After being dead-set against (actually, just plain scared of) Large Group Awareness Training programs like Landmark Education, the Kairos Foundation, and so forth, I accidentally attended one over the weekend and watched them take well over a half-million dollars from the pockets of their unwitting participants. It was appalling.
The Millionaire Mind Intensive “seminar” was held last Thursday-Saturday here in Seattle. It’s a free three-day experience that’s marketed as a way to turn your financial life around, but is actually a three-day long series of sales pitches and upsells. I’d heard from friends around the world that the these people (the MMI is put on by T. Harv Ecker’s company, Peak Potentials Training) were some of the best in the world at mass room sales (aka platform sales), so Craig and I signed up to attend. I spent a year selling to large rooms myself, and I love learning about sales anyway, so I was really excited about the event. We got a lot more than we bargained for.
The first day didn’t disappoint. The seminar leader immediately started building compliance by getting the audience to answer questions out loud and raise their hands on command. Soon they were finishing his sentences for him. I was amazed at how quickly 500 adults could be turned into mindless automatons, unquestioningly following every instruction.
He also did some of the most beautiful inoculation I’ve ever seen. There’s an idea in sales that if you bring up an objection and refute it before your prospect thinks of it, you make the objection disappear in his mind. So early on in the seminar, the leader told us, “This weekend will push your comfort zone, and your brain often reacts in one of two ways: by rejecting the message or rejecting the source of the message. I just want you to be aware when that’s happening.” Nice move, any criticisms an audience member thinks of are now immediately discounted as a meaningless reflex reaction. The particularly brilliant touch was what came next.
“It’s going to be a long weekend, so I know people will get tired. And some people will start complaining: ‘My leg hurts, my back hurts, my eyelashes hurt, this information doesn’t make any sense.’ You know what I tell them? I tell them, ‘Thanks for sharing.'” And just like that, the audience is now inoculated not only against any criticisms they think of, but any criticism anyone else in the room brings up. Scary brilliant.
By the time the first sales pitch rolled around, the seminar leader had complete control over the audience. “We have a special price on this book today; it’s an at-seminar special.” He paused and asked the audience, “A what?”
“An at-seminar special!” they shouted back. It was one of the best closes I’ve ever seen. By the time he said, “First come, first served”, people were running to the sales tables in the back of the room.
Unfortunately, Craig and I had other commitments, so we left Thursday afternoon and skipped Friday. But we came back on Saturday to see the big pitches for the most expensive packages.
The red flags were immediately apparent when I came back on Saturday. The mindless obedience to commands, the feelings of euphoria, the complete lack of inhibitions – I had walked into the middle of an large group awareness training (LGAT) session.
I became interested in LGATs a few years ago (see my old post: The Landmark Forum Cult) when I had some friends report positive experiences with Landmark Education and the Kairos Foundation/More to Life Weekend. After their glowing reviews, I started reading more about LGATs, learning that by leading people through extreme emotional swings you can induce a sense of euphoria and connectedness while simultaneously lowering inhibitions and encouraging more impulsive behavior (often reframed as a newfound sense of freedom).
But hearing the effects of an LGAT described in a journal article doesn’t compare to witnessing one in person. I never would have imagined that grown adults (though there were some children in the room, to make things even sadder) could be so quickly completely stripped of their mental defenses. I watched people respond like Pavlovian dogs, chanting, clapping their hands, waving their arms, answering questions, completing sentences, dancing with no inhibitions.
When it came to the emotional part of the day, the leader had no problem breaking people like Ming vases. There were tears all over the room, after which the leader brought everyone back up, made them feel good again, and then took us all back down one more time before bringing everyone back up.
I should mention that while I think it’s a wonderful thing to teach someone to share their emotions, I find it appalling to exploit these huge emotional swings for a sales pitch. By the time we linked arms around the room for a sing-a-long, I saw some people whose states of consciousness were so altered I would have sworn they were drunk had I seen them anywhere else.
And of course, after this came the big sales pitch. Craig and I figured they would be working their way up to selling a workshop for a few thousand dollars. It was a free weekend, after all, how big a sale could they possibly expect to close?
Thirty thousand dollars was how big. I felt sick. Thirty thousand dollars! Bring people who are bad at money management into a room, strip them of their inhibitions and mental defenses, and then convince them to make an enormous impulse buy. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. When the leader suggested using their childrens’ college savings to send them to his “University of Light” I thought I was going to throw up. What a scam.
But the audience was completely bought in. In three days, I’m sure Peak Potentials pulled somewhere between half a million to a million dollars out of that room. I doubt a single person came to the free seminar on Friday with even an inkling that they would be $30,000 poorer three days later.
At one point, the speaker read one audience member’s question back to the audience: “My spouse is trapped in a middle class mindset and thinks all this is voodoo. Should I take Quantum Leap [the $30k package] alone?” In unison, the audience shouted back, “Yes!”
I’m still trying to process what I learned from the event. What made it so sickening to me? I used to say that the difference between persuasion and manipulation was intent. But I really believe the seminar leader believed he was helping people. Is it that he’s taking money from people who can’t afford it? But I’d be much more supportive if he was convincing the audience to send their children to college. So is my objection just the fact that I think Peak Potential’s courses are worthless? Because who am I to impose my values on someone else’s purchases? Craig thinks it’s the bait and switch, that people came expecting a course on money management and were instead sold a $30,000 dose of temporary euphoria. But I’d still be appalled if the courses were sold completely transparently with the same sales tactics. And I can’t even say it’s the sales tactics, because every salesman out there uses the exact same techniques on a lesser scale to make people buy emotionally. If people bought rationally every time we’d never have buyers remorse.
So I don’t know. The best thing I can say is if I ever start asking myself these questions for any practical reason, it will be time to back off and reexamine whatever I’m doing.