MASS MARATHON TRAININGS
An excerpt from "The Politics of Transformation: Recruitment - Indoctrination Processes In a Mass Marathon Psychology Organization"
By PHILIP CUSHMAN
Mass marathon trainings are usually based on the belief that it is a universal truth that all human beings will have problems in life until they develop deep cathartic psychological insight, experience completely their every feeling, and live only in the present moment (see Brewer, 1975; Bry, 1976; Rhinehart, 1976). According to this ideology all defenses are bad and must be destroyed. They shape their group exercises in order to uncover and intensify the participants' underlying conflicts and deficits. Everyone must be exposed to these exercises; there are no exceptions. When all defenses are destroyed, they claim there is literally no limit to what each individual can accomplish.
Yet there is research that contradicts this universal claim. Applebaum (1976) reported on the results of the Psychotherapy Research Project of the Henninger Foundation, which attempted to better understand the effects of psychological insight in the treatment of patients who had ego-function difficulties and severe characterological problems. After insight-oriented treatment. a substantial number of patients were found to have changed forthe worse. The data confirmed that the "screened-off aspects of one's self" are hidden for a reason; for some types of people the conflicts that necessitated the screening off should remain hidden. Psychology, Applebaum argued, has
The data demonstrated Applebaum's contention that differential diagnosis and a differential treatment plan is crucial in effective psychotherapy. This conclusion challenges the universal and absolutist claims of insightoriented mass marathon groups. Applebaum warned that
Just as Applebaum criticized those who considered the indiscriminate use of insight a universal therapeutic panaceas so too did Hampden-Turner (1976) attack those who treat human growth like a consumer product, indiscriminately applying certain techniques to every customer who appears with a blank check. He vigorously disagreed with the ethics of
His critique focused particularly upon the highly structured, authoritarian, insight-oriented marathon workshops. Some aspects of humanistic psychology, he argued, seem
He voiced his disagreement with psychological ideologies that discount or deny the significance of the sociohistorical and economic realities of the situation in which the client lives. These ideologies instead argue for the grandiose delusion of the ultimate limitlessness of the individual. To the organizations that teach this ideology he posed a provoking question:
In this way Hampden-Turner raised an issue that Sampson (1981) expanded upon. Sampson criticized cognitive psychology (the single most prominent aspect of the ideology of many mass marathon organizations) for its "subjectivist reduction." By this he meant the regressive tendency to discount the nonsubjective world by considering it to be either a hallucination or subject to the total control of the individual. According to some mass marathon organizations, human fetuses choose their parents, female victims choose to be raped, and Vietnamese children chose to be bombed. The regressive aspects of this ideology seem to be readily apparent.
Sampson demonstrated how a regressive psychological doctrine can impact on political activity. He argued that an ideology both accurately expresses the "zeitgeist" of the era and may also inaccurately distort the facts in order to serve the ruling elite. He explained how cognitivism as an ideology serves the status quo of power and privilege in American society by teaching individuals to reinterpret their internal response to a painful experience rather than to work at rearranging the external situation so that it could better facilitate personal and communal well being.
Humanistic psychology owes much to Lewin's "laboratory movement, " which originally developed the encounter-group format at the Bethel Institute. Mass marathon psychotherapy organizations claim that they are within the legitimate tradition of this movement. They claim that their training techniques, which include severe milieu control and a rigid ideology, are taken directly from the encounter movement of years past. And yet Gottschalk and Pattison's (1969) study of the history of T-groups and the laboratory movement appears to refute that claim. They found that the laboratory movement was originally an attempt to encourage democracy within community action groups. It was composed of three types of groups: T-groups, task-oriented groups dedicated to teaching about group process, and intervention labs whose goals were action-oriented community improvement programs. The authors found that the original unified effort diverged into an increasing number of activities, each with different philosophical foundations and agendas. The shift in the 1950s to "individual growth. . . . self knowledge, to actualization and maturation" (1969, p. 4) was a clear deviation from the founding philosophy.
They reported that T-group participants sometimes complained of the hidden. agendas, group norms, and covert values of charismatic group leaders and their loyal followers.
Also the T-group was found to consciously evoke dramatic reactions in the participants, which often involved an exaggeration of impulsive traits and personality styles.
Gottschalk and Pattison isolated 13 liabilities of encounter groups, some of which are similar to characteristics of most current mass marathon psychotherapy training sessions:
As a result, participants and leaders may unconsciously distort their feelings and responses when reporting to researchers about the group or recruiting for future groups. This might result in a deceptive "oversell" that could undermine informed consent and lead to unrealistic regressive expectations in new recruits, the specific type of problems that have been found to lead to psychological casualties (see Yalom & Lieberman, 1972, below). Since these liabilities are so similar to the techniques used in some mass marathon trainings, they may also cause psychological damage in that setting as well.
In a significant study with far-reaching consequences for the study of mass marathon trainings, Yalom and Lieberman (1972) observed in 209 undergraduate subjects the negative effects of participation in an encounter group. Over the course of 10 weeks, 18 groups met for 30 hours; there were also 150 fifty control subjects who did not attend any group.
Each group was run by a leader who was chosen because he was an excellent representative of one of 10 ideological schools of encounter (T-groups, Gestalt, Rogerian-marathon, psychodrama, psychoanalytic, Transactional Analysis, sensory awareness, Synanon, personal growth, black-white encounter, and leaderless). Each was given complete freedom.
Yalom and Lieberman's primary interest was in assessing the types and causes of psychiatric "casualties." The operational definition of a casualty was "an enduring, significant, negative outcome which . . . was caused by . . . participation in the group" (1972, p. 223). There is little doubt that the careful, conservative manner in which the study was conducted tended to minimize negative results and reduce the risk to subjects (1972, p. 228). The authors developed a system for identifying subjects who were harmed. Their definition of this subsample and their means of locating it were characteristically conservative. Subjects were included in the casualty subsample only when they had experienced "enduring" negative change and
Also, the experience must have been proven to be the responsible element in the psychological decompensation. For example, one subject committed suicide during the study and was not counted as a casualty because the suicide could have been caused from past encounter group experiences.
In a startling finding, Yalom and Lieberman reported that 9.4% of the subjects met their stringent criteria and were therefore identified as casualties. The authors viewed this as a serious challenge to the entire movement.
The authors also determined that it was neither the psychological traits of the subjects (i.e., predispositional factors) nor the ideology of the leaders (i.e., doctrinal factors) that determined the casualty rate. Instead, surprisingly, it was the style of leadership that was primary. Leaders who were aggressive, stimulating, intrusive, confrontive, challenging, personally revealing, and authoritarian were the leaders who caused the casualties.
Specifically these leaders often unilaterally structured the group's events. Their focus was on the individual rather than group process. They provided a comprehensive intellectual framework with which to understand one's self and one's world. They exercised firm control and were "ready, willing and able" to take over for participants and guide them to "enlightenment" (1972, p. 236). They were People who were charismatic leaders: they had a universal message to deliver# a fool-proof technique to use, and a cause to recruit for. They were uninhibited in their attempts to convert all the participants in their group. These characteristics are clearly duplicated by many mass marathon trainers. The findings corroborated Gottschalk and Pattison's 1969 conclusions and again call into question many tactics used by mass marathon organizations.
Of the categories that caused casualties, "rejection" was the most damaging. "Failure to achieve unrealistic goals" was the second most dangerous category. Each of these subjects reported being pressed for a breakthrough without being able to deliver. "Leader attack"-"group attack" tied for third. The fact that participants were restrained from leaving, that they had "no place to hide," was thought to be a crucial element. "Group pressure to experience and express feelings" also caused casualties. When subjects couldn't comply, they felt a "sense of hollowness" which led to a "deficient or empty self-image" (1972, p. 243).
Interestingly, many subjects who demographically resembled the casualty subsample didn't have negative experiences. Yalom and Lieberman found that they had more realistic expectations for the experience, they were not lonely or depressed, they remained uninvolved (i,e. . they did not enter into a public confessional and therefore maintained their objectivity and their "observing ego"), they dropped out of the group, they depended on a positive self-concept when they were negatively criticized by the group, or they used an outside reference group to bolster their own beliefs when in conflict with a group norm.
The authors suggested that a questionnaire that detects unrealistic expectations would be a helpful counterindicator when attempting to predict which potential participants would be at risk. In summary, Yalom and Lieberman stressed that casualties were caused by the style and techniques of the leader, and by recruitment and selection practices.
The groups were determined to be dangerous when:
Yalom and Lieberman concluded by again emphasizing the crucial importance of informed consent. "Our best means of prevention," they maintained,
It is instructive to note that many mass marathon organizations are conducting their trainings in the exact manner found by Yalom and Lieberman to cause the greatest number of psychiatric casualties.
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