Est and Responsibility


The Awareness Archives


from the book "Existential Psychotherapy"
By Irvin D. Yalom

The mass merchandising of responsibility assumption is nowhere more evident than in est--the most publicized and commercially successful of the growth workshops of the 1970s. Owing to this success and to its concern with the concept of responsibility, est warrants a particularly close examination.

A slickly packaged, mass-produced, enormously profitable, large group approach to personal change founded by Werner Erhard, est has spiraled in a few short years from a one-man operation to a massive organization. By 1978 it had over 170,000 graduates, and in 1978 it grossed over nine million dollars, with a paid staff of 300 and a volunteer unpaid staff of 7,000; and it includes on its advisory boards prominent business executives, attorneys, university presidents, the former chancellor of the University of California Medical School, eminent psychiatrists, government officials, and popular entertainers.

The est format consists of a large group of individuals (approximately 250) who spend two weekends listening to a trainer who instructs them, interacts with them, insults them, shocks them, and guides them through a number of structured exercises. Though the est packet is a potpourri of techniques borrowed from such personal growth technologies as Scientology, Mind Dynamics, encounter groups, Gestalt therapy, and Zen meditation,"' its primary thrust is assumption of responsibility, Participants and est leader statements make that crystal clear:

The leader explained, "Each of us is different because each of us makes different choices. It is the inability to choose that keeps us stuck in our lives. When you make a choice your life moves forward. The choice usually boils down to a simple yes or no. "I don't know" is also a choice the choice to evade responsibility.""

One participant describes her recollections of the workshop in this manner:

"When you are responsible," Stuart [the trainer] thundered, "you find out you just didn't happen to be lying there on the tracks when the train passed through. You are the asshole who put yourself there."

The theme of responsibility pervades every aspect of the training. In fact, if I were to sum up in a few words what I got from the training data it would be that we are each the cause of our own experience and responsible for everything that happens in our experience."

The theme of responsibility assumption is an explicit part of the est catechism. In this interaction an est trainer argues, and argues effectively, that one is responsible for being mugged:

"You are each the sole source of your own experience, and thus TOTALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR EVERYTHING YOU EXPERIENCE. When you get that, you're going to have to give up ninety percent of the bullshit that's running your lives. Yes, Hank?"

"Look," says burly Hank, looking quite irritated, "I get that I'm responsible for everything I do. I see that. But when I get mugged, there's no way I'm gonna accept responsibility for getting mugged."

"Who's the source of your experience, Hank?"

"In this case, it would be the mugger."

"The mugger would take over your mind?"

"My mind and my wallet!"


"Do you take responsibility for getting out of bed that morning?"


"For being on that street?"


"For seeing a man with a gun in his hand?"

"For seeing him?"

"Yes, seeing the mugger."

"Take responsibility for seeing him?"


"Well," says Hank. "I would certainly see him."

"If you had at that moment no eyes, no ears, nose, or sensations in the skin, you wouldn't experience this mugger, would you?"

"Okay, I get that."

"That you are responsible for being at that street at that hour with money that might be stolen?"

"Okay, I get that."

"That you chose not to risk your life by resisting this man and that you chose to give up your wallet?"

"When a guy says give me your money with a gun in his hand, there's no choice."

"Did you choose to be at that place at that time?"

"Yeah, but I didn't choose to have that guy show up."

"You saw him, didn't you?"

"Sure.,, .

"You take responsibility for seeing him, don't you?"

"For seeing him, yeah."



Most est graduates, when discussing their gains, emphasize, above all, the assumption of responsibility. One est graduate stated that people

realized they created their own backaches, migraines, asthma, ulcers and other ailments.... Illness doesn't just happen to us. It was remarkable to watch person after person get up and admit that they and they alone were responsible for their physical ailments. Once these people faced the experiences of their life honestly, their ailments vanished .

In the following interaction an est trainer goes even further and argues that a man is responsible for his wife's having cancer:

"How the hell am I responsible for my wife's getting cancer?"

"You're responsible for creating the experience of your wife's manifesting behavior which you choose to call, by agreement with others, a disease called cancer."

"But I didn't cause the cancer."

"Look, Fred, I get that what I'm saying is hard for you to fit into your belief system. You've worked hard for forty years to create your belief system and though I get that right now you're being as open-minded as you can be, for forty years you've believed that things happen out there and that you, passive, innocent bystander, keep getting RUN OVER-by cars, buses, stock-market crashes, neurotic friends, and cancer. I get that. Everyone in this room has lived with that same belief system. ME, INNOCENT; REALITY OUT THERE, GUILTY.

"BUT THAT BELIEF SYSTEM DOESN'T WORK! IT'S ONE REASON WHY YOUR LIFE DOESN'T WORK. The reality that counts is your experience, and you are the sole creator of your experience."

"You are the sole creator of your experience." This statement is strikingly similar to many of Sartre's statements about freedom and responsibility. The core of est-the "it" of "getting it"-is responsibility assumption. It would appear, then, that est works with some important but obscure concepts and rephrases them into arresting language-an accessible, Californian, "Pop" Sartre. If this ingenious application of philosophical thought works, then professional therapists may have a great deal to learn from est methodology.

But does it work? Unfortunately we have no definitive answers to that question. No controlled outcome research on est has been done; and though est graduate testimonials are legion, they may not be relied upon as a measure of effectiveness. A similar enthusiastic chorus of testimonials has surrounded every new personal growth technology from T-groups, encounter groups, nude encounters, and marathons, to Esalen body awareness, psychodrama, rolfing, TA, Gestalt, Lifespring, Synanon. Yet the natural history of so many of these approaches (which will most likely be the history of est as well) includes a period of bright pulsation, then a gradual dimming, and ultimate replacement by the next technology. Indeed, many of the participants in each of these have had a history of prior attendance and allegiance to some other approach. What is behind this history? Does it raise doubts about whether the approach has a truly substantial, enduring effect?

Follow-up studies have shown that an extremely high percentage of est graduates rated their experiences as highly positive and constructive. Yet one must be cautious in evaluating research whose design does not include adequate controls; much empirical research suggests that there is no outcome assessment more susceptible to error than a simple follow-up, which is in essence a compilation of testimonials. To examine only one aspect of research design, consider the problem of self-selection. Who chooses to go to est? Is it possible that those who elect to attend, to part with a large sum of money, to put up with a grueling weekend, are going to change (or to say they change) regardless of the content of the program?

The answer is, most assuredly, yes! Research on placebo reactors, on subject expectational sets, and on the psychological attitudes of volunteers strongly indicates that the outcome to the individual is heavily influenced by factors that exist before the workshop. This tendency, of course, makes research very difficult: the common design of recruiting volunteers for a personal growth procedure (such as an encounter group) and contrasting their outcomes with those of a similar number of nonvolunteer control subjects, is highly flawed. In fact, a growth group or workshop composed of dedicated individuals who have committed themselves to the experience, who are desirous of personal growth, and who have high expectational sets (created in part by an effective pre-group "hype"), will always be deemed successful by the great majority of participants. To deny benefit would create significant cognitive dissonance. The post-group "high," the glowing testimonials, are ubiquitous. Only a particularly inept leader could fail under these circumstances.

If there is no reliable outcome evidence, on what can we rely? I suggest that if we examine the internal evidence available on est, we shall discover a serious and alarming inconsistency. While avowing the goal of responsibility assumption, est is at the same time extraordinarily heavily structured. In the est weekend there are numerous, heavily enforced ground rules: no alcohol, drugs, tranquilizers, or watches. No one is permitted to go to the bathroom except at the four-hour bathroom breaks. Name tags are to be worn at all times. Chairs are not to be moved. Punctuality is stressed; latecomers are punished by not being permitted entry or by public humiliation." Members are not permitted to eat except at widely spaced meal breaks and are required to turn over snacks hidden in their pockets.

Many est graduates volunteer to be nonpaid assistants and, judging from their description of their experiences, are enormously exhilarated by the act of giving up their autonomy and basking in the powerful rays of authority. Consider these comments made by an est volunteer, a clinical psychologist:

My next task was to arrange the name tags. They had to be ten in a vertical row, not touching, in perfect parallel columns. Now I was to become aware of est's meticulous attention to detail. The instructions for each chore were exact, deliberate with the precision one would expect from an excellent instruction manual. I was expected to carry out the task with the same precision.

From name tags I went to table cloths ... Each table cloth was to be pinned with a square corner and should almost but not quite touch the floor ... I looked up to see the person supervising the assistants standing alongside me. "It touches the floor- ...

I redid the table cloth with full attention. My square corners were perfect and the cloth hung to precisely the right length. I had completed the job, which in est terms meant that I had finished it with nothing left out of the experience."

"Perfect parallel columns." "Meticulous attention to detail.- "The precision one would expect from an instruction manual." Table cloths hung to "precisely the right length." Where amid this lust for conformity and structure is one to find freedom and responsibility? I became even more troubled when at a workshop I noted a cadre of est assistants, all of whom dressed like Werner Erhard (blue blazer, white open-collared shirt, gray slacks) and had their hair cut like Werner Erhard. And, like Werner Erhard, began their sentences with "and" and spoke about est in hushed, almost religious tones. Consider other reports of volunteers (which I have drawn without much selective effort from est books endorsed by Werner Erhard and sent to me by est to inform me about the organization):

A young woman who had volunteered to clean the San Francisco town house where Werner has his office told me that she had been instructed in detail about how to do the job. "I had to clean under each object, such as those found on a coffee table, and then replace it precisely where I found it, not a half inch away.""

The person assigned to clean toilets at headquarters reported that there was one, and only one, est way to do the job. He shared that he had been astonished to discover how much thought and effort could go into cleaning toilets the est way: i.e., completely."'

We were instructed to smile in the role of "greeter," [at other times] we were to remain poker faced. When I remarked on this to my supervisor, he said, simply, "The purpose of assisting is to assist. Do what you're doing now. Do your humor at humor time."'

A practicing psychologist describes her volunteer work:

The high point of the weekend came when the man in charge of logistics said to me, after I had mapped the shortest and most efficient route to the bathrooms, "Thank you, Adelaide. You've done an excellent job in writing these instructions." Wow! I was high for hours."

Doing things the "right" way. Cleaning toilets the est way. Replacing coffee table objects precisely-not a half-inch away. Doing humor at "humor time." "High for hours" after being complimented for mapping the most efficient route to the bathroom. These words reflect an obvious satisfaction in the losing of one's freedom, in the joy of surrendering autonomy and donning the blinders of a beast of burden.

Many est graduate statements reflect not a sense of personal power but a giving up oneself to a higher being. Judgment and decision making are ceded; nothing is more important than being smiled on by a divine providence. An est volunteer states ingeniously:

Werner can become very loud when a job isn't completed. I quake, but I know he loves me. Does that sound really crazy? That's the way it is and so you go about your job the way Werner wants the job done."

Erhard becomes a figure larger than life, his blemishes are "touched up," his shortcomings turned into virtues, his talents turned into superhuman qualities. A clinical psychologist gives her impressions of her first exposure to Werner Erhard:

At that time, I had not yet met Werner. A friend had told me that "he makes you feel as though you are the whole world, as though nothing else exists." The lights dimmed promptly at 8:00 and Werner emerged ... looking much younger than his forty years, his skin and eyes incredibly clear, dressed in an impeccably tailored beige jacket, opennecked white shirt and dark slacks. The audience rose and applauded. Werner had come to be with them .

The audience had settled in and was intensely focused on this magnetic and attractive (but not quite handsome) man with the body of a tennis player and the eyes of a prophet."

"Incredibly clear eyes." "The eyes of a prophet." "Werner had come to be with them!" It was such pronouncements-pronouncements that signal the end of personal judgment and freedom- that prompted another est graduate, also a clinical psychologist, to write: "The more I envision the goose-stepping corps at the center of the est organization, the more virtue I see in anarchy."" Thus the major critique that may be levied against est is-not that it is simplistic (there may be virtue in that), not that it is mass production (every great system of thought demands a popularizer)-but that it is fundamentally inconsistent. Authoritarianism will not breed personal autonomy but, on the contrary, always stifles freedom. It is sophistry to claim, as est presumably does, that a product of personal responsibility may emerge from a procedure of authoritarianism. Which, after all, is the product and which the procedure? The wish to escape from freedom, as Fromm has taught us, is rooted deep. We will go to any length to avoid responsibility and to embrace authority even, if necessary, if it requires us to pretend to accept responsibility. Is it possible that the authoritarian procedure has become the product? Perhaps it was from the onset-we shall never know!

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