It's buyer beware for personal-transformation seminars

Arizona Daily Star/November 8, 2009

The price for personal-transformation seminars is often high, climbing above $1,000 in some cases for a three-day weekend, and the consumer protections are low.

That's because there is little regulation of seminars that promise to help you "attract" the abundant life you want to lead, as James Arthur Ray promises, and the product you're buying is so intangible.

"Let's say you go to a psychologist," said Rick Ross, who heads an institute and Web archive on groups he considers cults or controversial. "They are state board certified. They are accountable for their license. You don't have to sign a waiver - that's unthinkable. But with these seminars, that's routine."

Jonathan Ellerby, the director of spiritual programs at Canyon Ranch and author of the book "Return to the Sacred," said many consumers wouldn't even know what to ask.

"They take the number of books that have been sold and the number of appearances on TV as indicators of credibility. They are only indicators of popularity," Ellerby said.

Still, there are simple things consumers can do to protect themselves. Before they buy, experts said, consumers should:

  • Investigate the program.
  • The Internet is a great place to start. "If you Googled any of these groups, you'll not only get the positive but the negative," said James T. Richardson, a professor of sociology and judicial studies at the University of Nevada Reno. "It's even harder now for people to argue they go into these situations unaware."

  • Get recommendations from people you trust.
  • Many personal-transformation seminars rely on word-of-mouth, but not all recommendations are alike. Be wary of people who seem overly pushy about the seminar, secretive about what happens during it, offer to pay part of your enrollment fee, or seem "inebriated with happiness" over the seminar, said Philip Cushman, a Ph.D. psychologist at Antioch University in Seattle who has researched these seminars.

  • Check out credentials.
  • Graduate degrees in applicable disciplines like psychology are no guarantee of legitimacy, but in combination with other factors they can lend credence. If a program leader has an alphabet soup of abbreviations after his or her name, find out what they mean.

  • Trust your instincts.

Once you are in a seminar, don't be intimidated into continuing if you think something's wrong, and don't feel the need to justify your expense. Cushman advises to look out for these signs:

- A highly restricted environment, including unusually hot or cold room temperatures, tightly controlled eating and drinking, and restricted bathroom breaks.

- An authoritarian atmosphere.

- Practices that break participants down psychologically.

  • Seek alternatives.

Don't forget, this isn't the only way to try to change your life, said Michael Langone, a Ph.D. psychologist and head of the International Cultic Studies Association.

"You still have to ask the question, 'Is this the most cost-effective way to bring about the change?' " he said.

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