Sensitivity training is a form of training with the goal of making people more aware of their own goals as well as their prejudices, and more sensitive to others and to the dynamics of group interaction.
Kurt Lewin ( ; 9 September 1890 – 12 February 1947) was a German-American psychologist, known as one of the modern pioneers of social, organizational, and applied psychology in the United States. During his professional career Lewin applied ...
laid the foundations for sensitivity training in a series of workshops he organised in 1946, using his field theory as the conceptual background. His work then contributed to the founding of the
National Training Laboratories Kurt Lewin founded the National Training Laboratories Institute for Applied Behavioral Science, known as the NTL Institute, an American non-profit behavioral psychology center, in 1947. NTL became a major influence in modern corporate training pro ...
in Bethel, Maine
in 1947 – now part of the
National Education Association
The National Education Association (NEA) is the largest labor union in the United States. It represents public school teachers and other support personnel, faculty and staffers at colleges and universities, retired educators, and college stud ...
– and to their development of training groups or
A T-group or training group (sometimes also referred to as sensitivity-training group, human relations training group or encounter group) is a form of group training where participants (typically between eight and fifteen people) learn a ...
Meanwhile, others had been influenced by the wartime need to help soldiers deal with traumatic stress disorders (then known as
Shell shock is a term coined in World War I by the British psychologist Charles Samuel Myers to describe the type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) many soldiers were afflicted with during the war (before PTSD was termed). It is a reac ...
) to develop group therapy as a treatment technique.
Carl Ransom Rogers (January 8, 1902 – February 4, 1987) was an American psychologist and among the founders of the humanistic approach (and client-centered approach) in psychology. Rogers is widely considered one of the founding fathers of ps ...
in the fifties worked with what he called "small face-to-face groups – groups exhibiting industrial tensions, religious tensions, racial tensions, and therapy groups in which many personal tensions were present". Along with others drawing on the ideas of the
Human Potential Movement
The Human Potential Movement (HPM) arose out of the counterculture of the 1960s and formed around the concept of an extraordinary potential that its advocates believed to lie largely untapped in all people. The movement takes as its premise the be ...
, he extended the group idea to broad population of 'normals' seeking personal growth, which he called encounter groups, after the existential tradition of an authentic encounter
Other leaders in the development of encounter groups, including Will Schutz
, worked at the
The Esalen Institute, commonly called Esalen, is a non-profit American retreat center and intentional community in Big Sur, California, which focuses on humanistic alternative education. The institute played a key role in the Human Potential ...
Big Sur () is a rugged and mountainous section of the Central Coast of California between Carmel and San Simeon, where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean. It is frequently praised for its dramatic scenery. Big Sur ...
California is a state in the Western United States, located along the Pacific Coast. With nearly 39.2million residents across a total area of approximately , it is the most populous U.S. state and the 3rd largest by area. It is also the mo ...
. Schutz himself stressed how "the terms 'T-group' (T for training) and 'sensitivity training group' are commonly used...synonymously with 'encounter group'".
Focus and legacy
The focus of the sensitivity training group was on here-and-now interactions among the group members, and on their group experience; and worked by following the energy of the emerging issues in the group, and dramatising them in verbal or non-verbal ways. An atmosphere of openness and honesty was encouraged throughout; and authenticity and
Self-actualization, in Maslow's hierarchy of needs, is the highest level of psychological development, where personal potential is fully realized after basic bodily and ego needs have been fulfilled.
Self-actualization was coined by the organism ...
were prominent goals.
The heyday of the encounter groups was the Sixties and Seventies: thereafter nonverbal interaction was increasingly discouraged, in favour of a more modest emphasis upon following group processes as they emerged. The techniques of T-Groups and Encounter Groups have merged and divided and splintered into more specialized topics, arguably seeking to promote sensitivity to others perceived as different, and seemingly losing some of their original focus on self-exploration as a means to understanding and improving relations with others in a more general sense.
Another legacy of sensitivity training, prompted in part by controversy, has been a new rigour in research methods for the study of group work, and of its outcomes.
21stC sensitivity training was mocked on TV in 2008 by the program '' Penn & Teller: Bullshit!
Criticisms of modern sensitivity training have repeatedly surfaced over the decades.
*Therapists early expressed reservations about the encounter group both from within and without the movement. Thus Carl Rogers expressed concerns about its potential to license intrusive, bullying behaviour, concluding that members needed a solid ego to profit from it.
Eric Berne (May 10, 1910 – July 15, 1970) was a Canadian-born psychiatrist who created the theory of transactional analysis as a way of explaining human behavior.
Berne's theory of transactional analysis was based on the ideas of Freud but ...
similarly pointed to the danger of the group only providing a series of unassimilated insights functioning as insults, quipping that "One definition of a sensitivity group is that it is a place where sensitive people go to have their feelings hurt".
*Right-wing critic and
A conspiracy theory is an explanation for an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful groups, often political in motivation, when other explanations are more probable.Additional sources:
* The term has a nega ... G. Edward Griffin
, faced with the movement's more radical claims to promote social change, argued that sensitivity training involves the unethical use of psychological techniques with groups that come close to
Brainwashing (also known as mind control, menticide, coercive persuasion, thought control, thought reform, and forced re-education) is the concept that the human mind can be altered or controlled by certain psychological techniques. Brainwashin ...
*Research analysis of the results of encounter groups revealed significant effects for both good and bad: where some 30% of participants found lasting benefit, 8% experienced equally lasting negative results.
[I. Yalom, ''Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy'' (2005) p. 536]