinking, that is a sure sign that he is up to no good.

It only got worse. In the next, more expensive course, Excelsior would borrow from modern philosophy, and have us believe that reality isn't real. Interestingly, our would-be gurus showed their true opinion of this dictum by having us make real calls on real phones to real prospects so they could feed more real dollars into the insatiable maw of Excelsior.

A little over a year ago, my father died after fifteen years of multiple sclerosis. The event was a great blow to me, but I never imagined that someone could so cynically try to use my grief to wear down my sales resistance. I can't reveal the name of the villain in this story, but perhaps if you know his tactics, you can protect yourself and your loved ones. For your own good, plug the name of any self-help course into a web browser and get both sides of the story before you go, no matter who recommends it.

I quit the class. I called my family and told them I loved them. I told them to stay the hell away from Excelsior.

-- CAV

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