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Sensitivity Training

A group experience that gives people new insight into how they relate to others.

Sensitivity training began in the 1940s and 1950s with experimental studies of groups carried out by psychologist Kurt Lewin at the National Training Laboratories in Maine. Although the groups (called training or T-groups) were originally intended only to provide research data, their members requested a more active role in the project. The researchers agreed, and T-group experiments also became learning experiences for their subjects. The techniques employed by Lewin and his colleagues, collectively known as sensitivity training, were widely adopted for use in a variety of settings. Initially, they were used to train individuals in business, industry, the military, the ministry, education, and other professions. In the 1960s and 1970s, sensitivity training was adopted by the human potential movement, which introduced the "encounter group." Although encounter groups apply the basic T-group techniques, they emphasize personal growth, stressing such factors as self-expression and intense emotional experience.

Encounter groups generally consist of between 12 and 20 people and a facilitator who meet in an intensive weekend session or in a number of sessions over a period of weeks or months. The group members work on reducing defensiveness and achieving a maximum of openness and honesty. Initially, participants tend to resist expressing their feelings fully, but eventually become more open in discussing both their lives outside the group and the interactions within the group itself. Gradually, a climate of trust develops among the group members, and they increasingly abandon the defenses and facades habitually used in dealing with other people. Although the increased self-awareness resulting from sensitivity training is presumed to change a person's behavior in daily life, studies of encounter-group participants have raised doubts as to whether their training experiences actually effect long-lasting behavioral changes. In addition, the usefulness of encounter groups is limited to psychologically healthy individuals, as the intense and honest nature of the group discussions may prove harmful to persons with emotional disorders.

See also Group therapy

Further Reading

Kanfer, Frederick H., and Arnold P. Goldstein, eds. Helping People Change: A Textbook of Methods, 4th ed. New York: Pergamon Press, 1991.

Zimbardo, Philip G. The Psychology of Attitude Change and Social Influence. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaTherapy and Treatments