NLP: Neuro-linguistic Programming

Is Neuro-linguistic Programming really a scientific psychotherapy breakthrough, or just a New Age self-help trend?

Filed under Fads, Logic & Persuasion

Skeptoid #155
May 26, 2009
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Also available in Russian
 

Today we're going to point our skeptical eye at Neuro-linguistic Programming, a New Age communication technique intended to facilitate the exertion of influence. Is it science, or is it another spin-the-wheel-and-invent-a-new-self-help-system disguising its marketing within scientific sounding language?

It was the early 1970's, and a young psychology student at the University of California, Santa Cruz was spending another late night in the lab. Richard Bandler's assignment was to transcribe hours and hours of psychotherapy sessions from the maverick German psychiatrist Fritz Perls. After transcribing until his hands were about to fall off, Bandler noticed an interesting pattern in the way Perls spoke to his patients. Perls had an odd — almost annoying — habit of taking his patients' comments and going back over them with very specific questions, forcing the patients to closely re-examine their wording. Sometimes it seemed that you couldn't make the simplest remark without Perls raking you over the coals. What made you choose this word; what are the implications of your statement? Perls would force his patients to confront the causes and motivations of even the most casual remark. Bandler noticed that this technique had a dramatic effect. Patients would eventually be ground down to the point that they were unable to explain themselves, leaving something of an internal void, and became exceptionally receptive to Perls' suggestions to fill that void. Rather than resenting what might be called harsh cross examination, patients instead tended to embrace the process; and Bandler found that taken as a whole, Perls' technique seemed highly effective.

Bandler reported his discovery to John Grinder, who was a linguist at Santa Cruz. Grinder was intrigued. The two discussed Bandler's findings at length, and decided to look for other incidences of the same pattern. They found them in the psychotherapy sessions of pioneering family therapist Virginia Satir. Believing that they'd stumbled onto something significant, Bandler and Grinder documented and codified the technique, and named it the Meta Model. Built largely around the Meta Model, the two men published the first two of many books to come in 1975. They heralded their discovery as a breakthrough in psychotherapy that would "help people have better, fuller and richer lives." (Keep in mind that this alleged breakthrough in psychotherapy was created by an undergrad and a linguist, neither of whom was a psychotherapist; though Bandler did go on to get an MA in psychology.)

They then built upon their Meta Model with a very different communication technique that they learned by studying the work of hypnotherapist Milton Erickson. Erickson's style was the polar opposite of the high pressure of the Meta Model. What he did was to give general suggestions to his hypnotherapy clients. He wouldn't give specific directions like "You feel happy," instead he'd give a suggestion like "You're free to feel this way if you want to." Not "Put the cup on the counter," but "Consider other places you might like to put the cup, somewhere over there for example." In this way, Erickson was able to guide the client through to his desired destination, but by leaving all the specific steps to get there up to the client, thus empowering them. Bandler and Grinder called this the Milton Model. They found both to be effective tools for influencing others.

Together, the Meta Model and the Milton Model formed the basis for what they came to call Neuro-linguistic Programming. Bandler and Grinder were up to five books by the time they published their Milton Model, and from then on, their subsequent books covered their whole umbrella of Neuro-linguistic Programming, shortened to NLP. By now, the books were being published by Bandler's own publishing company, Meta Publications. They also offered training workshops and classes, marketed at first through psychology trade publications. But it turned out their business came not from the industry, but from business managers, sales professionals, and New Age enthusiasts. NLP grew from the same roots, and shared many of the same customers, with EST and Esalen, also located in the same region around the northern California coast. Throughout the 1970's, such groups peddled self-help philosophies typically ignored by the mainstream. Bandler, Grinder, and the group of associates that grew around them became wealthy and successful, until the early 1980's when trademark disputes, mutual lawsuits, and Bandler's trial for the cocaine-fueled murder of a prostitute (for which he was acquitted) caused all the NLP leaders to splinter off from one another. Today the term NLP is in the public domain, and most of the original founders still publish their own material and teach their own classes using the term, but there is no one organization that owns the trademark.

I've read a fair amount about NLP, and my analysis of the Meta Model is pretty simple. I'd describe it as a confrontational manner of speaking intended to dominate a conversation by nitpicking the other's persons sentences apart. For example, if it's a good day and all is well, I might be inclined to make an offhand, general comment like "I feel pretty good today." The Meta Model response to that is "What specifically makes you feel good?" And, I don't really know. I don't really have a single, specific answer. And whatever I do come up with gets attacked the same way: "Exactly why does that make you feel good?" And suddenly I'm on the defensive; I'm being made to feel that I'm in error, the position I've taken is revealed to be unsupported; and I'm now putty in the NLP guy's hands. Basically, it's being a condescending jerk in the way you talk to someone, in order to exert influence. That's the Meta Model. It's not psychotherapy; it's high-pressure sales. The Milton Model takes a different road to the same destination: low-pressure sales.

And it's not just sales. It's negotiation in business. It's gaining the upper hand in interpersonal relationships. It's being an effective manager or sports coach. But — and this is the big "but" — despite the claims of those who sell NLP books and seminars, it is not part of modern psychotherapy. Russia and the UK do have professional associations of NLP practitioners, but these are composed largely of people selling books and seminars, and only rarely of credentialed psychiatrists. In 2005, the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry published the results of a comprehensive study of all the publications regarding NLP and similar modalities, which it grouped together under the term "power therapies". The article states:

Advocates of new therapies frequently make bold claims regarding therapeutic effectiveness, particularly in response to disorders which have been traditionally treatment-refractory. This paper reviews a collection of new therapies collectively self-termed 'The Power Therapies', outlining their proposed procedures and the evidence for and against their use. These therapies are then put to the test for pseudoscientific practice... It is concluded that these new therapies have offered no new scientifically valid theories of action, show only non-specific efficacy, show no evidence that they offer substantive improvements to extant psychiatric care, yet display many characteristics consistent with pseudoscience.

It seems the only mentions of NLP to be found in mainstream journals are critical, when they can be found at all, outside of the hypnotism and other fringe journals. Even way back in 1987, the Journal of Counseling Psychology published an article that:

Examines the experimental literature on neurolinguistic programming (NLP). [The authors] concluded that the effectiveness of this therapy was yet to be demonstrated. Presents data from seven recent studies that further question the basic tenets of NLP and their application in counseling situations.

Dig far enough and you can find publications that support the therapeutic use of NLP, albeit from journals of varying repute. Wikipedia's article on NLP provides a long list of such articles, so if you wanted to state the case that NLP is science, it would be easy to go there and back yourself up. Well, of course, Joe Blow on the street has no real way of knowing which side he should believe, so this is one case where I'd recommend looking at the meta analyses: Studies that attempt to summarize all the articles out there. The largest of these (that I could find) was done by Michael Heap in 1988:

If the assertions made by proponents of NLP about representational systems and their behavioural manifestations are correct, then its founders have made remarkable discoveries about the human mind and brain, which would have important implications for human psychology, particularly cognitive science and neuropsychology. Yet there is no mention of them in learned textbooks or journals devoted to these disciplines. Neither is this material taught in psychology courses at the pre-degree and degree level.

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Heap also found that when he asked colleagues about NLP, they generally hadn't even heard of it. Whatever else you want to say about NLP, the fact is that it is not part of mainstream psychology. That doesn't make it wrong or useless; it just means that it's not part of established, practiced science.

So really, what we have with NLP boils down to just another pop-culture, New Age, self-help system that disingenuously markets itself as science. Read this book and you'll be a better manager, a better salesman, more successful. The promise of results — be they money, success, interpersonal, psychological — is a red flag that you're solidly outside the world of professional psychology, or any other branch of medical science. If any doctor or other profession ever guarantees you results, or tells you that goals are only a few simple steps away, you have very good cause to be skeptical.

Brian Dunning

© 2009 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Carroll, R. The Skeptic's Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. 252-257.

Devilly, G. "Power Therapies and possible threats to the science of psychology and psychiatry." Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. 7 Jun. 2005, Volume 39, Issue 6: 437-445.

Editors. "List of studies on Neuro-linguistic programming." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 8 Jun. 2006. Web. 26 May. 2009. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_studies_on_Neuro-linguistic_programming#Generally_supportive>

Heap, M. Hypnosis: Current Clinical, Experimental and Forensic Practices. London: Croom Helm, 1988. 268-280.

Morgan, D. "A Scientific Assessment of NLP." Journal of the National Council for Psychotherapy & Hypnotherapy Register. 14 Mar. 1993, Volume 4, Number 2: 3-4.

Platt, G. "NLP - Neuro Linguistic Programming or No Longer Plausible?" Training Journal. 12 May 2001, Volume 1, Number 23: 10-15.

Sharpley, C. "Research Findings on Neurolinguistic Programming: Nonsupportive Data or an Untestable Theory?" Journal of Counseling Psychology. 7 Jan. 1987, Volume 34, Number 1: 103-107.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "NLP: Neuro-linguistic Programming." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 26 May 2009. Web. 1 Aug 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4155>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 67 comments

I am still waiting to some good review about NLP from some skeptic and this is not challenge but sincere wish.

So far I still bumb into some skeptic and find that he has little information about NLP. Problem is not that he is letting down something I use(not only it), but I doubt informations in other articles about things which I don't know.

That's the Meta Model. It's not psychotherapy; it's high-pressure sales.

Meta Model is not high pressure sales. It is just model and some people use it wrong. For what you describe there is term in NLP Community - Meta Model Monster.

Good way how to use meta model would be at least on this sentence.

Despite the claims of those who sell NLP books and seminars, it is not part of modern psychotherapy.

Who specifically make those claims? Because leading trainers in NLP does not claim something like that. For example http://www.nlpisnottherapy.com/ is from John La Valle who is now co-worker with Richard Bandler.

My question is how can I or anybody else be skeptic and have enough time to really get know things we want to be skeptic about?

NLP Practitioner, Europe
February 26, 2011 12:47am

"So really, what we have with NLP boils down to just another pop-culture, New Age, self-help system that disingenuously markets itself as science."
Most NLP practitioners don't market NLP as a science.
Most carpenters don't market their trade as science either.

It's a strawman.

"If any doctor or other profession ever guarantees you results, or tells you that goals are only a few simple steps away, you have very good cause to be skeptical." If someone guarantees you specific results with a money back guarantee then it's no reason to be skeptic.
It makes much more sense to be skeptic if someone is vague about the promised results and provides no guarantee.

ChristianKl, Berlin, Germany
April 14, 2011 7:53am

I'm a student of psychology, so I'm a little confused as to what NLP is supposed to be due to what I previously thought it was.

From what I understand from practitioners like Paul McKenna, NLP therapy would work through the same method of classical conditioning that creates phobias in the first place. Say a woman is mugged in the street one night and develops agrophobia. The conditioned response to the attack would be to fear being in open public.

NLP would work by having her imagine the event in different ways while under hypnosis. Such as changing the speed of the event, the colour of the memory, adding silly music etc. This would create a more positive conditioned response to replace the negative one that caused the fear.

But this does not sound anything like what Brian Described in this episode. What I thought NLP was fallows real psychological principles of classical conditioning. Are there two different kinds of NLP, or am I mixing up different forms of Psychothrapy for another?

Philip Dunbar, UK
July 12, 2011 3:03pm

Does anyone know of any resources to help combat NLP?

I'd like to be able to find resources that show how to recognise NLP, stop its influence, and then how to push back on it.

I can' t find much in the research I've been doing.

David, Auckland
September 15, 2011 5:18pm

The way to "combat NLP" is develop a good sense of yourself and what you want out of any given situation. No one can really make you do anything you aren't willing to do. Once you know it you'll see it being used (usually unconsciously) by large numbers of people whether they've heard of it or not

I started learning NLP in the late 70s and like Philip what I learned then doesn't really match what I'm hearing described here either.

I'd classify it as being just one tool (of many) available to a therapist and not a therapy in and of itself.

Raphael Swift, Warren CT
September 27, 2012 4:20pm

How come you talked about NLP and didn't mention Tony Robbins?

Rafael, Melbourne Australia
October 12, 2012 12:13am

My only exposure to NLP is the teachings of Tony Robbins, and the goals, concepts and practices of Robbins' NLP is nothing like those discussed in this podcast. Robbins' NLP consists purely in "gaining leverage" with one's self in order to produce a particular emotional response which, in theory, can be utilized to achieve a specific goal - for example, reinforcing pain and disgust associated with smoking in order to develop enough negative emotions around smoking that you WANT to quit, as opposed to just quitting.

NLP (or, more accurately, Robbins' off-shoot of it, NAC - neuro-associative conditioning) is the foundation for his entire self-help program, and he's one of the most well-known self-help guru's out there, so I too am surprised you did not mention him whatsoever.

DrStrangepork, Framingham, MA
February 6, 2013 8:58am

I just came onto your post and found it quite interesting. I am also associated with homeopathy surrey, sports massage surrey, homeopathy london, sports massage london,london,CEASE therapist, CEASE, autism, back pain, allergy, allergies, therapy, and enjoy to read the stuff on the same as its rarely found on internet. Thanks again for writing such a good post.

james patterson, delhi
March 12, 2013 10:49pm

My curious nature got the best of me back in 1987 and I took the course and was enlighten to some amazing facts and two years later went on to the master course and one of the teachers was Bandler himself. Because you take a couple of courses in art does not make you an artist the same goes for NLP. I was delighted and with the help of some others there I cleared up some things that bothered me for years. For the cost of smoking for a year you can take the course and find out for yourself instead of depending on someone else's opinion.

Jude O\'Connor, Oswego
March 26, 2013 2:07pm

DO YOUR due diligence, YOU GIVE YOUR POWER AWAY WHEN YOU TAKE SOMEONE ELSE'S WORD for it. Experience for yourself and make up your OWN MIND.

There may be skeptics and critics in life, won't there?

There may be liars & crooks, won't there?

There will be influencers and empowerers, won't there?

Which one do you choose to be or listen to?

People tend to think things are either this or either that, white or black, wrong or right, bad or good, things are neither, it's YOUR CHOICE.

You'll never know if something works for you unless you try it on for yourself. A scenario: You go shopping for a jacket & try it on, it doesn't fit, so you leave it at the store, don't you? You try something else on that YOU think is fabulous and the price is right, then you take it home & enjoy it, don't you?

In regards to Neuro Linguistic Programming. . .experience it for yourself. Give yourself that gift!

I love guiding people in making their dreams/goals come true. N.L.P. is an extraordinary toolbox for my clients to shine light on their unconscious thoughts. These unconscious thoughts may be causing blocks that have been creating obstacles in the way of creating what the client/dreamer wants in reality.

The client/dreamer is able to see for them self their own blocks and delete if and when THEY CHOOSE.

N.L.P. is not a do too. . .it's a way to guide people to see their blind spots.

Cali T. Rossen
The Pow Girl
Illuminating the way. . .

The Pow Girl, Illuminating the way, City of Angels, CA
February 4, 2014 2:29pm

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