Capitalizing on self -fulfilling prophecies: The vernacular dimensions of Anthony Robbins' self -empowerment enterprise

Dylan C Eret, University of Pennsylvania


From Ralph Waldo Emerson to Norman Vincent Peale to Zig Ziglar, several popular inspirational leaders, positive thinkers, and “motivational speakers” have taken center stage in American life over the years by offering practical advice on “how to” improve everyday matters of health and wealth. Anthony Robbins is a recent example. Neither religiously dogmatic nor spiritually enigmatic, Robbins is a self-proclaimed “success coach” or “peak performance consultant” who is psychologically pragmatic. Since the early 1980s, he has used everything from firewalking to cognitive-behavioral psychology to encourage millions of Americans to control, clarify, and change their individual beliefs and behaviors—all for the purposes of creating more “personal power” and a better “quality of life.” During this time, Robbins has effectively built a large business of popular psychological products and transformational seminars that have attempted to stimulate self-change and opportunistic optimism for an urban professional population within the United States and abroad. In this dissertation I explore, through both literary and ethnographic description, the vernacular dimensions of Robbins' self-empowerment enterprise. I do this in four ways. First, I locate the hybrid, historical development of his enterprise among the numerous intensive therapies of the Human Potential Movement and Large Group Awareness Training seminars (LGATs) during the 1960s and 1970s within American culture. Second, I examine how Robbins uses proverbial rhetoric to intensify the aesthetic and economic value of his self-empowerment techniques. Third, I provide an ethnographic and photographic account of my experiences as a volunteer at Robbins' most popular introductory seminar, “Unleash the Power Within.” Fourth, I describe how humorous cultural commentators such as comedians, novelists, cartoonists, journalists, and film directors have responded to the excesses of Robbins' happy persona, masculine self-image, kitschy psychological techniques, and transformational seminars through forms of parody, caricature, and satire. Overall, I show how Robbins vernacularizes and popularizes science to make his self-empowerment products appear both authentic and authoritative. That is, I show how Robbins recycles different forms of psychological knowledge, marks them with the voice of tradition and innovation, and then sells them as useful and consumable “techniques” of “instant” lay healing within contemporary consumer culture.

Subject Area

Folklore|Social psychology|Cultural anthropology|Academic guidance counseling

Recommended Citation

Eret, Dylan C, "Capitalizing on self -fulfilling prophecies: The vernacular dimensions of Anthony Robbins' self -empowerment enterprise" (2001). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3003625.