Neurolinguistic programming

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Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) began as an alternative school of psychotherapy in California, USA, during the mid-seventies. It was initiated by John Grinder, a linguistic professor, and Richard Bandler, a graduate, at the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC). It is now marketed as a powerful method or technique of personal development offering unlimited potential and rapid improvement in the way a person thinks, behaves or feels [1]. It is supposed to work by copying or "modelling" the behaviour and thinking styles of particularly effective and successful people in business, coaching, education, sales, therapy, sport, and personal development.

Detractors argue that it is a hotch–potch of theories, some of which are based on legitimate science, but which have no connection with NLP, others of which are completely unscientific, including hypnosis, psychotherapy and unconscious thinking, mixed up into a messy soup of new age thinking.


NLP originated when Richard Bandler, a student at Santa Cruz University, California was transcribing taped therapy sessions of the Gestalt therapist Frits Perls as a project for the psychiatrist Dr Robert Spitzer, who had originally commissioned Bandler to teach his son drums. Bandler believed he recognized particular word and sentence structures which facilitated the acceptance of Perls’ positive suggestions. Bandler took this revelation to one of his university teachers, Dr John Grinder, a linguist, and together they produced what they termed the ' Meta Model ', a model of what they believe to be influential word structures and how they work (one can think of it like a large multi-limbed protocol diagram). This they published as 'The Structure of Magic'. Much of it was very similar to and based on previous linguistic work by Grinder on transactional grammar which has since been superseded by the theories of Lakov, Chomsky and others. In the development they also modelled therapeutic sessions of the family therapist Virginia Satir. Perls died before the growth and popularisation of NLP and Satir was at best ambivalent about it in the years before her own death.

In collaboration with others, including the sociologist Gregory Bateson, Bandler and Grinder developed NLP by attaching a hodgepodge of theories of psychology, personal development and communication. These are too numerous to list completely but examples are as follows.

The Milton Model

Although perceiving some success in the application of the ' Meta Model ' (the co originators, as they have now agreed to be called the – see later for further information) found it did not deal with all situations and as suggested by Bateson they modelled the language influencing techniques of the hypnotist Milton Ericsson. This allowed NLP more options of approach. As opposed to the 'Meta Model' which used language specifically Ericsson used very vague language so as clients could put their own interpretations on anything he said.

The Map/Territory Distinction

This is a concept originated by Alfred Korszybski, a 20th century Polish American scientific theorist and philosopher, in his large and opaque volume on the philosophy of science and thought published in 1921 entitled ' Science and Sanity '. This is now virtually forgotten and of no influence. In essence the Map/Territory Distinction simply says that things are not always what they seem. This is hardly an earth shattering insight.

Representational Thought Systems and Predicates

NLP proposes that people think preferentially in seeing, hearing or feeling terms and that the words they use, termed predicates, indicate their preferred system of thought. It is further proposed that matching predicates can increase rapport. This is a nice idea but has never stood up to any scientific analysis or testing and critics counter propose that it can actually make one more likely to be distrusted.

Eye Accessing Clues

This relates to ' Representational Systems ' and proposes that eye movements demonstrated momentarily before processing a thought indicate the representational system being used for that thought. Again there has never been any scientific evidence that this is true.

Theories of Personal Development and Achievement

Audaciously expressed in the early NLP text 'Frogs into Princes' was the contention that anyone can do anything any other human can do once they learn how to via the modelling techniques of NLP. This so-called classic work was transcribed from an early seminar given by Bandler and Grinder to psychologists by their follower Steve Andreas aka John O Stevens. This principle remains central to NLP teaching but has been toned down to allow rational acceptance. Again there is nothing revelatory about watching and learning! Bandler was nothing if not outrageous and extreme.

Commercial Developments

Bandler and Grinder and cohorts originally presented NLP to the psychological community in America. Due to its inherent deficiencies it failed to meet the potential promised. One would have thought that a panacea that had been about since the 70s would now be in widespread use! Much like the similar fairytale, EMDR, when challenged about the inability of NLP theories to stand up to rigorous scientific analysis the so-called NLP Community will say that NLP is not a science and should not be judged by scientific criteria. Something frequently said by apologists for nonsense therapies.

Emphasis then shifted to the business and personal development industries, ripe for the taking in America and without any real requirement for rigorous analysis of results achieved. NLP as now developed had attached many amusing parlour tricks, just the ticket for the lucrative seminar circuit. Anyone who has attended a course will know what these are. Here the goose really did lay the golden egg! But despite being promoted as 'New Technology of Achievement' none of the advocates achieved anything except making money directly and indirectly from the promotion of NLP theories to others.

NLP grew out of the New Age and drug sub culture of the time of its origin as documented by McClendon in ' NLP -- the Wild Days '. By the mid-1980s Richard Bandler was divorced from his wife and hopelessly addicted to alcohol and cocaine which he used prodigiously. In 1986 he was accused and stood trial for the murder of Corinne Christiansen, a prostitute who acted as his bookkeeper. (This information is only available on the Internet [2] where there is a reprint of an explanatory Mother Jones Magazine article). Around this time the popularity of NLP waned in America where it is now seen as lacking credibility.

Bandler has attempted unsuccessfully to sue Grinder and others for multi-million-dollar intellectual property rights related to what is termed NLP knowledge. The two masters of communication now appeared only to communicate via their legal teams! Both of the co originators and others have now developed new variants of NLP which they claim tell the whole truth, including the bits the original theories missed out and which are essential to understanding and development. Bandler now advocates ' Human Design Engineering ', Grinder has developed 'New Code NLP', Tony Robbins has 'Neuro Associative Conditioning ', and Michael Hall promotes 'Neurosemantics' to name but a few.

Bandler and Grinder now spend an increasing amount of time in other countries such as Britain. Others such as Paul McKenna have jumped on the bandwagon, or should I say mounted the gravy train! Ever mindful of the need for new markets the unsubstantiated theories of NLP are promoted with vigour and panache and defended perhaps with just a little of the wrath of Scientology towards those who dare to shout 'the emperor has no clothes!' NLP is gaining influence in medicine somewhat mirroring the popularisation of Mesmerism in 19th-century medicine. NLP is just as unscientific. I write this because I believe its growing influence requires to be challenged. ( This is already happening in the fields of education and management. For example in the informative and rational blog of the educationalist Donald Clark.) I am concerned about the credibility of the medical profession.

NLP is not nearly so popular in France where Norbert Vogel has been active in challenging its unscientific assertions and in any case its promise of a quick fix and advancement and achievement without talent and years of hard work is contrary to the French way of thinking.

Is NLP a science?

NLP has many of the characteristics of pseudoscience. The notions of 'falsifiability' and 'disconfirmation' are central to the program of science. But NLP makes many unfalsifiable claims, and it has little if any predictive power. NLP practice is divorced from the practice of empirical verification, its theorising is not substantiated with reference to empirical evidence, and it does not exploit the body of knowledge of established disciplines.

Another characteristic of pseudoscience is that its research program is degenerating. A research program is deemed 'progressive' if it at least sometimes produces new predictions that are confirmed, and 'degenerating' if it fails to lead to new and confirmed predictions. In a progressive research program theoretical predictions successfully anticipate new data. In a degenerating research program the data precedes the theory, there is data "in search of a theory", and post hoc explanations abound. He cites the example of the addition of the notion of meta-programs to NLP, specifically to 'cognitive strategies'. When it was discovered that individuals with identical strategies presented fundamental differences the notion of meta-programs was postulated to prevent the falsification of the 'cognitive stragetgies' theory.

NLP is also 'personalised' by its assocation with Richard Bandler and John Grinder and a handful of other individuals, and by its fanatical and cult-like following - another characteristic that positions it as pseudoscience, New Age and cult-like, and which is also to be found in Scientology, Silva Mind Control, est and other psycho-cults.

Its theoretical basis is actively denied to exist by many proponents. However, its originators, particularly Bandler and Grinder, do pretend that it is scientific. Why do Bandler and Grindertalk about neurology. Why do they present their own theories regarding learning, memory, thinking, mental illness, emotion, consciousness, neurology, motivation, language and perception, that are largely inconsistent with the findings of scientific disciplines that cover these domains? If Bandler and Grinder are positing theories in an area that is the province of science then they are preseneting NLP as something scientific. There is an "NLP theory of schizophrenia". NLP is therefore competing with scientifically based fields (neuropsychiatry, neuropharmacology, genetics, psychiatry) in providing understanding and treatment of schizophrenia. Mental illness treatment is the province of science. Hence NLP is presenting itself as a scientific field.

Some proponents argue that NLP is more like mysticism or religion. However, unlike religion, NLP makes claims and posits explanations regarding learning, memory, thinking, mental illness, motivation, neurology and physiology, and so its domain is the same as that of science. NLP is offering competing theories and therapies to established scientific disciplines. By contrast, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is exclusively concerned with theology, it is entirely a religious matter and is hence entirely outside of the scope of scientific inquiry. During the 14th century when the Roman Church did stray outside its proper domain of discourse and opine on matters of astronomy and medicine -- subjects of science -- it was plainly in error. The Roman Catholic Church was not offering a legitimate Christian perspective on astronomy or medicine. What the NLP industry is doing is akin to the medieval Christian Church competing with science on matters outside of its authority.

NLP training

No university offers a course in NLP.

It is much favoured by trainers for its childish tricks for classroom courses.

Scientific Research on NLP

The Principal Clinical Psychologist for Sheffield Health Authority, Dr Michael Heap, looked at 70 papers on NLP, to examine its theoretical underpinning - Primary Representational System (PRS). This is the claim that we think in a specific mode: visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory or gustatory (first three being the most common). Thus NLP trainers would now diagnose me as olfactory, as keywords (predicates) are central to the theory, along with eye movements. The claim is that rapport can be enhanced using these techniques, therefore fooling people into doing what you want; working harder, buying your product etc.

Heap looked at the scientific literature and found that PRS is not serious science. He found that 'keywords' are not indicators in the way NLP practitioners claim and ‘eye movement’ theories are, in particular, widely rejected. On ‘establishing rapport’, again Heap found that there was no scientific evidence for the claim that these techniques improve rapport. In a famous study, Cody found that NLP therapists, using language matching, were actually rated as untrustworthy and ineffective. Heap concludes that NLP is “found to be lacking” and that “there is not, and never has been, any substance to the conjecture that people represent their world internally in a preferred mode which may be inferred from their choice of predicates and from their eye movements”.

David Platt, drawing from the German NLP research website found that

1. There was no bona fide evidence to support the use of representational systems and concluded that they did not appear to play any significant role in communication.

2. Use of predicates had little to no influence in building or enhancing rapport.

3. Eye-accessing cues appeared to have no significant positive or negative impact when utilised in personal interactions.

Serious linguists will have nothing to do with the theory as its linguistic components were debunked long ago. Corballis says that "NLP is a thoroughly fake title, designed to give the impression of scientific respectability. NLP has little to do with neurology, linguistics, or even the respectable subdiscipline of neurolinguistics".

Beyerstein accuses NLP of being a total con, new-age fakery to be classed alongside scientology and astrology and many experts in management science are uncomfortable with its being mentioned alongside management theory. Sanghera, in the FT, described NLP as ‘pop-psychology’, ‘pseudoscience’ and ‘banal’. It has been called training’s ‘astrology’.

  • Heap (1988, 1989)
  • Krugman (1985)
  • Corbalis (1999)
  • Beyerstein (1990).

Neurolinguistic programming in Wikipedia

The Neutral Point of View policy has clearly broken down in the case of NLP. Consider the NLP article as it was in Wikipedia on 31 December 2005, with the version of as of 17 December 2007. The 2005 version says that "Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a collection of self-help recommendations, promoted through the popular psychology and self development sections of bookshops, and advertised in various media including the Internet and infomercials.", and that "NLP has been criticized in reviews of research by scientists such as Heap (1988), Sharpley (1987), Lilienfeld (2003), and (Singer & Lalich 1999), which have found that Neuro-linguistic programming is scientifically unsupported and largely ineffective. " You will not find this in the introduction to the 2007 version.

Neurolinguistic programming receives probably more attention in Wikipedia than any other apparently scientific subject. The following articles were all started by, and mainly written by FT2.

NLP professionals promoting NLP on Wikipedia

A post by Wales containing advice on dealing with the NLP dispute. Jimbo is asking all to be friends (i.e. to acquiesce to the NLP companies’ sock/meats), when in fact the only thing that needs to happen is to slap a ban on the obvious NLP cult. Katefan0 was heavily involved and actually ditched WP during this episode.

Another admin called Woohookitty seems to have stayed, and rather bullied the skeptics off in favor of the NLP companies. However Woohookitty seems to have strongly criticized FT2 and the promoters here and left in disgust a few days later (for the NLP companies to carry on the NLP whitewash). this was the quote from WHK that FT2 used to support of the idea that it was the anti-NLP editors who drove her off.

Action Potential, who seems to have changed his username from Comaze. He seems to have been promoting NLP all along, and surprise surprise, FT2 has consistently defended the COI NLP company’s promotion of NLP via WP.

Comaze/Action Potential is a character called [Scott Coleman] who runs [ Comaze, a "Human Performance Technologies" company. He at the time edited a lot with an editor called GregA, probably an NLP trainer called Greg Alexander:

Comaze also seems to have been working and recruiting together with an editor called Fainites:

User Whas is (according to his user page) a second year Graduate Student in a Masters in counseling psychology program in Austin, TX, working toward his counseling licensure. He is a certified trainer of NLP and has about 400 hours of training in its techniques and principles, as well as many hundreds of hours of experience working with clients in a coaching setting.