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Sensitivity training is a form of training with the goal of making people more aware of their own prejudices and more sensitive to others.
According to his biographer, Alfred J. Marrow, Kurt Lewin laid the foundations for sensitivity training in a series of workshops he organised in 1946 to carry out a 'change' experiment, in response to a request from the Director of the Connecticut State Interracial Commission. This led to the founding of the National Training Laboratories in Bethel, Maine in 1947. Kurt Lewin, who met Eric Trist in 1933, influenced the work of the London, England, United Kingdom Tavistock Clinic, both in its work with soldiers during the second world war and in its later work with the journal Human Relations jointly founded by a partnership of the Tavistock Institute and Lewin's group at MIT.
During World War II, psychologists like Carl Rogers in the US and William Sargant, John Rawlings Rees, and Eric Trist in Britain were used by the military to help soldiers deal with traumatic stress disorders (then known as shell shock). This work, which required service to large numbers of patients by a small number of therapists and necessarily emphasized rapidity and effectiveness helped spur the development of group therapy as a treatment technique. Rogers and others evolved their work into new forms including encounter groups designed for persons who were not diagnosably ill but who were recognized to have widespread problems associated with isolation from others common in American society. Other leaders in the development of encounter groups, including Will Schutz, worked at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California.
Meanwhile, training groups or T-groups were being developed at the National Training Labs, now part of the National Education Association. Over time the techniques of T-Groups and Encounter Groups have merged and divided and splintered into specialized topics, seeking to promote sensitivity to others perceived as different and seemingly losing some of their original focus on self-exploration as a means to understanding and improving relations with others in a more general sense.
The nature of modern sensitivity training appears to be in some dispute. Its modern critics portray its origins and function in negative terms.
According to its critics, sensitivity training involves the use of psychological techniques with groups that its critics, such as G. Edward Griffin, claim are often identical to brainwashing tactics. Critics believe these techniques are unethical.
Documentaries critical of the concept, have been produced by
- G. Edward Griffin: Seduction of a Generation (1969)
- Penn & Teller: Bullshit! Sensitivity Training (2008)