This material represents over a year’s worth of reading, researching, and careful professional and personal studies in order to provide a informed, well-reasoned, educational viewpoint rather than my initial knee-jerk reaction to the topic. Presented here is my final conclusion on the matter for your review.
I run the risk of offending a number of people that I am close to with the material that I present here – both because of my assessment and opinions of the LGAT organization “Impact Training”, and because I may also cite religious materials in the process. Normally I leave personal relationships out of my posts, as well as religion – this is a public forum after all, and the materials I’m likely to discuss here have nothing to do with either (it’s a personal geek blog, after all). I am willing to take this risk because the alternative is to say nothing, and I find this far less palatable than being despised for standing by my scruples. I’m saying it in public in the interest of helping and inspiring others.
First up, what is this all about?
LGAT stands for “Large Group Awareness Training.” It is a model of presentation whereby groups (usually large ones, hence the name) are exposed to selected materials under circumstances designed to elicit compliance and predictable responses. That “designed to elicit” part is my take on them – most of the definitions of the format include language such as “teaching simple but often overlooked wisdom” etc., which has more to do with content (and their opinion of it) than the delivery mechanism itself. More on this in a moment.
“Impact Training” is an organization operating locally in Utah as a purveyor of content using this format, which has gone on to combine its own origins with pop psych, a warped version of LDS theology, hard sales, and MLM practices in order to operate a for-profit organization for its own enjoyment and aggrandizement. It leverages several key principles of psychological manipulation to deliver its content under the guise of improving confidence, self esteem, relationships, and material success. The remainder of this article will be broken into two sections, “Method” which describes the tools of LGAT, and “Madness” covering the specific philosophies and principles of Impact Training.
To best describe LGAT methods it’s appropriate to pull in some primers on its history and evolution, and some principles of modern psychology and their background.
Impact Training specifically comes from an individual by the name of Hans Berger, who has been involved as a founder and controller of both Impact Training and the “Harmony Institute” here in Utah. Hans got his start with “Lifespring”, which itself is an offshoot from the “Landmark Forum”, which came from “est” (erhard seminars training [capitalized as branded]), which came from “Mind Dynamics”, a component of “Scientology” (done with the “quotes” for now). The basic premise remains essentially unchanged from the abreactive therapies on which it was founded and are visible even now in the Dianetics that Scientology still deals in. Abreaction itself is simply a form of catharsis – the release of previously repressed emotion. This release typically takes the form of reliving events, but can be disembodied (which is to say, not linked to a specific trauma or episode) as well. The military looked at a formalized proposal for Abreactive Therapy following WWII, and concluded that though potentially effective it took too long and the results were not on par with other therapeutic techniques available at the time1.
In more modern psychology, catharsis and abreaction are occasional tools but are some distance from main line practice because of some significant drawbacks. The emotional release, while temporarily pleasing, does not absolve the original sensitizing events or traumas of their sting (repeated desensitization can be used to help, though that has more to do with controlled exposure to traumatic memory in a safe and productive environment than simple expulsion of pent-up emotion), and suffers from re-interpretation (experiencing memory in the light of the present state of mind) and false memory mechanisms (fantasy and invention, even unintentionally). Which is to say that, based on the presentation of the technique it’s possible to elicit an abreactive response from an individual solely in response to the environment, without basis in any specific or even real emotional injury.
The Impact Training LGAT utilizes several techniques to produce abreactive responses to its own ends. I’ll go into both the techniques in play and the intent with which it does so (which both still fall under the “Method” part of this discussion). First, the techniques.
Visualization, Guided Imagery, and Hypnosis: I myself am a practitioner of hypnosis; it’s an excellent working toolset for the application of behavioral psychology at the subconscious level, and if used properly can help to re-wire aberrant or undesired manifestations of motivation (e.g., behaviors) in non-conflicting and gestalt ways very quickly (specifically through the use of the hypnoanalytic techniques developed by Milton Erickson, rather than the more commonly portrayed authoritarian or sensationalized stage versions of hypnosis). I enrolled in certification as a hypnotherapist in 2002 in light of the bad tech economy as a fallback career which was never required (I landed with Overstock and things picked up from there). To date I’ve only ever used its therapeutical practices on myself, to reasonable effect. In the case of Impact Training, however, the analytical approach is avoided: the specific accounts of the imagery used there indicate standard induction practices (descending darkened staircases, presentation of doors, contextualized environments, etc.) and are then followed by very selective exercises. What and who the subject encounters and the means of their interaction with the same are dictated, and while the content of that interaction is up to the subject it’s predictable given the setup. It is meant to be confrontational, potentially provide some resolution, but mostly be empowering to the subject based on the transference of emotional responsibility that is the essence of the Impact Training philosophy.
The results of the repeated visualizations are reframed by the “Trainer” (I say “Trainer” in quotes as a branded(tm) title rather than an earned honorific, as the Impact Training staff are not licensed or certified by any governing body and are in fact students of the program themselves working off the volunteerism required to advance rather than credentialed therapists). Reframing is the practice of interpreting content (usually carefully selected content) according to preferred ideologies, prescribing “this is because of that” and “x is due to y” correlation to imply causation and inculcate those ideologies in the subject or other observers.
This same reframing is applied to lots of emotional responses, produced not only via the guided imagery but a host of other exercises and activities. One of the most distressing for me to learn about was the experiential reframing: an exercise where one participant discloses to another an event wherein they felt victimized, specifically a personal and meaningful such episode. After mutual disclosure from the other participant both are instructed to repeat their original story but from the vantage as though they were somehow responsible for the event themselves (this touches somewhat on the “Madness” content that will be explored in greater depth later). Having a person make such an assertion about their own experience, even if they are predisposed to discount such an assertion (and the preparatory exercises to that point do their best to reduce or eliminate such a predisposition), is tragically manipulative.
Why would a person go along with such an exercise? The key psychological tendencies which make LGAT sessions successful are that:
- People are wired to trust one another. If you are given a written statement, and told in advance that any portion of that statement written in red ink is false, you will still be influenced by it to a degree as though it were true.
- People are wired to listen to authority figures. As illustrated in the Milgram Experiment, and relied on especially heavily in LGATs via the establishment of the Absolute Authority of the Trainer (usually through overt authoritarianism and over-the-top bullying of non-compliant participants: anyone arriving late or otherwise not adhering to the strict and stressful schedule, for example, is deeply berated as a public example in front of others).
- We are influenced by the behavior of those around us. Through the use of mirror neurons which inspire observed behaviors and reactions within the observer, and the natural tendency toward conformity, it’s possible to expand the effect of an exercise and its reframed response from one to many, and to use the many to reinforce and enhance the intensity of the same so it really sticks. LGAT sessions frequently have plants as well – prior participants and other accomplices placed throughout the audience who already know the anticipated response and play along (either to earn the favor of the Trainer and advance, or in order to help things progress in a controlled fashion).
- Emotions produce endorphins. Eliciting extremes of emotion causes a cocktail of endorphins to be secreted throughout the brain, as effective as if administering mind or consciousness altering drugs via syringe. The “Love Bombing” stages of LGAT depend on this, specifically the production of endogenous opiates that both block pain and create a social-bonding specific high that reinforces desired attitudes and responses and inspires a need to return to the same (behavioral/chemical addiction).
- Emotions trump rationale. There are 2 paths of analysis in the human psyche: emotional and rational. The rational is the one that says “it’s unlikely that person approaching from the other direction means me harm” and it’s the emotional that says, “yeah, but if they do I’m in for a world of hurt” and makes us cross the street anyway. Statistics, oddly enough, seem to act as the antidote for this by grounding the rationale in something concrete.
- Distraction induces suggestibility. The schedule of the LGAT is structured to be demanding, high-paced, and run extremely late into the night/early morning in order to keep the energy ramped up and reduce the amount of time for digestion, critical analysis, or rejection.
As to the intent of these methods then, and to finish up the line of discourse regarding abreaction, the authority figure produces dramatic and intense (intentionally dramatized and intensified) responses from participants, frames them according the the preferred ideologies, and uses the group setting to amplify the emotional response in an environment designed to make people susceptible to suggestions regarding the same. This falls under the “predictable response” and “compliance” parts of my initial description of LGATs.
Other tools in use are standard propagandist indoctrination (refer to the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, 1938), and some cultic persuasion practices: secrecy, isolation, and specialized dialog.
On the point of secrecy, attendees are counseled that they are not to reveal anything of the proceedings to those who are not also themselves participants in the program, and even then only up to the level of that participant. They are requested to sign “non-disclosure” agreements at the beginning of the sessions to reinforce this fact and provide an authoritative standard on which they can rely, and this point is hammered home with remarkable force.
This secrecy lends itself to a form of isolation – unable to discuss the nature of the experience (which, from the perspective of the participant so affected can be a subjectively remarkable experience they are eager to discuss, or an unsettling one for which they require consolation), with any other than the group or prior attendees associated with their program, sets them apart from the world (and frequently from family and friends). They must rely on the new special-status group of co-participants or the Trainers who are in a position of authority over the same.
New terminology or new definitions for existing concepts are regularly introduced and strongly reinforced, creating a specialized dialog for discussing the experiences that makes little sense to those unfamiliar with the glossary. The loaded words and phrases create an extra layer of distance between participants and the uninitiated, and are used to prop up the philosophies of the training: much the same way that experiential reframing is used to instill a particular perspective in the subject, altered dialog is used as a means of manipulating thought through manipulating language. One of the remarkable attributes of the psyche is its ability to create contiguous reality out of disparate sensation – in many ways the condition in which one finds oneself is based on an almost external level of observation: “Am I smiling? I must be happy then.” Language is a part of this – the words we speak reflect attitude and belief, and if the words are altered it changes the regions of the brain in play (exciting some, suppressing others) and by association the expressed attitudes. In Impact Training, for example, “need” becomes “deserve”, and all such “needs” are discussed as the things a person “deserves.”
The final steps of isolation come from Love Bombing: the literal bombardment of affirmations of acceptance and even physical affection that overload the limbic system (responsible for secreting those endogenous opiates in response to positive social contact) and overwhelm rational barriers and any negative self-assessments. This exaggerated display of endearment creates a sense of belonging within the group that draws a very distinct line with what is now the “outside world” that fails to understand the participant and their budding transformation. It creates a very real chemical high and associates it with that social environment – the same one wherein any misstep concerning the schedule or authority of the Trainer results in massive public beratement. The combination of control and reward have a deep and profound effect, lasting a few weeks to a few years, though other times waning without refreshers (which is where the sales tactics come in to solicit further participation).
Though minor by comparison, there’s also the very human tendency to throw good money after bad – these “courses” cost several hundred to a few thousand dollars, and people are likely to see them through in the interest that their money not be wasted, rather than cut their losses early (or ask for a refund, which results in more hard-sales tactics and stiff opposition).
These components follow the basis for all “coercive persuasion” that is the foundation of cultic indoctrination: breaking down resistance and existing psychological structures, introducing new “preferred” ideologies and doctrines, and reinforcing those into the new structures on which the subject is meant to rely (as well as working to limit threats to the same so they remain in effect). These methods produce predictable psychological and emotional responses in the vast majority of the populace – not any specific sub-group of gullible nitwits looking to sign over their concept of reality to the first authority to offer them one, but in fact just about anyone subjected to the battery. They (the methods) are specifically geared to overcome barriers and alter one’s general conceptual orientation of the world, and in that goal they tend to be distressingly effective.
The specific philosophies (especially at the introductory levels of the program) of Impact Training follow the standard Mind Dynamics and other new-age empowerment paradigms. They assert not only that the unclouded mind has immeasurable potential to affect the reality around it (the literal world, not just conceptualized experience of the same), but that ultimate responsibility for the condition of one’s existence is entirely up to the participant, and in fact always has been.
This assertion is both positive and negative: one can purportedly “manifest” the reality they “deserve” with the right kind of “spiritual action” (yes, the “quotes” are back), and there are special tools and abilities open only to the initiated to assist them in so doing. It also means that everything that has ever happened to an individual has somehow, consciously or otherwise, been a similar controlled “manifestation” of their own intent, even those involving external entities. All the way up to the weather they’ve experienced or the drunk driver who killed their family, whatever you’ve got: the more personal and dramatic the better. Through the indoctrination received, one supposedly inherits the ability to “choose” or “choose out” of first the influence of these events upon them, and then the events themselves as a component of the physical universe.
Beyond the simple laws of physics and conservation of energy revealing such a thing to be impossible (or so comically improbable as to not be worthy of consideration), this philosophy taken to its final conclusion would pit every individual in the world against every other individual, as well as all forces of nature both terrestrial and cosmic. Were this philosophy and its influences to be real, what would be the final arbiter of conflicting manifestations, and how could suffering exist in any form but to be the responsibility of the sufferer? It belies the compassionate humanitarianism (which is nothing at all like the humanized version of vegetarianism) that I believe is the responsibility of every member of organized society and encourages a self-centered orientation of the universe.
Impact Training, as is the standard for LGAT, uses hard sales tactics to persuade, beg, and bully participants into enrollment for successive and increasingly expensive courses. No excuse is accepted, as the tools already imparted to them will supposedly enable them to overcome any obstacles to procuring necessary funds. Any questionable fiscal wisdom or responsibility of the participant to continue is irrelevant – if they have truly accepted the doctrines as presented and are capable of genuinely committing themselves they “deserve” the continuation and can’t afford to not continue. Shared pressures from the rest of the group are asserted, and those opting not to continue are either praised for their pledge to continue as resources and timing coalesce to their favor or belittled for not choosing to adhere to the path of enlightenment (though in their defense I’ve heard that recently the personal attacks for non-continuation have been toned down somewhat).
The Trainer at this point is usually a volunteer of the program, someone demonstrating their dedication to its efficacy by the number of recruits and continuing participants they can manifest. Any inability to effectively do so means the Trainer is simply failing in the execution of the reality-altering concepts, and needs additional training and reinforcement themselves, and any success belongs to the methods and system. This kind of self-fulfilling assertion begins in early levels of the program as participants are strongly urged to recruit family or friends to first attend closing ceremonies and then go on to enroll, with credit and advancement awarded to those successful recruiters (and in some cases “advancement” being conditional on exactly those circumstances).
The hard sales and Multi-Level Marketing style of recruitment as requirements for continuation in the pseudo-cultic program are in my opinion a horribly destructive combination: either one manages a continual stream of inductees and is heralded as a success to the program, or failures become their personal responsibility and grounds for mental and verbal abuse. Accounts of burned-out Trainers putting on the best face for the crowd as their lives fall apart (both within and without the organization) are repeatedly available online, and the responses and rebuttals from Impact Training adherents frequently resonate with double-speak and “blame the victim” tactics that quite honestly creep me out.
At advancing levels of training the overt LGAT tools are no longer necessary due to the depth of the indoctrination and reliance on the group it has created. It is here that the warped LDS theologies are introduced and used to play on LDS members’ (of which there are of course a great many in Utah) beliefs as a means of turning spiritual and religious devotion into yet another mechanism of attachment to the organization. I will not repeat any of those specific assertions in public, because I do not feel they warrant repetition of any kind – I’m willing to discuss it privately with anyone (no secrecy here), I just don’t ever want to be associated with the words in a public and searchable place. It is also in these levels that the highest amount of volunteer commitment to enrolling others in the program is required until one breaks into the inner circle or burns out and departs.
I have seen a few people go through the program, and I’ve been genuinely scared by the amount of unrighteous influence I saw exerted upon them and to which they seemingly wholeheartedly subscribed. On the LDS side of things this very much smacks of priestcraft (doctrine for sale), the “philosophies of men, mingled with scripture,” and the flattery and telling of pleasing things in order to lure people away from the truth (or their beliefs, such as the case may be). Abandonment of principles and morals associated with those beliefs followed, including a complete falling away from the organization of the Church itself (which has also issued an open letter to its membership specifically targeting these kinds of organizations, but does so in the light of day).
I count myself among the rational participants of the world, and have specifically chosen my religious affiliations (and am willing to discuss this with others, including how I can use the word “rational” and “religious affiliations” in the same sentence). I claim the privilege of worshiping according to the dictates of my own conscience, and afford others the same freedom. What saddens me here is not so much that others do not share my own beliefs as it is to see a core cultural and personal/spiritual conviction undermined by con artists and hucksters for the purpose of turning a buck without regard to the potentially destructive consequences. If they believe their own schtick, I pity them. On the other hand, if they perpetrate these acts knowingly, then Gentlemen: I drop my left glove at your feet and await your response to the challenge.
Any of those of you affected by the teachings of this or other such organizations, I continue to regard you as I always have – I may be saddened by the current state of affairs and the distance it has created between us, but only because I continue to love and cherish you. Loving from across a chasm I cannot bridge yields sadness is all.
For more information I highly recommend searching around for “Impact Trainings” and “LGAT”. Take the materials on both sides with a grain (or fistful) of salt and draw your own conclusions. For those open to considering direct challenges to LGAT practitioners (as opposed to those who would rather hear no such thing) I have a thoroughly bookmarked and dog-eared copy of Cults In Our Midst by Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer I’m willing to loan out (though I would like it back after it makes the rounds).