Growth Groups

March 10th, 2010 by Collin Canright | Filed under Psychology.

During the late 1960s and through the early 1970s, intensive group experiences captured the attention of journalists from major media, articles in national magazines like, Look, Newsweek, Playboy, and The New Yorker; best-selling books; and appearances on major television shows by authors and practitioners. Accounts in smaller newspapers followed, with articles by the Associated Press wire service spawning local reporting by local papers like the Milwaukee Sentinel.

Books, both popular and academic, as well as academic articles from the era, opened with wide-eyed wonder and almost surprised prediction at the prevalence and importance of growth group training, viz: The book Carl Rogers on Encounter Groups, opens with a chapter called “The Origin and Scope of the Trend Toward “Groups.”” Psychologist Dr. Carl Rogers wrote that “the planned, intensive group experience” was “the most rapidly spreading social invention of the century, and probably the most potent” (Rogers, 1970, p. 1).

In a textbook Group Procedures: Purposes, Processes and Outcomes, published a couple of years later, the authors wrote, “The use of groups to increase self-understanding and to improve the quality of interpersonal relationships is a sweeping social movement affecting psychology, medicine, education, social work, even business and industrial leadership,” (Diedrich and Dye, 1972, p. v).

Those books and the articles in the popular media followed the publication, in 1967, of the book Joy: Expanding Human Awareness, by William C. Schutz. The cover line of the paper back copy gives the reason: Joy was the book that “made encounter groups famous.” The goal of encounter groups (groups of six to 12 participants who meet for the purpose of personal growth) was to help participants experience joy through self awareness, created as the members disclosed themselves to one another through honest and open self expression.

Groups went under various names like encounter groups (perhaps the most famous), T-Groups (for training groups, the earliest historically), sensitivity training (one of the corporate terms for group training, and process groups (a more generic and descriptive term). Those groups share a key characteristic that the are leaderless—the leader generally facilitates a process rather than sets and guides an agenda. This description of sensitivity training, from the journal article “Training Groups, Encounter Groups, Sensitivity Groups and Group Psychotherapy,” provides a good description of growth groups and their workings:

Sensitivity training is any of a set of experiences, including but not restricted to the training group, attempting to help each participant to recognize and to face in himself and in others many levels of functioning (including emotions, attitudes, and values), to evaluate his behavior in light of the responses it elicits from himself and others at these various levels, and to integrate these levels into a more effective and perceptive self. . . . The trainer is the experienced leader or facilitator within a sensitivity training group who serves as a resource to the group. . . . He does this by calling the attention of the group from time to time to the behavior which is being exhibited and the relationships which are emerging in the group, and by helping the group to clarify its own goals and procedures (Gottschalk, L.A. MD, et. al, 1972, pp. 88-89).

This post on group dynamics is the second in a series of posts on social intelligence and group dynamics, written as part of my studies at the Wright Graduate Institute for the Realization of Human Potential. The first is “Social Intelligence.” Future posts will expand on those ideas and provide the broader historical context in psychology.

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