Mass Marathon Trainings


An excerpt from "The Politics of Transformation: Recruitment - Indoctrination Processes in a Mass Marathon Psychology Organization"

Published by St. Martin's Press 1993
By Philip Cushman, Ph.D.

Note: For a day-by-day breakdown overview of the training process see Philip Cushman's "Description of the Behavioral Structure of the Training."

Mass marathon training is 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 for the 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 to recognize the factors, which impinge upon whether, when, how much, and what kind of insight a particular person in particular circumstances should be helped to achieve. We need to know . . . the patient's capacities in order to design the best amount, kind, and timing of insight. (1976, pp. 205-206)

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 insight oriented mass marathon groups. Applebaum warned that

· "Until we give up the pipe dream of insight as a universal good or a universal bad, we and our patients will, at times, be injured by its dangerous edge." (1976. p. 206)

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

· "The pop supermarket, the idea that you can purchase a "peak" here and a "high" there, and go psycho-shopping for prepackaged experiences…in fact human growth is not like a product at all, and we vitiate it utterly by pandering to the consumer ethos." (1976, p. 3)

His critique focused particularly upon the highly structured, authoritarian, insight-oriented marathon workshops. Some aspects of humanistic psychology, he argued, seem

· "…to have almost forgotten that our most precious human values are achieved by indirection as opposed to the means ends rationality of industrial production. . . I seriously question any high that has been programmed in advance." (1976, pp. 1-2)

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:

· "If we are not aware of what the economy does to us, are we self aware at all? Any genuine search for truth must remind us of the things we cannot change." (1576, P. 3)

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.

· They found that the trainer and various group members are calling upon them to stop certain ways of behaving, talking, thinking, and feeling, and that different ways of behaving are being prescribed. (p. 12)

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:

  1. They lack adequate participant-selection criteria.
  2. They lack reliable norms, supervision, and adequate training for leaders.
  3. They lack clearly defined responsibility.
  4. They sometimes foster pseudoauthenticity and pseudoreality.
  5. They sometimes foster inappropriate patterns of relationships.
  6. They sometimes ignore the necessity and utility of ego defenses.
  7. They sometimes teach the covert value of total exposure instead of valuing personal differences.
  8. They sometimes foster impulsive personality styles and behavioral strategies.
  9. They sometimes devalue critical thinking in favor of "experiencing" without self-analysis or reflection.
  10. They sometimes ignore stated goals, misrepresent their actual techniques, and obfuscate their real agenda.
  11. 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.
  12. They pay inadequate attention to decisions regarding time limitations. This may lead to increased pressure on some participants to unconsciously "fabricate" a cure.
  13. They fail to adequately consider the "psychonoxious" or deleterious effects of group participation (or] adverse countertransference reactions. (1969, p. 13)

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 training's, 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 training's, 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

· "…as a direct result of . . . [their] experience in the encounter group became more psychologically distressed and/or employed more maladaptive mechanisms of defense." (1972. p. 228)

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 foolproof 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:

  1. Leaders had rigid, unbending beliefs about what participants should experience and believe, how they should behave in the group. and when they should change.

  2. 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.

  3. Leaders had an evangelical system of belief that was the one single pathway to salvation.

  4. 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."

Yalom and Lieberman concluded by again emphasizing the crucial importance of informed consent. "Our best means of prevention," they maintained, remains the type of group the subject enters, and our best means for prevention is self-selection. If responsible public education can teach prospective encounter group members about what they can expect in terms of process, risks, and profits from a certain type of group, then and only then can they make an informed decision about membership. (p. 253)

It is instructive to note that many mass marathon organizations are conducting their training in the exact manner found by Yalom and Lieberman to cause the greatest number of psychiatric casualties

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