10 fun ways to social hack an awareness training from the inside out

The Program is a novel by author Gregg Hurwitz. Although it’s fiction, The Program provides some great insight into abusive groups and destructive movements, as well as ways to social hack a Large Group Awareness Training.

In this case, social hack is used to refer to a method to literally disrupt and ideally completely destabilize the Large Group Awareness Training, from the inside out.

10 key ways to social hack a Large Group Awareness Training:

1) Act authoritatively. Destructive groups and abusive movements often model their staff and train their leadership after the one influential leader and founder of the group. They will not expect you yourself to also act in this manner. They often act authoritarian and totalitarian, as this is how these staff members are taught, to emulate and act like their leader and founder.

2) Bring a mental health professional as part of your social hacking group. Ideally this would be someone with a PhD in psychology or an M.D. with a specialty in psychiatry. This person would educate and brief the members of the social hacking team about tactics and methods of the group, and the dangers of getting in too deep into its thought patterns.

3) Bring an ex-member of the group in question. This ex-member should be someone intimately aware of the ways the group functions, and yet out for enough time to have fully gone through a period of cognitive dissonance and awakened back to a pattern to appropriately interact with society again.

4) Bring law enforcement or someone familiar with the law. This person will help brief the rest of the members of the social hacking team on their rights should staff from the destructive group or abusive movement falsely make claims about their actions during the seminar. This person would also be quite useful to conduct research into the possible criminal activities of the group and its founder and leader. This person should instruct all members of the social hacking team on ways to have fun disrupting and destabilizing the Large Group Awareness Training seminar, without doing anything illegal.

5) Don’t follow group mentality. Refuse to stand when everyone else stands. Don’t clap when everyone else claps. This will help you maintain your sense of self and independence throughout the attempts by the abusive group or destructive movement at influence and manipulation. If you are asked to explain yourself by a staff member of the abusive group, sample language from the book includes: “From what I’ve seen, I’m not sure if I like The Program yet. If I decide that I don’t like what’s going on here, I’m leaving. Thank you for having me here today.” (Obviously replace “The Program” with the name of whatever destructive group or abusive movement’s seminar you are attending.)

6) Politely interrupt the seminar with inquisitive questions. Make sure to be polite about this. Again, maintain a positive and happy attitude when doing this. Most likely other members of the seminar in the room full of 200 or so people will echo some of your concerns.

7) Assertively affirm your positive outlook on life. Wording suggested in the book by the fictional psychologist, character Dr. Glen Bederman is: “My Program is: I participate in activities that give me self-esteem, and I have the courage to decline to participate in those activities that do not.” This frames your reason for attending in a positive way that simultaneously retains your own sense of self, independence, assertiveness, and self worth. It also signals to potential shills, dupes, and marks in the audience that they can similarly adopt your positive yet independent attitude and modus operandi while being in the seminar.

8) Maintain a positive and happy attitude. You are there to have a fun time. Act like it. Potential shills and suckers and marks will respond positively to you if you question the methods and tactics of the abusive group or destructive movement, while at the same time showing you are a happy and fulfilled person.

9) Bring a digital thermometer. Destructive groups and abusive movements will sometimes wildly alter the ambient temperature in the room where the seminar is conducted, in order to put attendees off balance. If you notice this pattern, politely but loudly question the staff on this, in front of the rest of the seminar participants so they can all hear your concerns.

10) Ask the staff loudly and politely if they are licensed to practice hypnosis. In the book, the fictional psychologist Dr. Glen Bederman asks: “Are you licensed to administer hypnosis in the state of California?” When the abusive group’s leader “TD” responds: “We’re not practicing hypnosis here. We’re simply meditating.”, Dr. Bederman loudly points out in earshot of the entire seminar: “Guided meditation is a form of hypnosis. Everyone in this room should know that.”

But wait, there’s more: There are plenty other helpful pointers to social hack a Large Group Awareness Training in this section of the book, and it’s all there on pages 323-337.

Other educational takeaways from the book:

pages 256-263: Exit counseling with psychologist Dr. Glen Bederman; this fictional character created by the author Gregg Hurwitz is likely an amalgam of non-fiction psychologists and psychiatrists who have studied victims of abusive groups and destructive movements.

pages 270-272: The investigator meets with postal inspector Owen B. Rutherford; the author Gregg Hurwitz in the book’s Acknowledgements section credits postal inspector Mike McCarthy for his research in this area. What’s most interesting about this part of the book is the postal inspector character’s statements about the crime of tampering with U.S. mail. The section of the book deals with an abusive group and destructive movement that takes away mail from its members that live on its controlled compound, a crime which is: “Most obviously a Title 18, Section 1708 — theft or receipt of stolen mail matter, generally. But between theft, obstruction, and destruction, we could have over two hundred federal, criminal, and civil statutes.”

Says the character postal inspector Owen B. Rutherford: “Do you know what a thirty-seven-cent stamp buys you? … Not just delivery service. Oh, no. The thirty-seven cents buys you a fiduciary relationship with the United States Postal Service. We are custodians of private property. Namely: the mail. That private property belongs to the sender until it comes into the hands of the intended recipient. These jelly-spined bliss ninnies can’t grant the right for their leader to destroy incoming mail before it comes into their actual possession — it isn’t their mail to relinquish. First-class mail must be delivered, forwarded, returned to sender, or sent to the mail-recovery center. Any other act is a violation of the rights of the sender. A violation further of the sanctity of the mail and — make no mistake — it is as such a felony in its own right.”


This is all from The Program a novel by author Gregg Hurwitz. Check it out!


Comedy is a great communicator


Comedy is a great communicator

Through the use of comedy we can learn about the impact of Large Group Awareness Training on individuals after going through a taxing seminar.

Here is an example from comedian Daniel Ryan-Spaulding:



We hope you enjoy it!

Useful information from two Ph.D.’s, a parody play, and other LGAT discussion

Some Large Group Awareness Training related news, information and postings:

Related to our prior post, Mankind Project or Dancing Naked With Other Men While Beating Cooked Chickens, in a post “Article raises questions about New Warriors Adventure” – Professor of Psychology Dr. Warren Throckmorton cites strange practices by the group including: Blindfolded walking tours in the nude; People blowing sage smoke in his face while 50 or so naked men danced around candles; Men sitting naked in a circle discussing their sexual histories while passing a wooden dildo called “The Cock”; and of course, Naked men beating cooked chickens with a hammer.

Landmark Forum and the Red Flags” is an amusing, humorous satirical parody play discussing what the writer refers to as the “Formicans”, and a character’s research through both direct experience and (wisely so) also through research on the internet about this fictional parody group.

The Cult News Network provides a link to an “Ongoing legal complaint re: Werner Erhard on Wikipedia ?” The issue is also discussed at the Cult Education Forum, under the topic: “Large Group Awareness Training, ‘Human Potential’

Echidne of the Snakes has an interesting piece called “A Guest Post on the Mankind Project.” The writer cites the Houston Press article, “Naked Men: The Mankind Project and Michael Scinto.” However, the most interesting quote from the Echidne of the Snakes post, would probably be a warning about secrecy related to Large Group Awareness Training organizations: Secrecy can be a good thing, but insisting on secrecy on this level should make us worried.”

The Post of Athens, Ohio in an article called “Conquering coercion” has some very valuable information about coercive groups, and provides a list of “Warning Signs for College Students”. In its research for the piece, The Post consulted with psychologist Dr. Paul Martin, director of the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center. Dr. Martin was influenced by the work of Harvard-trained psychiatrist Dr. Robert Lifton, who wrote about the Eight Criteria for Thought Reform.

Dr. Doni Whitsett discussed deceptive mind control techniques and tactics often used by “destructive groups”, in an article in the Daily Trojan. Dr. Whitsett gave some advice to parents of potential victims of these deceptive practices: “Don’t be discouraged by resistance … Kids will remember your questions when they begin to doubt. Question, but don’t give advice.” This is very good advice, because through questioning and asking good points and probing into the background of some of these deceptive groups, the parents can begin to restimulate the rational skepticism of their child that may have been laying dormant as a result of harmful tactics they may have experienced.

Small Company Secrets: The MindBend experience, by Paul Burri, Goleta Valley Voice. A great little piece about a weekend “seminar” called MindBend (name changed to protect the author of the article from being sued), which is described as being similar to EST.  Burri provides some excellent advice at the end of the article: Do not ever allow anyone to put you in an uncomfortable situation. Speak up and ask to have the rules changed, the setting changed or to make whatever changes are necessary to make you feel comfortable. It will keep you from agreeing to something that you might regret later.”

The Program by Gregg Hurwitz – parody of The Forum – or analysis of a cult leader ?

The Program

The Program by Gregg Hurwitz, though a fictional work, is a very educational read, and an uncanny analysis of the potential dangers inherent in some forms of Large Group Awareness Training and the “Leaders” that teach these controversial courses. 

But is this book a parody of Large Group Awareness Training in general, a poke at the totalitarian tactics used by cult leaders, or a specific spoof of the methodology used by Werner Erhard in his course The Forum, the “technology” of which was bought by his employees who then formed the company Landmark Education and the course The Landmark Forum ?

 This book was previously analyzed in the post, Large Group Awareness Training in popular culture, but we’ll go into a more detailed analysis in this post.  Incidentally, in a previous post The Invasion, “cultism” and Werner Erhard, we noted how two different reviews of the film The Invasion starring Nicole Kidman both discussed Werner Erhard – with one review referring to “self-help gurus“, and the other discussing “cultism“.

Nothing and Semantics 

Prior to the prologue on page 1, The Program opens with a quote from Werner Erhard: “There are only two things in the world – nothing and semantics.”  The choice of this particular quote by Gregg Hurwitz is interesting – it could simply refer to a form of existential philosophy, but more likely it is a subtle introduction to the high importance placed on semantics both by Werner Erhard and by “The Program”, the Large Group Awareness Training organization depicted in the book.  Dr. Paul Martin, Director of the Wellspring Retreat, discusses the importance of “loaded language” in an article analyzing the controversial group Executive Success Programs, entitled: “Robert Jay Lifton’s eight criteria of thought reform as applied to the Executive Success Programs.”  Dr. Martin’s introduction to the section analyzing Dr. Robert Jay Lifton’s criterion “Loading the language“, is actually a very good summary of the use of semantics in the book The Program.  Dr. Martin writes: “The group develops a jargon in many ways unique to itself, often not understandable to outsiders. This jargon consists of numerous words and phases which the members understand (or think they do), but which really act to dull one’s ability to engage in critical thinking.”

A Fictional Psychologist and Real-World Harassment

In Chapter 24 of the book, on pages 175-180, U.S. Marshal Tim Rackley consults with a psychologist named Dr. Glen Bederman about the tactics used by “The Program” group, and Dr. Bederman educates Rackley about Large Group Awareness Training.  Rackley had first met Dr. Bederman in Chapter 4, when he went to visit the psychologist at UCLA and met him after he finished teaching a college course on destructive cults.  On pages 30-38, Dr. Bederman discusses some of the methodology used by these groups, including hypnosis, totalitiarian control, and harassment of critics.  This harassment of an academic critical of destructive cults is eerily similar to that endured by former UC Berkeley professor, psychologist Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer.  Obituaries in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle described some of the harassment Dr. Singer suffered at the hands of cult “operatives” over the years. 

Dr. Singer was sued by Landmark Education, over a portion of the 1995 edition of her book Cults in Our Midst that dealt with Large Group Awareness Training.  Dr. Singer later reached a settlement with Landmark Education, where she stated she did not believe the group was a cult or sect.  However, in a later article on Landmark Education in the Phoenix New Times in 2000, Drive-thru Deliverance: It’s not called est anymore, but you can still be ridiculed into self-awareness in just one expensive weekend, Dr. Singer clarified some of her views on Landmark Education, stating: “I do not endorse them — never have.”  Dr. Singer went on to state she would not comment on whether or not she believed the Landmark Forum uses coercive persuasion, because “the SOBs have already sued me once.”  Dr. Singer also said “I’m afraid to tell you what I really think about them because I’m not covered by any lawyers like I was when I wrote my book,” but she did say that she would not recommend the group to anyone.  Though the character Dr. Glen Bederman did not describe having been sued by an organization he criticized, he did cite instances of canceled hotel and airline reservations, and harassing phone calls after he had given expert-witness testimony in a case against a controversial group.

Controversial Groups and Movements 

Though there are no direct references to Werner Erhard, Erhard Seminars Training, The Forum or Landmark Education after the initial quote in the prologue, the character Dr. Bederman does reference other similar types of Large Group Awareness Training groups in his consultation with U.S. Marshal Rackley.  On page 176, Dr. Bederman remarks to Rackley: “He’s married two cult models, the psychotherapeutic cult and the self-improvement cult – think the Sullivanians meet Lifespring.”  The Sullivanians are analyzed in the article Cultism and the Law, by Randy Frances Kandel, J.D., Ph.D., and an article in The Washington Post referred to the group as a “psychotherapeutic cult.”  Lifespring was started by John Hanley, who with Werner Erhard had previously been an instructor at the controversial company Mind Dynamics.  Werner Erhard went on to start Erhard Seminars Training in 1971, and John Hanley founded Lifespring in 1974.  Some of the early development of both of these groups is discussed in the February 1993 Self Magazine article: White collar cults, they want your mind…, by Dirk Mathison.  Landmark Education decided to sue Self Magazine and Dirk Mathison, in 1993, but reached a settlement in October 1994, and the lawsuit itself was later dismissed

Hacked From the Inside 

By far the most amusing and thought provoking scene in The Program takes place in Chapter 49, on pages 323-337.  U.S. Marshal Tim Rackley, along with Dr. Glen Bederman and other operatives, register for “The Program” under fake names and proceed to question the motives and logic behind the methodology of cult leader T.D. Betters.  Rackley and Dr. Bederman succeed in picking apart the hypocrisy and oxymoronic lessons inherent in “The Program” self-help course, and by the end of the chapter they have completely broken up the course – the participants no longer want to stay registered and they want their money back.  Rackley states his reasoning for doing this in front of the group:  “I’m here because I believe that this is a dangerous, unethical group that utilizes methods of mind control.  I was told by my group leader that The Program was honest, forthcoming, and nonabusive.  Well, they went Off Program with me, so I’m going Off Program with them and walking away.”

After this statement, the crowd of enrollees seated in the ballroom begin to shout out questions to the cult leader T.D. Betters, complain, and finally yell that they want their money back.  When Tim Rackley confronts T.D. Betters and reveals his identity, Betters responds with an indignant retort:  “TD gathered his arrogance about him like armor.  ‘You think you’ve won something here?’  He gestured at the pandemonium below.  ‘A hiccup.  I can replenish my human resources with two weeks and a soapbox.  And when I do, you’ll be sorry you ever tangled with me.’ “

Inspired by Cult Experiences 

On the page on The Program on Gregg Hurwitz’s Web site, he explains his inspiration behind the book, stating: “A friend lost his sister into a cult and told me all about it. I found it fascinating.”  Hurwitz also gives a few examples of the research he did in writing the book:  “I went undercover into mind-control cults. I submitted to cult testing. I got ahold of bootleg copies of indoctrination tapes for various cults. I interviewed former cult victims. I studied the history of mind control. “

So was “The Program” group in Gregg Hurwitz’s book The Program a parody of a particular controversial group, or form of Large Group Awareness Training, like Werner Erhard, Erhard Seminars Training, The Forum or Landmark Education, or a different group like The Sullivanians, or Lifespring – or was it just a dangerous group conjured up in Hurwitz’s mind, drawn on inspirations from many different types of organizations ?

Read the book and judge for yourself !

Large Group Awareness Training in popular culture

Large Group Awareness Training has been depicted in fiction and popular culture virtually since the phenomenon began. Some fictional works take a humorous tack – poking fun at or spoofing various forms of large group awareness training. However, other representations of large group awareness training in fiction take a more sinister route, and compare the methodology to dangerous cults and destructive sects.

Below is a list of some of the more obvious examples of spoofs or mentions of various forms of large group awareness training in fictional works.

See also a similar list, at List of BestsLarge Group Awareness Training in fiction.

Semi-Tough – A film starring Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson, and Jill Clayburgh. In the film, all three characters end up attending a self-improvement seminar called Bismark Earthwalk Action Training, or B.E.A.T., led by charismatic leader Friedrich Bismark. Friedrich Bismark is played by Bert Convy. The film was based on the novel Semi-Tough, by Dan Jenkins. There are thinly veiled references to Werner Erhard’s Erhard Seminars Training / EST throughout the movie. Friedrich Bismark enters the self-improvement seminar initially shouting: “Assholes. Assholes! You’re all assholes every one of you. Your lives don’t work!” At one time Werner Erhard owned a Mercedes-Benz with the license plate: “SO WUT”, and in the film, Friedrich Bismark has a limosine with a license plate that reads: “BEAT IT.”

Mork and Mindy – Episode 18, Season 1, titled: “Mork goes Erk.” In this episode, the characters are encouraged by a friend to join ERK, a self-help program called Ellsworth Revitalization Konditioning. This is most likely a parody of Werner Erhard’s Erhard Seminars Training / EST. David Letterman played the character Ellsworth, the leader of Ellsworth Revitalization Konditioning. Robert Goldman analyzed ERK and compared it with EST, in his article
Hegemony and Managed Critique in Prime-Time Television: A Critical Reading of “Mork and Mindy” that appeared in Theory and Society, 11 (May 1982): pp.363-388, Part 4. Goldman wrote: “Like est, ERK also endorses submission to the “humiliation and abuse” of the authoritarian leader as a legitimate therapeutic device for solving personal problems. Ellsworth is depicted as greedy, manipulative, hypocritical, and callous, whereas his followers are shown as indiscriminant consumers passively seeking commodified panaceas for their personal troubles. The episode carries a moment of middle-class moral indignation as it lays bare the deceitful and authoritarian features of this con-man’s approach to problem-solving.”

Howard the Duck – In magazine #4 in March 1980, the character “Werner Blowhard” is introduced, along with other members of the organization B.E.S.T., which stands for “Bozoes Eagerly Serving Tyrants.” This is most likely a spoof on Werner Erhard, and the other members of B.E.S.T. were most probably parodies of charismatic leaders of other controversial groups of the time period.

Circle of Power – also known as Brainwash, Mystique, and The Naked Weekend, this film directed by Bobby Roth was based on the true story of a participant in Leadership Dynamics/Mind Dynamics, described in the book The Pit: A Group Encounter Defiled, written by Gene Church and Conrad D. Carnes.

The Spirit of ’76 – In this film, a group of Americans from the future decide to time-travel back to 1776 and visit the period. However, they accidentally travel back in time to the year 1976. The time travellers still think they are in 1776, and decide to study the time period. A character named Heinz-57 played by Geoff Hoyle gets trapped in an encounter seminar called “Be, Inc. Seminars”, that is most likely a spoof of Erhard Seminars Training / EST. Rob Reiner plays the leader of the encounter seminar attended by Heinz-57, a character named “Doctor Cash.” Dr. Cash refers to Heinz-57 as “Heinz Asshole.”

Fight ClubChuck Palahniuk, a graduate of “The Forum“, today known as The Landmark Forum, is the author of the novel Fight Club upon which the 1999 movie was based. (Grigoriadis, Vanessa. “Pay Money, Be Happy: For thousands of new yorkers, happiness is a $375, three-day self-help Seminar. Welcome to EST: The Next Generation“, New York Magazine, July 9, 2001.) In his review of the film Fight Club, Roger Ebert compared the character Tyler Durden to Werner Erhard, writing: “He’s a bully–Werner Erhard plus S & M, a leather club operator without the decor.” (Ebert, Roger. “Review, Fight Club)”, Chicago Sun-Times, October 15, 1999.)

Death du jour – a novel by Kathy D. Reichs – in the novel a description of the methods used in large group awareness training is given, on page 311. A destructive cult used large group awareness training methods to lure participants into their group, then kept them beholden to the group through coercive methods.

Pressure Points – a novel by Larry Brooks, describes the experiences of three senior executives that must spend a week-long retreat at “The Seminar”, in an isolated location in Northern California. The novel takes the reader through the first 60 hours of “The Seminar”, until the story takes a turn involving suicide and sex games. The Seminar is at referred to in the book as both a business seminars, and a “middle-class cult”, page 129. On page 77, a character in the book states that the programs developed by William Penn Patrick, Alexander Everett and Werner Erhard had common origins.

Six Feet Under – Episode 3 of season 2, “The Plan“, first aired on HBO March 17, 2002. This episode is most likely a parody of The Landmark Forum, a course delivered by the for-profit, privately owned company Landmark Education. Actress Alice Krige plays the part of the controlling seminar leader, who teaches Ruth, Robbie and the other students of “The Plan” a new jargon using metaphors involved with building a house. The seminar leader singles out Ruth and berates her for “tiptoeing around her own house like she’s afraid of waking someone up.” The seminar leader encourages participants to use their time during the break from the course to go out to the waiting banks of phones, call their relatives, and tell them how they want to “rennovate their homes” together.

The Program – by Gregg Hurwitz, this novel is part of a series involving U.S. Marshal Tim Rackley. In this work, Rackley investigates a dangerous cult that uses a mixture of large group awareness training methods and love bombing and isolation of new members from their friends, to lure members into the group. The cult members are then kept in check through violence, by loyalists to a totalitarian cult leader. Incidentally, a quote is given from Werner Erhard, prior to the opening of the book’s prologue. Large Group Awareness Training is explained to character Tim Rackley by a psychologist he consults, on page 176.

Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law – In the episode “Mufti Trouble,” which aired October 2, 2006, the character Mentok the Mindtaker remarks to Harvey Birdman that he had once been an EST instructor, stating: “I was also a sex worker, a cossack, and an Est instructor for a summer in Marin.”

The Invasion, "cultism" and Werner Erhard

The movie The Invasion starring Nicole Kidman came out recently, and it is most intriguing that in film reviews in two different publications, both made reference to Werner Erhard in comparisons to the creepy nature of the film about an alien invasion.

The Cleveland Free Times, Film Picks, Volume 15, Issue 16, August 22, 2007 :
“Philip Kaufman’s superb 1978 reimagining took the pod people into the age of self-help gurus like Werner Erhard.”

Los Angeles City Beat, Concept Snatchers, August 23, 2007:
“Siegel’s film was an instant classic, so there was a lot of skepticism when Philip Kaufman decided to remake it in 1978. While few thought Kaufman managed to top the original, he at least refashioned the story to comment on specific elements of the era. Communism was no longer the threat, but rather cultism: In the film’s terms, Karl Marx was less scary than Rev. Sun Myung Moon and Werner Erhard.”