Neuro-linguistic programming and science

Neuro-linguistic programming and science

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is an approach to explaining human behaviour, thought and communication. NLP describes how people represent and communicate with the world, and which gives principles or techniques for identifying thought patterns and behaviour.[1] The founders of NLP, Richard Bandler and John Grinder, originally promoted by it in the 1970s as an extraordinarily effective and rapid form of psychological therapy,[2] capable of addressing the full range of problems which psychologists are likely to encounter, such as phobias, depression, habit disorder, psychosomatic illnesses, and learning disorders.[3] NLP also espoused the potential for self-determination through overcoming learned limitations[4] and emphasised well-being and healthy functioning. Later, it was promoted as a 'science of excellence', derived from the study or 'modelling'[5] of how successful or outstanding people in different fields obtain their results. It was claimed that these skills can be learned by anyone to improve their effectiveness both personally and professionally[6]

The majority of the empirical research into NLP was conducted by psychologists in the 1980s and 1990s. The most cited review, by Christopher Sharpley was published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology in 1984, and found little support for primary representation systems and predicate matching which was the focus of the research at the time. However, several researchers and practitioners have questioned the methodology and validity of the studies.[7] Sharpley's review marked a decline in empirical research interest,[8] though research continues.[9]


Sharpley's review of primary representational systems

The majority of the empirical research carried out in the 1980s and 1990s consisted of laboratory experimentation testing Bandler and Grinder's hypothesis[10] that an observer can identify a person's preferred sensory mode of thinking by observing eye-movement cues and sensory predicates in language use.[11] A research review conducted by Christopher Sharpley in 1984,[12] followed by another review in 1987 in response to criticism by Einspruch and Forman,[7] concluded that there was little evidence for the usefulness of NLP as an effective counseling tool.

Sharpley (publishing in the Journal of Counseling Psychology) undertook a literature review of 15 studies on the existence and effectiveness of preferred representational systems (PRS), an underlying principle of NLP. He found "little research evidence supporting its usefulness as an effective counseling tool" and concluded that there was no reproducible support for PRS or for predicate matching.[12]

Critique by Einspruch and Forman

Sharpley's conclusions have been contested [7] [13] [14] on the grounds that the studies demonstrated an incomplete understanding of the claims of NLP and that the interviewers involved in many of the studies had inadequate training/competence in NLP.[11] Eric Einspruch and Bruce Forman (1985) broadly agreed with Sharpley, although they criticised his apparent failure to address methodological errors in the research reviewed. They claimed that "NLP is far more complex than presumed by researchers, and thus, the data are not true evaluations of NLP"[12] adding that NLP is difficult to test under the traditional counseling psychology framework, and that the research lacked a necessary understanding of pattern recognition as part of advanced NLP training. There was also inadequate control of context, an unfamiliarity with NLP as an approach to therapy, inadequate definitions of rapport, and numerous logical mistakes in the research methodology.[15]

Sharpley response

In 1987, Sharpley published a response to Einspruch and Forman with a review of a further 7 studies on the same basic tenets (totalling 44 including those cited by Einspruch and Forman).[16] This second article included a review of Elich et al. (1985), a study that found no support for the proposed relationship between eye movements, spoken predicates, and internal imagery. Elich et al. stated that "NLP has achieved something akin to cult status when it may be nothing more than a psychological fad".[17]

Sharpley conceded that a number of NLP techniques are worthwhile or beneficial in counselling, citing predicate matching, mirroring clients behaviors, moving sensory modalities, reframing, anchoring and changing history, but argued that none of these techniques originated within NLP. "NLP may be seen as a partial compendium of rather than as an original contribution to counseling practice and, thereby, has a value distinct from the lack of research data supporting the underlying principles that Bandler and Grinder posited to present NLP as a new and magical theory". He concluded that as a counselling tool, the techniques and underlying theory unique to NLP, were both empirically unvalidated and unsupported but that "if NLP is presented as a theory-less set of procedures gathered from many approaches to counselling, then it may serve as a reference role for therapists who wish to supplement their counselling practice by what may be novel techniques to them."

A study by Buckner et al. (1987, after Sharpley), using trained NLP practitioners found support for the claim that specific eye movement patterns existed for visual and auditory components of thought, and that trained observers could reliably identify them.[18] However, the study did not address whether such patterns indicated a preferred representational system. They also made suggestions for further research.

NLP and anxiety treatments

Krugman et al. (1985) tested claims for a 'one-session' treatment of performance anxiety against another method and a control group and found no support for claims of a 'one-session' effective treatment.[19] Buckner et al. however argued for further research into NLP amongst other treatments that have "achieved popularity in the absence of data supporting their utility".

Enhancing human performance study

As part of a study that investigated various psychological techniques for learning, improving motor skills, altering mental states, stress management and social influence at the request of the US Army Research Institute, the Committee on Techniques for the Enhancement of Human Performance (United States National Research Council) selected several heavily marketed human performance enhancement techniques that made strong claims for their efficacy. Many of the techniques evaluated happened to have origins in the human potential movement. NLP was selected as a strategy for social influence and was evaluated by the psychological techniques committee directed by social psychologist Daniel Druckman.[20] The committee was already aware of the weak support for preferred representation systems (PRS) in the literature and noted that the body of research had largely not tested NLP beyond the assumptions related to PRS (consistent with the Sharpley's literature review in Journal of Counseling Psychology). However, the effect of matching predicates on all representations showed strong effect on perceptions.[21]

The NRC came to two conclusions. First, the committee "found little if any" evidence to support NLP’s assumptions or to indicate that it is effective as a strategy for social influence. "It assumes that by tracking another’s eye movements and language, an NLP trainer can shape the person’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions (Dilts, 1983[22]). There is no scientific support for these assumptions."[23] Secondly, the committee "were impressed with the modeling approach used to develop the technique. The technique was developed from careful observations of the way three master psychotherapists conducted their sessions, emphasizing imitation of verbal and nonverbal behaviors. This then led the committee to take up the topic of expert modeling in the second phase of its work."[23] These studies marked a decline in research interest in NLP generally, and particularly in matching sensory predicates and its use in counsellor-client relationship in counseling psychology.[24]

Heap's review

Michael Heap (1988) conducted a systematic review of the research literature on NLP and found that it was lacking in evidence.

The present author is satisfied that the assertions of NLP writers concerning the representational systems have been objectively and fairly investigated and found to be lacking. These assertions are stated in unequivocal terms by the originators of NLP and it is clear from their writings that phenomena such as representational systems, predicate preferences and eye-movement patterns are claimed to be potent psychological processes, easily and convincingly demonstrable on training courses by tutors and trainees following simple instructions, and, indeed, in interactions in everyday life.


Therefore, in view of the absence of any objective evidence provided by the original proponents of the PRS hypothesis, and the failure of subsequent empirical investigations to adequately support it, it may well be appropriate now to conclude 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. […] These conclusions, and the failure of investigators to convincingly demonstrate the alleged benefits of predicate matching, seriously question the role of such a procedure in counselling.[25]

Heap (1988) remarks [26] that 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. When Heap spoke to academic colleagues who spend much time researching and teaching in these fields, they showed little awareness, if any, of NLP.[26][27]

Heap (1988) argued that to arrive at such important generalisations about the human mind and behaviour would certainly require prolonged, systematic, and meticulous investigation of human subjects using robust procedures for observing, recording, and analysing the phenomena under investigation. "There is just no other way of doing this". Yet the founders of NLP never revealed any such research or investigation, and there is no evidence of its existence.[26] Indeed, Bandler himself claimed it was not his job to prove any of his claims about the workings of the human mind, "The truth is, when we know how something is done, it becomes easy to change" (ibid).[28]

Research issues


According to Grant Devily, at the time it was introduced, NLP was heralded[by whom?] as a breakthrough in therapy, and advertisements for training workshops, videos and books began to appear in trade[which?] magazines. The workshops provided certification. However, controlled studies shed such a poor light on the practice, and those promoting the intervention made such extreme and changeable claims, that researchers began to question the wisdom of researching the area further.[8]

Pseudoscience argument

Skeptics argue that NLP's claims for scientific respectability are fake, and it is really a pseudoscience, since it is not based on the scientific method. Its very name is a pretense to a legitimate discipline like neuroscience, neurolinguistics, and psychology. It has a large collection of scientific sounding terms, like eye accessing cues, metamodeling, micromodeling, metaprogramming, neurological levels, presuppositions, primary representational systems, modalities and submodalities. Psychologist Barry L. Beyerstein stated that "though it claims neuroscience in its pedigree, NLP's outmoded view of the relationship between cognitive style and brain function ultimately boils down to crude analogies."[29]

Methodological issues

Several researchers and practitioners have argued that while the body of empirical research that exists to date is not supportive of NLP it was not sufficient to dismiss it.[11] Watkins stated that "Neurolinguistic Programming studies attempted to match eye movements and representational patterns. These are appropriate tests of the validity of the proponents' claims. However, one can only speculate what might have been learned with a wider range of outcome variables. Since this is a review of empirical research it may seem unfair to focus on limitations of the studies reported, but at a minimum the authors could have critiqued the methodological rigor and conceptual soundness of the variables tested."[30]


Proponents of NLP often deny that it is based on theory. Tosey and Mathison state that: "A question often asked of NLP is that of whether it has a theory. As noted above, authors in the field emphasize pragmatism, and have seldom shown interest in articulating NLP as a theory. Because NLP has always aimed to model "what works", one can find evidence within its practices of an eclectic approach that draws from (among other things) cognitive-behavioural approaches, Gestalt therapy, hypnotherapy, family therapy, and brief therapy.[31]

Tosey and Mathison state that "the pragmatic and often anti-theoretical stance by the founders has left a legacy of little engagement between practitioner and academic communities".[11][32]

Renewed research interest

Several practitioner have expressed interest in investigating NLP further using multiple methodologies, not just empirical. The first, vendor neutral, NLP Research Conference was held in 2008 sponsored by University of Surrey with the aim of encouraging improved research collaboration.[33]

See also


  1. ^ Heap 1988, and Harry Adler,Handbook of NLP: A Manual for Professional Communicators, Gower 2002
  2. ^ It is explicitly stated (e.g. Bandler & Grinder, 1979, p ii; Lankton, 1980, pp 9-13) that by using NLP, problems such as phobias and learning disabilities may be disposed of in less than an hour's session (whereas with other therapies, progress may take weeks or months). According to Michael Heap in a paper on NLP written in 1988 for The Psychologist (the monthly magazine of the British Psychological Society p 261-262) one NLP workshop announcement claimed that spelling problems may be eliminated in five minutes (NLP Training Programme)
  3. ^ Grinder and Bandler alleged (1981, p 166) that a single session of NLP combined with hypnosis can eliminate certain eyesight problems such as myopia, and can even cure a common cold (op.cit., p 174). Also, (op.cit., p 169) Bandler and Grinder make the claim that by combining NLP methods with hypnotic regression, a person can be not only effectively cured of a problem, but also rendered amnesic for the fact that they had the problem in the first place. Thus, after a session of therapy, smokers may deny that they smoked before, even when their family and friends insist otherwise, and they are unable to account for such evidence as nicotine stains.
  4. ^ e.g. Bandler & Andreas 1985
  5. ^ Bandler & Grinder 1975b p.6). [Bandler, R. & Grinder, J. 1975b, The Structure of Magic: a book about language and therapy. Palo Alto: Science and Behavior Books
  6. ^ O'Connor & Seymour (p xii)
  7. ^ a b c Einspruch, E. L., & Forman, B. D. (1985). "Observations Concerning Research Literature on Neuro-Linguistic Programming". Journal of Counseling Psychology, 32(4), 589-596. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.32.4.589
  8. ^ a b Grant J. Devilly (2005) "Power Therapies and possible threats to the science of psychology and psychiatry" Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry Vol.39 p.437 doi:10.1111/j.1440-1614.2005.01601.x
  9. ^ Bigley J, Griffiths PD, Prydderch A, Romanowski CA, Miles L, Lidiard H, Hoggard N (2010). "Neurolinguistic programming used to reduce the need for anaesthesia in claustrophobic patients undergoing MRI". The British Journal of Radiology 83 (986): 113–7. doi:10.1259/bjr/14421796. 
  10. ^ Bandler, R., Grinder, J. (1979). Frogs into Princes: Neuro Linguistic Programming. Moab, UT: Real People Press.. pp. 149 (p.8 (quote), pp.15,24, 30, 45,52). ISBN 0911226192. 
  11. ^ a b c d Tosey P. & Mathison, J., "Fabulous Creatures Of HRD: A Critical Natural History Of Neuro-Linguistic Programming ", University of Surrey Paper presented at the 8th International Conference on Human Resource Development Research & Practice across Europe, Oxford Brookes Business School, 26th – 28th June 2007
  12. ^ a b c Sharpley, C. F. (1984). Predicate matching in NLP: A review of research on the preferred representational system. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 31(2), 238-248.
  13. ^ Grinder, John & Carmen Bostic St Clair (2001). Whispering in the Wind. CA: J & C Enterprises.. ISBN 0-9717223-0-7. 
  14. ^ Beck, C.E., & Beck E.A., "Test of the Eye-Movement Hypothesis of Neurolinguistic Programming: A Rebuttal of Conclusions" Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1984, Vol. 58, p 175-176 doi:10.2466/PMS.58.1.175-176
  15. ^ Einspruch, Eric L., Forman, Bruce D. (1985). "Observations Concerning Research Literature on Neuro-Linguistic Programming". Journal of Counseling Psychology 32 (4): 589–596. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.32.4.589. 
  16. ^ Sharpley C.F. (1987). "Research Findings on Neuro-linguistic Programming: Non supportive Data or an Untestable Theory". Communication and Cognition. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 1987 Vol. 34, No. 1: 103–107, 105. 
  17. ^ Elich, M., Thompson, R. W., & Miller, L. (1985). Mental imagery as revealed by eye movements and spoken predicates: A test of neurolinguistic programming. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 32(4), 622-625. note: "psychological fad" p. 625
  18. ^ Buckner, Meara, Reese, and Reese (1987) Journal of Counselling Psychology, Vol. 34(3), pp.283-287
  19. ^ Krugman, Kirsch, Wickless, Milling, Golicz, & Toth (1985). Neuro-linguistic programming treatment for anxiety: Magic or myth? Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology. Vol 53(4), 526-530.
  20. ^ Druckman & Swets, 1988 see pages 138-149.
  21. ^ Druckman & Swets, 1988., see p.243
  22. ^ Dilts, Robert (1983) Roots of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Meta Publications, Capitola, CA, ISBN 0916990125
  23. ^ a b Druckman, Daniel (2004) "Be All That You Can Be: Enhancing Human Performance" Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Volume 34, Number 11, November 2004, pp. 2234-2260(27) doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2004.tb01975.x
  24. ^ Gelso and Fassinger (1990) "Counseling Psychology: Theory and Research on Interventions" Annual Review of Psychology doi:10.1146/
  25. ^ Michael Heap (1988) Hypnosis: Current Clinical, Experimental & Forensic Practices
  26. ^ a b c Heap, M. (1988). Neuro-linguistic programming, In M. Heap (Ed.) Hypnosis: Current Clinical, Experimental and Forensic Practices. London: Croom Helm. 
  27. ^ See also Efran and Lukens (1990), claiming that "original interest in NLP turned to disillusionment after the research and now it is rarely even mentioned in psychotherapy"(p.122) -- Efran, J S. Lukens M.D. (1990) Language, structure, and change: frameworks of meaning in psychotherapy, Published by W.W. Norton, New York. ISBN 0393701034
  28. ^ Bandler 2008
  29. ^ Beyerstein.B.L (1990). Brainscams: Neuromythologies of the New Age. International Journal of Mental Health 19(3): 27-36, 27.
  30. ^ Karen E Watkins. (1997) An invited response: Selected alternative training techniques in HRD Human Resource Development Quarterly. San Francisco: Winter 1997. Vol. 8, Iss. 4; pg. 295, 5 pgs
  31. ^ For more extensive discussion of NLP's theory in relation to learning see Tosey and Mathison ( 2003; 2008):
  32. ^ They add that "The literature in academic journals is minimal; in the field of HRD see (Georges 1996), (Ashok & Santhakumar 2002), (Thompson, Courtney, & Dickson 2002). There has been virtually no published investigation into how NLP is used in practice. The empirical research consists largely of laboratory-based studies from the 1980s and 1990s, which investigated two particular notions from within NLP, the "eye movement" model (Bandler & Grinder 1979), and the notion of the "primary representational system", according to which individuals have a preferred sensory mode of internal imagery indicated by their linguistic predicates (Grinder & Bandler 1976). - Tosey and Mathison 2007
  33. ^ Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Learning - A University of Surrey Project

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