Is NLP pseudoscientific baloney or an effective tool for personal development?

February 9, 2011 in Ignite, NLP, Provocative by

Neuro-Linguistic Programming is often the subject of heated debate between believers, critics and crazies. Much like every conversation on the ‘net, it usually disintegrates into screaming insults and ad hominem attacks, which is great fun to read, so let’s get another one started.

What is the definition of NLP?

Cogs are turning: Did he take too much off the back?

“Neuro-Linguistic Programming n. a model of interpersonal communication chiefly concerned with the relationship between successful patterns of behaviour and the subjective experiences (esp. patterns of thought) underlying them; a system of alternative therapy based on this which seeks to educate people in self-awareness and effective communication, and to change their patterns of mental and emotional behaviour.” – [Oxford English Dictionary]

NLP could be described the application of the placebo effect. It involves doing whatever you can to make a person believe they’re going to change, and as such relies heavily upon your combined preconceptions. It uses some cunning quirks of language and exploits behavioural patterns to deepen a person’s responsiveness to suggestion. Really, it’s a model for learning.

Pseudoscience Vs Science

Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference

Pseudoscience separates itself from ordinary science based mainly on the element of falsifiability. Claims of a scientific nature must be tested in a way that makes it possible to be proven wrong, and NLP avoids that by being the practice of ‘doing what works’ – which makes it unfalsifiable.

Another element of pseudoscience is the habit of starting with a conclusion and moving towards a solution. One of the central beliefs of NLP is that everyone can be ‘reprogrammed’, it will just requires the right intervention. That also makes it pseudoscience, because if a practitioner has an ineffective interaction with a client, it can be disregarded as ‘just not right for them’.

Both of those beliefs are very useful, but they are also anatomically similar to most pseudosciences.

But: The art of developing hypotheses, critically evaluating them and discarding those that are false, is science. Guessing and testing is what NLP is all about.

How does NLP work?

The core of NLP is ‘modelling’ – which is the practice of recognising someone’s excellence (perhaps at selling things or being funny), finding out how they achieve that excellence, then working at replicating those results for yourself. It’s pretty obvious that we all do that. That’s how we learned to speak and do all of the other things we do so well – NLP just gives a structure to that learning.

But the ‘Field of NLP’ or FoNLP as it’s sometimes called, are ideas or tools that are the fruit that was borne from Richard Bandler and John Grinder modelling psychotherapists and hypnotherapists (Virginia Satir, Fritz Perls, Milton Erickson, Frank Farrelly and more). It includes an ever increasing range of hypotheses that do make testable claims.

Research on NLP

Here’s where NLP starts looking dodgy, because since Bandler and Grinder invented it in the 70’s, small amounts of sketchy research have produced mixed results.

Mirroring Policemen:

Some dude called Vrij wrote a report after watching two policemen ‘acting strangely’ in an interrogation with a suspect and wrote a paper about his observations of mirroring in “Neuro-linguistic programming and the police: Worthwhile or not?

I poke my cheek then I poke you

Mirroring is the practice of matching someone else’s posture to build rapport with them – but it’s often sold cheaply as something simple. In reality, rapport-building is about matching someone in a way that feels comfortable and genuine and causes them to think ‘I like this person because they’re like me’.

But if you’re a cop trying to develop rapport with a criminal by sitting silently in an interrogation room with them and copying their body language, hoping that they’ll spontaneously confess, then you’re a flaming moron.

If you’ve ever noticed that someone is copying your posture and movements exactly, you’ll know that it’s creepy as hell. It does not develop rapport, it destroys it. Not surprisingly, the suspect just sat there in silence. Worst. Research. Ever.

Sharpley’s research on Preferred Prepresentational Systems

A major elements of the field of NLP is the ‘Meta Model’, which is the belief that we process information through a variety of senses (visual, auditory or kinesthetic), and that different people will be biased towards one or other of the senses, clues to those biases will present themselves, and if you interact with a person in a way that matches their preferred sense, your communications will be more effective.

There are heated debates regarding the validity of the paper (which cited 15 studies), with similar methodological complaints. But really, no-one except the proponents of NLP will ever do it right and they’ve been either lazy or scared – and that stinks of quackery. Thankfully now there appears to be some research being done into the efficacy of NLP in the classroom.

Eye Accessing Cues: Too simple to be useful?


Most research has been conducted by skeptics, which is good; but that often means that you’re testing NLP at its worst, where poorly-trained people are making the most outrageous claims and testing them against the least skillful applications.

To my mind, both claims are seductively simplistic, and while that makes them easy to digest and sell, they are unlikely to be useful to any degree of significance. The truth of the situation is subtle and nuanced: We encode memories, rich with sensory information that was relevant to them at the time, and while we might have learned or innate preferences, your bias for each of your senses is likely to change dependent on the context.

Effective communication is the art of being receptive while engaging your audience in a compelling way that speaks to them on their terms. Powerful influencers are adept at reading people and responding to them with authenticity. We all do it, but some are better than others. NLP is one way to learn those skills.

One final note on research: As NLP is the placebo effect, it is very hard to test properly. Being in a testing situation will undermine the efficacy of a placebo (because you’re in a situation of active doubt) and even once you’ve done your test group, how do you create a control group? If the control group is given another placebo that works better, then that placebo is just an example of effective NLP.

Further research and responses in favour of NLP can be found here:

And here:

Personal Development

One of the most compelling parts of NLP are the ideas that encourage consciousness-raising thought. These are ideas that are stolen from many other fields of endeavour and are held within NLP because they seem to work. One of my favourite ones is ‘If you’ve spot it you’ve got it’ – which is the belief that if you can recognise a quality in someone else then you must, on some level, have that structure within yourself.

The most useful application for this is to pick someone you love that does something you hate. Think of them now, and think about what bothers you. Generalise that behaviour so it’s a quality rather than just an act – perhaps it’s selfishness or laziness or my personal favourite: Intolerance.

Now ask yourself: “How is that true of me?”

If you see a quality in someone else that you don’t connect with, you’re likely to feel disconnected or confused. An emotional reaction, feeling upset or angry at someone, is often a result of you being upset or angry with yourself in some way. It is not a scientific claim, it’s just a useful way of getting perspective on things.

Now that you’ve read of this, you’ll start to see it everywhere, that selfish people abhor selfishness in others, or for me, I can’t stand people who are up themselves. The best one: Everyone, including you, hates intolerant people.

The controversy

Bandler: Should 'model' fashion sense and healthy living

Richard Bandler, the co-creator of NLP is a thoroughly unlikeable chap that has a gravelly voice and looks like a bullfrog. He’s overweight and wears leather vests and says icky, conceited things like “I’ve cured more people than anyone else in history” (Did I mention that I dislike conceited people?) There was also an unfortunate incident in his past that apparently ended with his prostitute being shot dead with his gun. Incidentally, he was acquitted after 5 1/2 hours of deliberation.

He’s worked hard to damage the validity of his own creation, particularly by loudly insulting the field of psychology and challenging them to dismiss him. Bandler also dismisses the application of the scientifc method, claiming that people are more than statistics, despite claiming to have healed a statistically significant number of them.

But he probably has cured a lot of people of a lot of conditions, and he has done some great work. Had he decided to be reasonable about it, NLP could quite possibly be where Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is at: Studied, validated, and funded by the government.

Problems with NLP

People claim it’s a panacea – I have one friend and colleague who claims it helped him restore his eyesight to 20-20 vision – that sounds crazy but I have ideas that it may be plausible. NLP definitely does have incredibly effective quick-fixes to quit smoking or curing phobias. But unfortunately anything that sells a magic potion is bound to be flocked to by the crazies, and scoffed at by the scientists.

It’s totally unregulated – so gaining a qualification in NLP can sometimes involve little more than paying your fees and remaining in the room until the certificates are handed out. ‘Practitioners’ can range from compelling businesspeople to raving lunatics, and nothing is ever done to find out whether what trainers are doing is accurate or morally responsible (many Pick-Up-Artist courses teach hypnotic language to seduce women).

It is difficult to research and poorly researched, because it’s a panacea, because it’s unregulated, and because it’s a placebo (IMO).

Benefits of NLP

Psychotherapy is a whole lot of science on the structure of going crazy, and nothing but philosophy on the structure of getting well, while NLP has a refreshingly pragmatic approach.

In coaching and therapy, NLP is a rapid and drug free intervention, which makes it cheaper and safer than spending years lying on a psychiatrists couch, being encouraged to cry and talk about your issues and gobble down more dependence-inducing drugs. In personal development, it’s a great structure for success.

Learning about it is cheap and easy – you don’t have to do expensive courses, just buy a book, learn a bit about modelling strategies, and hang around people you admire. Let their brilliance rub off on you. If you are going to do a course, ask around and find a good one. (My suggestions for the UK are: Sue Knight or Toby and Kate)

So which is it!?

You should have your own burden of proof. As Derren Brown asserts, NLP is probably part brilliance, part bullshit. It’s pretty hard to tell – because homeopathy is a great remedy for all psychosomatic conditions, and that’s scientifically bunk. Decide for yourself. I think it’s pretty useful.

Google’s questions

To answer google’s most common questions that begin: “Is NLP…”

Is NLP a cult? – No, cults geographically and socially isolate people, they’ll usually have a single figurehead who makes spiritual claims about their own divinity and the afterlife. NLP shares none of those qualities. NLP is a model for becoming an effective communicator.
Is NLP dangerous? – It’s the art of influence, and yes, influence can be dangerous, but studying NLP is quite safe.
Is NLP effective? – If the techniques within NLP are applied well, it is very effective.
Is NLP bullshit? – NLP is probably good science dressed up to look like bullshit.
Is NLP real? – It is a model for communication. Some of the claims made within NLP are subject to controversy.
Is NLP Christian? – Nope, thank god. It’s not anti-Christian either, unless you use it to de-convert people. But untrained Christians are probably naturally using NLP to convert people to their religion.
Is NLP valid? – That is the subject of major debate, a few studies have produced sketchy results. See the links for papers on NLP.