NLP: Neuro-linguistic Programming
Is Neuro-linguistic Programming really a scientific psychotherapy breakthrough, or just a New Age self-help trend?
by Brian Dunning
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.
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.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "NLP: Neuro-linguistic Programming." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
26 May 2009. Web.
22 Feb 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4155>
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.
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