Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is psychotherapy created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in California, United States in the 1970s. Its creators claim a connection between the neurological processes (“neuro”), language (“linguistic”) and behavioral patterns learned through experience (“programming”) and that these can be changed to achieve specific goals in life.
Bandler and Grinder claim that the skills of exceptional people can be “modeled” using NLP methodology, then those skills can be acquired by anyone. Bandler and Grinder also claim that NLP can treat problems such as phobias, depression, habit disorder, psychosomatic illnesses, myopia, allergy, common cold and learning disorders, often in a single session. NLP has been adopted by some hypnotherapists and in seminars marketed to business and government.
The balance of scientific evidence reveals NLP to be a largely discredited pseudoscience. Scientific reviews show it contains numerous factual errors, and fails to produce the results asserted by proponents.
History and conception
NLP comprises a methodology termed modeling and a set of techniques that were derived from its initial applications by Bandler and Grinder. Many of those methods that have come to be considered fundamental were derived from the initial modeling by Bandler and Grinder of the work of Virginia Satir, Milton Erickson and Fritz Perls. Bandler and Grinder also drew upon theories of Gregory Bateson, Alfred Korzybski and Noam Chomsky, particularly transformational grammar, as well as ideas and techniques from Carlos Castaneda.
Bandler and Grinder claim that the therapeutic “magic” as performed in therapy by Perls, Satir and Erikson, and by performers in any complex human activity, had a structure that could be codified using their methodology and thereby learned by others. Their 1975 book The Structure of Magic I: A Book about Language and Therapy is intended to be a codification of the therapeutic techniques of Perls and Satir.
Bandler and Grinder say that they modeled Virginia Satir, to produce what they termed the Meta-Model (via their process of modeling), a model for gathering information and challenging a client’s language and underlying thinking. By challenging linguistic distortions, specifying generalizations, and recovering deleted information in the client’s statements, the transformational grammar concepts of surface structure were said to yield a more complete representation of the underlying deep structure and to have therapeutic benefit. Also derived from Satir were anchoring, future pacing and representational systems.
Other than Satir, the people they cite as influences did not collaborate with Bandler or Grinder. Chomsky himself has no association with NLP whatsoever; his original work was intended as theory, not therapy. Stollznow writes, “[o]ther than borrowing terminology, NLP does not bear authentic resemblance to any of Chomsky’s theories or philosophies – linguistic, cognitive or political.”
According to Weitzenhoffer, “the major weakness of Bandler and Grinder’s linguistic analysis is that so much of it is built upon untested hypotheses and is supported by totally inadequate data.”
More recently (circa 1997), Bandler has claimed, “NLP™ [sic] is based on finding out what works and formalizing it. In order to formalize patterns I utilized everything from linguistics to holography…The models that constitute NLP™ [sic] are all formal models based on mathematical, logical principles [sic] such as predicate calculus and the mathematical equations underlying holography.” However, there is no mention of the mathematics of holography nor of holography in general in McClendon’s, Spitzer’s or Grinder’s account of the development of NLP.
The philosopher Robert Todd Carroll responded that Grinder has not understood Kuhn’s text on the history and philosophy of science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Carroll replies: (a) individual scientists never have nor are they ever able to create paradigm shifts volitionally and Kuhn does not suggest otherwise; (b) Kuhn’s text does not contain the idea that being unqualified in a field of science is a prerequisite to producing a result that necessitates a paradigm shift in that field and (c) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is foremost a work of history and not an instructive text on creating paradigm shifts and such a text is not possible—extraordinary discovery is not a formulaic procedure. Carroll explains that a paradigm shift is not a planned activity, rather it is an outcome of scientific effort within the current (dominant) paradigm that produces data that can’t be adequately accounted for within the current paradigm—hence a paradigm shift, i.e. the adoption of a new paradigm. In developing NLP Bandler and Grinder were not responding to a paradigmatic crisis in psychology nor did they produce any data that caused a paradigmatic crisis in psychology. There is no sense in which Bandler and Grinder caused or participated in a paradigm shift. “What did Grinder and Bandler do that makes it impossible to continue doing psychology…without accepting their ideas? Nothing.”, argues Carroll.
Commercialization and evaluation
Bandler and Grinder claimed that in addition to being a therapeutic method, NLP was also a study of communication and began marketing it as a business tool, claiming that, “if any human being can do anything, so can you.” After 150 students paid $1,000 each for a ten-day workshop in Santa Cruz, California, Bandler and Grinder gave up academic writing and produced popular books from seminar transcripts, such as Frogs into Princes, which sold more than 270,000 copies. According to court documents relating to an intellectual property dispute between Bandler and Grinder, Bandler made more than $800,000 in 1980 from workshop and book sales.
A community of psychotherapists and students began to form around Bandler and Grinder’s initial works, leading to the growth and spread of NLP as a theory and practice. For example, Tony Robbins trained with Grinder and utilized a few ideas from NLP as part of his own self-help and motivational speaking programmes. Bandler led several unsuccessful efforts to exclude other parties from using NLP. Meanwhile, the rising number of practitioners and theorists led NLP to become even less uniform than it was at its foundation.
Main components and core concepts
NLP can be understood in terms of three broad components and the central concepts pertaining to those:
Subjectivity. According to Bandler and Grinder:
We experience the world subjectively thus we create subjective representations of our experience. These subjective representation of experience are constituted in terms of five senses and language. That is to say our subjective conscious experience is in terms of the traditional senses of vision, audition, tactition, olfaction and gustation such that when we—for example—rehearse an activity “in our heads”, recall an event or anticipate the future we will “see” images, “hear” sounds, “taste” flavours, “feel” tactile sensations, “smell” odours and think in some (natural) language. Furthermore it is claimed that these subjective representations of experience have a discernible structure, a pattern. It is in this sense that NLP is sometimes defined as the study of the structure of subjective experience.
Behavior can be described and understood in terms of these sense-based subjective representations. Behavior is broadly conceived to include verbal and non-verbal communication, incompetent, maladaptive or “pathological” behavior as well as effective or skillfull behavior.
Behavior (in self and others) can be modified by manipulating these sense-based subjective representations.
Consciousness. NLP is predicated on the notion that consciousness is bifurcated into a conscious component and a unconscious component. Those subjective representations that occur outside of an individual’s awareness comprise what is referred to as the “unconscious mind”.
Learning. NLP utilizes an imitative method of learning—termed modeling—that is claimed to be able to codify and reproduce an exemplar’s expertise in any domain of activity. An important part of the codification process is a description of the sequence of the sensory/linguistic representations of the subjective experience of the exemplar during execution of the expertise.
Techniques or set of practices
An “eye accessing cue chart” as it appears as an example in Bandler & Grinder’s Frogs into Princes (1979). The six directions represent “visual construct”, “visual recall”, “auditory construct”, “auditory recall”, “kinesthetic” and “auditory internal dialogue”.
According to one study by Steinbach, a classic interaction in NLP can be understood in terms of several major stages including establishing rapport, gleaning information about a problem mental state and desired goals, using specific tools and techniques to make interventions, and integrating proposed changes into the client’s life. The entire process is guided by the non-verbal responses of the client. The first is the act of establishing and maintaining rapport between the practitioner and the client which is achieved through pacing and leading the verbal (e.g., sensory predicates and keywords) and non-verbal behavior (e.g., matching and mirroring non-verbal behavior, or responding to eye movements) of the client.
Once rapport is established, the practitioner may gather information (e.g., using the Meta-Model questions) about the client’s present state as well as help the client define a desired state or goal for the interaction. The practitioner pays particular attention to the verbal and non-verbal responses as the client defines the present state and desired state and any “resources” that may be required to bridge the gap. The client is typically encouraged to consider the consequences of the desired outcome, and how they may affect his or her personal or professional life and relationships, taking into account any positive intentions of any problems that may arise (i.e. ecological check). Fourth, the practitioner assists the client in achieving the desired outcomes by using certain tools and techniques to change internal representations and responses to stimuli in the world. Finally, the changes are “future paced” by helping the client to mentally rehearse and integrate the changes into his or her life. For example, the client may be asked to “step into the future” and represent (mentally see, hear and feel) what it is like having already achieved the outcome.
According to Stollznow (2010), “NLP also involves fringe discourse analysis and “practical” guidelines for “improved” communication. For example, one text asserts “when you adopt the “but” word, people will remember what you said afterwards. With the “and” word, people remember what you said before and after.”
Early books about NLP had a psychotherapeutic focus given that the early models were psychotherapists. As an approach to psychotherapy, NLP shares similar core assumptions and foundations in common with some contemporary brief and systemic practices, such as solution focused brief therapy. NLP has also been acknowledged as having influenced these practices with its reframing techniques which seeks to achieve behavior change by shifting its context or meaning, for example, by finding the positive connotation of a thought or behavior.
The two main therapeutic uses of NLP are: (1) as an adjunct by therapists practicing in other therapeutic disciplines; (2) as a specific therapy called Neurolinguistic Psychotherapy which is recognized by the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy with accreditation governed at first by the Association for Neuro Linguistic Programming and more recently by its daughter organization the Neuro Linguistic Psychotherapy and Counselling Association. Neither Neuro-Linguistic Programming nor Neuro-Linguistic Psychotherapy are NICE-approved.
A systematic review of experimental studies by Sturt et al (2012) concluded that “that there is little evidence that NLP interventions improve health-related outcomes.” In his review of NLP, Stephen Briers writes, “NLP is not really a cohesive therapy but a ragbag of different techniques without a particularly clear theoretical basis…[and its] evidence base is virtually non-existent.” Eisner writes, “NLP appears to be a superficial and gimmicky approach to dealing with mental health problems. Unfortunately, NLP appears to be the first in a long line of mass marketing seminars that purport to virtually cure any mental disorder…it appears that NLP has no empirical or scientific support as to the underlying tenets of its theory or clinical effectiveness. What remains is a mass-marketed serving of psychopablum.”
André Muller Weitzenhoffer—a friend and peer of Milton Erickson—wrote, “Has NLP really abstracted and explicated the essence of successful therapy and provided everyone with the means to be another Whittaker, Virginia Satir, or Erickson?…[NLP’s] failure to do this is evident because today there is no multitude of their equals, not even another Whittaker, Virginia Satir, or Erickson. Ten years should have been sufficient time for this to happen. In this light, I cannot take NLP seriously…[NLP’s] contributions to our understanding and use of Ericksonian techniques are equally dubious. Patterns I and II are poorly written works that were an overambitious, pretentious effort to reduce hypnotism to a magic of words.”
Clinical psychologist Stephen Briers questions the value of the NLP maxim—a presupposition in NLP jargon—”there is no failure, only feedback”. Briers argues that the denial of the existence of failure diminishes its instructive value. He offers Walt Disney, Isaac Newton and J.K. Rowling as three examples of unambiguous acknowledged personal failure that served as an impetus to great success. According to Briers, it was “the crash-and-burn type of failure, not the sanitised NLP Failure Lite, i.e. the failure-that-isn’t really-failure sort of failure” that propelled these individuals to success. Briers contends that adherence to the maxim leads to self-deprecation. According to Briers, personal endeavour is a product of invested values and aspirations and the dismissal of personally significant failure as mere feedback effectively denigrates what one values. Briers writes, “Sometimes we need to accept and mourn the death of our dreams, not just casually dismiss them as inconsequential. NLP’s reframe casts us into the role of a widower avoiding the pain of grief by leap-frogging into a rebound relationship with a younger woman, never pausing to say a proper goodbye to his dead wife.” Briers also contends that the NLP maxim is narcissistic, self-centered and divorced from notions of moral responsibility.
Although the original core techniques of NLP were therapeutic in orientation their genericity enabled them to be applied to other fields. These applications include persuasion, sales, negotiation, management training, sports, teaching, coaching, team building, and public speaking.
Neuro-linguistic programming has been characterized as a New Age pseudoscience. Witkowski (2010) writes that “NLP represents pseudoscientific rubbish, which should be mothballed forever.”
The name Neuro-linguistic programming has also been criticized. Roderique-Davies (2009) states that “neuro” in NLP is “effectively fraudulent since NLP offers no explanation at a neuronal level and it could be argued that its use fallaciously feeds into the notion of scientific credibility.” Similarly, experimental psychologist Corballis in his critique of lateralization of brain function (the left/right brain myth), states that “NLP is a thoroughly fake title, designed to give the impression of scientific respectability” and describes NLP as a “cult” activity with “little scientific credibility”. According to psycholinguist Willem Levelt “[NLP] is not informed about the literature, it starts from insights that have been rendered out of date long ago, concepts are not apprehended or are a mere fabrication, conclusions are based upon wrong presumptions. NLP theory and practice have nothing to do with neuroscientific insights, nor with linguistics, nor with informatics and theory of programming.”
According to Beyerstein (1995) and Witkowski (2010), NLP jargon—such as pragmagraphics, metamodeling, metaprogramming, submodalities—is intended to impress, obfuscate and give the false impression that NLP is a scientific discipline. Beyerstein says, “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.” Furthermore Beyerstein (1995) believed that NLP has helped popularize myths about the brain and neurology and that that the aphorism “you create your own reality” promotes an epistemologically relativistic perspective, the purpose of which is to gain immunity from scientific testing. Reviewing various applications of brain lateralization mythology to education and psychotherapy, neuroscientist Lauren Julius Harris writes, “[t]he scientifically most pretentious of these [applications] is known as Neurolinguistic Programming”.
Tye (1994) is concerned to reconcile the failure of empirical research to validate NLP and the anecdotes that NLP proponents present in defence of the efficacy of NLP. Tye draws a comparison between shamanism and NLP, describing what he terms a “psycho shaman effect”. According to Tye, “[l]ike NLP techniques, the psycho shaman effect is a collection of already existing, well understood and accepted ideas. Specifically it has three components: cognitive dissonance, placebo effect and therapist charisma”. Tye thus attributes the apparent efficacy of NLP to nonspecific effects.
Devilly argues that the so-called power therapies—such as NLP—gain popularity because they are promoted, like other pseudoscience, using a set of social influence tactics. These include making extraordinary claims (e.g., a one-session cure for any trauma-related memory), creating a rationalization trap by obtaining incremental commitments from students learning the power therapy (e.g., first lesson is free and subsequent courses increase in price), manufacturing source credibility and sincerity by creating a guru-like leader that is most qualified in the power therapy, creating a self-regulated body composed of those that have completed a course in the power therapy, and defining an enemy to facilitate in-group/out-group thinking and behavior and to serve as a scapegoat.
According to Witkowski (2010), NLP also appears on “the list of discredited therapies” published in the Journal of Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. With reference to work by Carroll (2003), Della Sala (1999), Lilienfeld et al. (2003) and Singer and Lalich (1996) on “pseudoscientific, unvalidated, or “quack” psychotherapies” within clinical psychology, Norcross et al. (2006) included NLP for treatment of mental/behavior disorders in a survey of the opinions of psychologists who rated NLP between possibly discredited and probably discredited, a rating similar to dolphin assisted therapy, equine therapy, psychosynthesis, scared straight programmes, and emotional freedom technique (EFT).
NLP as quasi-religion
Sociologists and anthropologists—amongst others—have categorized NLP as a quasi-religion belonging to the New Age and/or Human Potential Movements. Medical anthropologist Jean M. Langford categorizes NLP as a form of folk magic; that is to say, a practice with symbolic efficacy—as opposed to physical efficacy—that is able to effect change through nonspecific effects (e.g., placebo). To Langford, NLP is akin to a syncretic folk religion “that attempts to wed the magic of folk practice to the science of professional medicine”.
Bandler and Grinder were (and continue to be) influenced by the shamanism described in the books of Carlos Castaneda. Several ideas and techniques have been borrowed from Castaneda and incorporated into NLP including so-called double induction and the notion of “stopping the world” which is central to NLP modeling.
Fanthorpe and Fanthorpe (2008) see a similarity between the mimetic procedure and intent of NLP modeling and aspects of ritual in some syncretic religions. Hunt (2003) draws a comparison between the concern with lineage from an NLP guru—which is evident amongst some NLP proponents—and the concern with guru lineage in some Eastern religions.
In Aupers and Houtman (2010) Bovbjerg identifies NLP as a New Age “psycho-religion” and uses NLP as a case-study to demonstrate the thesis that the New Age psycho-religions such as NLP are predicated on an instrinsically religious idea, namely concern with a transcendent “other”. In the world’s monotheistic faiths, argues Bovbjerg, the purpose of religious practice is communion and fellowship with a transcendent ‘other’, i.e. a God. With the New Age psycho-religions, argues Bovbjerg, this orientation towards a transcendent ‘other’ persists but the other has become “the other in our selves”, the so-called unconscious: “[t]he individual’s inner life becomes the intangible focus of [psycho-]religious practices and the subconscious becomes a constituent part of modern individuals’ understanding of the Self.”
Bovbjerg adds, “[c]ourses in personal development would make no sense without an unconscious that contains hidden resources and hidden knowledge of the self.” Thus psycho-religious practice revolves around ideas of the conscious and unconscious self and communicating with and accessing the hidden resources of the unconscious self—the transcendent other. According to Bovbjerg the notion that we have an unconscious self underlies many NLP techniques either explicitly or implicitly. Bovbjerg argues, “[t]hrough particular practices, the [NLP practitioner qua] psycho-religious practitioner expects to achieve self-perfection in a never-ending transformation of the self.”
Bovbjerg’s secular critique of NLP is echoed in the conservative Christian perspective of the New Age as represented by Jeremiah (1995) who argues that, “[t]he ′transformation′ recommended by the founders and leaders of these business seminars [such as NLP] has spiritual implications that a non-Christian or new believer may not recognise. The belief that human beings can change themselves by calling upon the power (or god) within or their own infinite human potential is a contradiction of the Christian view. The Bible says man is a sinner and is saved by God’s grace alone.”
The quasi-religiosity of New Age belief and practice—even to the extent of “self-improvement” technique—was affirmed in a series of US court cases brought by employees against their employers whom mandated corporate New Age training. The plaintiffs claimed that these trainings conflicted with their religious beliefs. On this subject, Young—in Heuberger and Nash (1994)—specifies, “[s]uch New Age methods include meditation, yoga, biofeedback, centering, guided visualizations, affirmations, Akido-based exercise [sic], self-hypnosis, fire walking, and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP)”.