Verplanck, W.S. (1970) "How do you track down rumors?" American Psychologist, 25, 106-107.

How Do You Track Down Rumors?

Many departments have found one or another form of sensitivity training a valuable if not indispensable method for training their students. In almost all cases, it is a powerful and effective tool, designed and used for the betterment in some way of its participants. Such sensitivity-training groups have been employed by some departments successfully at the undergraduate as well as graduate level. The outcomes have been sufficiently satisfactory so that many students are required to participate in groups as part of the educational process.

The rumors are to the effect that other departments have encountered serious consequences of intensive sensitivity training for some participants, such that several departments had forbidden that its students engage in T grouping. "Hard" data would be, to put it mildly, hard to come by.

But some rumors, especially when they relate to the relationship of the profession to the public, and of faculty members to their students, are disquieting to the degree that requires some investigation--at least an investigation that is sufficient to help us reach a decision whether there should be a full and adequately designed and controlled study.

Result: An attempt, not to get precise data, but solely to determine whether there was any fire whatsoever under the smoke--to determine whether it is indeed smoke, or merely local fogging conditions; that is, to track down the rumors. Method: A letter of inquiry was sent to the chairman of all graduate departments that offer degrees in psychology--over 300 of them--with a postcard enabling response by check, and a request for comment and amplification in letters. The postcard tried to determine whether the department chairman had heard such rumors, whether his department had had "incidents," and whether he thought "we have no responsibility."

One hundred fifty-seven postcards and 39 letters (with and without accompanying postcards) were received; a total of 196 different institutions reported. Tabulation of the postcards that were not accompanied by letters give tentative answers to some questions.

1. Only one respondent checked, "no problem, a myth."

2. Are the rumors widespread? Of the 157 respondents, 40 reported that they had heard the rumors, 78 that they had not. (The others, including 6 of the 19 that reported incidents, did not check either alternative.) Many departments in their postcards and letters stated that no T grouping was carried on. One department explicitly stated that it had forbidden T groups under departmental auspices, and a number of other letters lead the reader to infer that they had done so, or would if the question arose.

3. Is there any foundation to the rumors? Nineteen departments of the total responding reported incidents, in varying numbers (7 checked "few"; 5, "a moderate number"; and 1, "disturbing number"), ranging from "minor" (9) through "moderate" (4) to "serious" (3).

Letters reporting no problems and enthusiastic usage of sensitivity training very often went on to describe the ethical standards set and the safeguards taken in setting the qualifications of leaders of various sorts of groups, in accepting individuals as members of groups, and in constraints set upon the scope of the material that could be introduced in the group.

Presumably the relationship of group participation to disturbance, in every incident reported, may have been chance. The only criterion that these replies ensure is that the disturbance was related to sensitivity training to a degree such as to lead a department chairman to make a check on the postcard when the question is raised.

However one looks at these data, there seems to be a problem--and 77 of the postcard respondents checked that it should be investigated, as did almost every one of the letter writers. A few of the letters took a dim view of this method of trying to find out the basis of rumors. These assumed that we thought we were collecting 'final data.' This is obviously not the case.

The data indicate that such rumors are widespread, and that there may be some foundation to them. It did not and could not seek to establish with any precision an "incident rate," nor to compare these with disturbances associated with prelims (as some suggested should be done) or collect data on successful outcomes.

The only such data available reached us after our data were tabulated. They were made available by the National Training Laboratory (NTL) Institute for Applied Behavioral Science. They report rates in their public laboratory programs of a little over 1 serious psychiatric incident per 500 individual participants (not groups), such incidents being defined as "some form of disturbance requiring hospitalization or referred psychiatric treatment." It goes without saying that NTL sets high standards for leading groups and for participation.

Intensive sensitivity training, then, seems to produce a certain incidence of "side effects" even when conducted by professionals, within departments.

What, one wonders, are the incidences of disturbance that exceed in scope the disturbance that many sensitivity trainers believe is essential to its effectiveness in yielding change for the better in all those literally hundreds of groups being run by nonprofessionals, with minimal or at least questionable training and experience? Perhaps psychologists should take a closer look at this problem, with minimal intent of advising the public that there are risks involved in joining some groups, of ensuring that the individual has both full information and free choice before he joins one, and of warning him not to set up a do-it-yourself basis. It seem easier to learn how to start a group, than to control it.

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