I've had more than a few people tell me about Personal Development Seminar X that they attended. Immediately afterward, they feel renewed, invigorated, excited. For months afterward they extoll the virtues.

The umbrella term for the types of groups I'm referring to seems to be LGAT: Large Group Awareness Training.

I roughly understand how these groups operate. They seem to push neural buttons to trigger emotional experiences in their attendees. I like to call them very targeted and efficient mind-viruses.

That makes me a bit uneasy, but I also want to keep an open mind. I recognize that they're not the only events that push these same buttons. Causing this reaction isn't the same as being nefarious. Getting real results is worth spending time and money on. I can deal with the "advertising" that friends do for these events (as long as they're not too pushy). Just because the means have been abused in the past doesn't mean that there's not some real results now.

So, in general, can they be "worth it"? Do any of them have real long-term personal benefits that make them worth the costs?

  • 1
    Great question, indeed; I'm also skeptical of self-improvement snake oil. As far as science goes, the neural buttons don't seem to have any scientific basis, see this question. When presented with this evidence, proponents of such seminars will admit they're wrong. Just kidding, they'll probably bring into discussion "success stories ", get all emotional, and be amazed at your "thickness". Or maybe not... Point is, I'd avoid such discussions if I were you :D Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 14:36
  • 13
    Currently, the question is very broad that makes it difficult to address. Are you including university degrees? Diversity training courses? Group psychotherapy? Courses aimed at parolees? Evangelical church meetings? Some may be useless while others may have benefit. And what counts as a benefit? A former employer spent good money sending me on a 2 day cross-cultural training course, from which I extracted exactly one good idea. Worth it? Maybe.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 15:04
  • 1
    What a great question. I wonder if the same skepticism applies to self-help books. Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 15:22
  • 5
    I think of them as very much like the old joke: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change. It takes work to apply the concepts from any self-improvement seminar -- and the likelihood is that almost none of the attendees will do the work required. It's kind of like asking if a class in writing or programming will make the person a better writer or programmer. Yes -- if they work at it and use what they learned.
    – Martha F.
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 17:25
  • 1
    @Craig -- that's why I posted a much longer answer below. :-)
    – Martha F.
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 18:19

2 Answers 2


The short answer is It Depends. There are lots of factors involved in whether any adult learning method is effective. I've tried to cover the major points below.

There are many unknowns in the training effectiveness field. We can say that in any training situation, some people learn more than others, but the question is how to determine what affects whether the training helps. (And yes, I'm considering self-development seminars as a subset of training -- since that's the general academic term for adult learning in a non-academic setting.)

Needs Analysis

The first point, and I suspect what many people worry about in the self-improvement classes (as opposed to therapy) is that one-size fits all doesn't. The best trainers first perform a needs analysis to make sure that they know what people need to learn. See Assessing training needs: Critical levels of analysis. Training and development in organizations and A Proactive Model for Training Needs Analysis as sample articles. Or look at this Google Scholar search for more.)

If the people conducting a self-improvement seminar don't conduct a needs analysis, they're going to end up sticking to basic concepts that may or may not help the attendees. There are certain concepts that you can cover in any such seminar -- such as the fact that if you want things to change, you have to take action. If you keep doing the same thing, nothing will change. (Which, of course, is common sense. But there are psychological motivations that keep people from acting -- and good self-improvement seminars would help people identify some of those factors for themselves.)

Design of Class and Teacher Style

In addition, the design of the training and the effectiveness of delivery affect the results. See Effectiveness of training in organizations: A meta-analysis of design and evaluation features for a statistical analysis of design factors. For discussion of the affect of the trainer's style on results, see The relationship between verbal teacher immediacy behaviors and student learning or this Google scholar search.

Effectiveness Measures

In general, we can quantify the effectiveness of training by two means -- information retention and behavior change.

One site I found references an article that suggests that the initial training transfer rate is 62% (Saks, A. M., & Belcourt, M. (2006). An investigation of training activities and transfer of training in organizations. Human Resource Management, Winter 2006, Vol. 45, No. 4, Pp. 629­648). In other words, immediately after training, attendees retain about 62% of the information presented in that training. The numbers drop over time, however. In addition, that rate is simply for information.

10 to 20% of training transfers to actual job performance. (Baldwin, T.T, Ford, J.K (1988), Transfer of training: a review and directions for future research, Personnel Psychology, Vol. 41 pp.63-105.)

Outside Factors: Attitudes, Context, etc.

So why so little change? There are a number of outside factors that can affect how well attendees at a training learn.

For example, the attitudes and motivation of the trainees can affect how well they integrate what they learn. (Trainee's Attributes and Attitudes: Neglected Influences on Training Effectiveness. Academy of Management Review. 1996) Also see The Influence of Trainee Attitudes on Training Effectiveness: Test of a Model and Toward an Integrative Theory of Training Motivation: A Meta-Analytic Path Analysis of 20 Years of Research.

Similarly, factors external to the training -- such as the personality of the trainees and the work environment of the people being trained can affect how well the training works (Training Effectiveness: Accounting for Individual Characteristics and the Work Environment).

Specific Seminars

Now, having said all that, there are some studies on particular types of personal development seminars. For example, EST was discussed in Observations on 67 patients who took Erhard Seminars Training, and in Psychiatric disturbances associated with Erhard Seminars Training: II. additional cases and theoretical considerations. You can always try to learn more about any particular system by doing similar research.


Edit: This is stated verbatim below, but just so it's reiterated and clear (comments seemed to indicate it wasn't):

I just wanted to offer this answer as related, as I used to follow Luke's blog and recalled him having mentioned that he had read so many of these types of books; if it helps, great, but perhaps someone will find something specifically on seminars that will help even more.

Maybe not the most authoritative source (your call on that), but Luke Meuhlhauser of Common Sense Atheism has read 340 self-help books (LINK) and makes the following statement (SOURCE, emphasis mine):

My conclusion from all that reading?

95% of self-help books are complete bullshit...

Here’s the thing. Self-help books are written to sell, not to help. Most books are structured around a gimmick that will sell well. The authors usually show no interest what-so-ever in testing to see if their advice actually works. In fact, I sometimes suspected the book was being written to get people motivated without actually giving them good advice so that when they failed to achieve their goals six months later they would assume it was their fault but look back positively on their initial motivation, and then buy the next heavily-marketed self-help book to come out the pipe.

Again, this is not identical to the question, but if "Personal Development Seminars" are like self-help books (except spoken vs. written), I thought this input might help.

For more, HERE is why Luke has come to his various conclusions, including some criteria for evaluating "self help" types of material:

Ask yourself:

  • Do you think each of those books has anything new and useful to say?
  • If there was a “simple secret” to living your dreams, wouldn’t everyone be doing it?”
  • Are those books written to help you, or to sell?
  • Does anyone review those books for accuracy?

You're trying to do the last bit right now. I just wanted to offer this answer as related, as I used to follow Luke's blog and recalled him having mentioned that he had read so many of these types of books; if it helps, great, but perhaps someone will find something specifically on seminars that will help even more.

HERE is another writeup of Luke's knowledge on the "self-help" arena and applying techniques effectively to "win" at life on LessWrong. The site functions very similarly to this one, with upvotes/downvotes. Seeing as though he started writing there only a few months ago and is now one of the top contributors (according to upvotes/points), I'd say that the rationalist community there thinks he has something to offer on the subject.

See THIS post as a summary of the state of "self-help."

  • So it looks like 5% of Self-Help books are effective and useful. Sounds like affirmation that they can bring long-term benefits! Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 18:52
  • Andrew, that is a false dichotomy. You are implying a book is either "complete bullshit" or "effective and useful". It is entirely possible the 5% that are not "complete bullshit" are 99% bullshit, and also not very effective. Unless you are being tongue in check and i missed it.
    – fred
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 19:40
  • 4
    Not sure why this has so many upvotes, it's just repeating the opinion of one person, and doesn't even address the question (see title). Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 20:10
  • 1
    @BlueRaja: I admitted as much and suggested that someone else might come along with more pertinent information about seminars, not books. Also, while this is one person, I offer the source as I'm not sure who, PhD after the name or not, has read 340 self-help books. Thus, I would consider Luke an expert on the contents of such books, common threads, etc. My aim for the answer was mostly to contribute to the information -- take what you wish, leave the rest.
    – Hendy
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 22:53
  • I edited this to clarify that I'm offering information that I saw as related and potentially helpful, but also admitting that it's not the specific question (this was already in the original answer, but I just bumped it up at the top and emphasized it).
    – Hendy
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 22:58

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .