Tuesday, November 23, 2010

NLP: scientific paper suggests it’s a “pseudoscience” that should be “mothballed”

NLP is one of those topics that has been abandoned by academia and psychology but still soldiers on in the training world. To be fair, the NLPers have retreated to a position of 'science and evidence is irrelevant'. However, as Christopher Hitchins often says, "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." I was pleased, therefore, to receive a pre-publication paper from Tomasz Witkowski that takes all of the current academic work on NLP, including that which purports to support its theory, and puts it to the test. The paper’s title is, 'Thirty-Five Years of Research on Neuro-Linguistic Programming. NLP Research Data Base. State of the Art or Pseudoscientific Decoration?'

Why is NLP completely absent from psychology textbooks?

Despite its aggressive marketing and application in training, Witkowski asks; ‘Why is NLP completely absent from psychology textbooks?’ Rather conveniently, Bandler didn't think that empirical testing was necessary and is openly contemptuous of such an approach. However, it is important to look at the theory from a perspective that is free from the biases of its practitioners (as they believe the theory and make money from the practice) and the patients (who may be subject to manipulation and false belief).

Neuro-Linguistic Programming Research Data Base

Witkowski starts on NLPs home territory with the Neuro-Linguistic Programming Research Data Base found on the web pages of NLP Community. It is the largest of such databases and includes hundreds of empirical studies from 1974-2009, and is often used by NLP proponents to defend the empirical nature of their theory and practice. First, he applied a credibility filter to the database (the respected Master Journal List of the Institute for Scientific Information in Philadelphia) to identify the reliable journals. This took the 315 down to 63.

A qualitative analysis of these 63 articles showed; 33 relevant empirical studies, 14 that were of little or scientific significance and 16 that appear to have been included in the database by accident, as they weren’t relevant. Of the 33 relevant papers; 18 were non-supportive of the NLP tenets and the tenets-derived hypotheses (54.5%), 9 supported NLP tenets and the tenets-derived hypotheses (27.3%), and 6 had uncertain outcomes (18.2%).

He then applied a national test, based on relevance and impact, to find that the papers NOT supporting NLP had more status in the academic and professional world. He concludes that, "The numbers indicate unequivocally that the NLP concept has not been developed on solid empirical foundations". His point is that the numbers alone don't tell the whole story, what matters is the weight of the evidence. A problem uncovered in the supporting papers was the common absence of a control group, and trials that could not be seen as scientifically valid. The non-supportive papers, that showed no evidence for the eye movement hypothesis (Thomason, Arbuckle & Cady, 1980; Farmer, Rooney & Cunningham, 1985; Poffel & Cross, 1985; Burke et al., 2003) and preferred modalities (Gumm, Walker and Day (1982), and also Coe and Scharcoff (1985)), were much more rigorous. Elich, Thompson and Miller (1985) tested claims that eye movement direction and spoken predicates are indicative of sensory modality of imagery and showed no evidence for the NLP-derived hypotheses. Graunke and Roberts (1985) tested the impact of imagery tasks on sensory predicate usage, again showing no evidence for NLP theory. By this point the case was clear, the case for the defence was baseless.

Sharpley, Einsprach & Forman and Heap

Witkowski builds on the metastudies of Sharpley, Einspruch & Forman and Heap published in the 80s, to show that NLP claims are still unproven. Interestingly 11 of the original Sharpley studies (1984) are not in the NLP database. Not surprising, as Sharpley in his first review dismissed claims of PRS, eye movements, self-reporting, predicate matching and the ability of NLP to change clients. In his second review, building on the results of Einspruch & Forman (1985), Sharpley (1987) he went even further, dismissing the claims made for its therapeutic benefits, namely anxiety, pacing and metaphor. Finally, NLP is dismissed as a method for improving performance by the US Army (Swets & Bjork, 1990). “The conclusion was that little if any evidence exists either to support NLP’s assumptions or to indicate that it is effective as a strategy for social influence.” Heap (1988) drew similar conclusions, after examining 63 empirical studies. PRs, eye movements, predicate matching and their role in counseling, were dismissed as baseless. This is exactly what Witowski confirms, when considering subsequent research.

Bifurcation from academia

Witkowski’s discussion is particularly relevant. He makes the point that much of the research in the 80s was designed to test NLP on the back of its popularity. The file drawer effect would suggest that many non-supporting studies were quietly dropped. What is clear is that there was a stark bifurcation between theory and practice. The NLP community went on to aggressively market its wares, while serious academia ignored the whole field as irrelevant and unworthy of research. This is similar to the difference between astrology and astronomy. No one is interested in testing astrology, as it is so patently weak in its hypotheses and predictive ability.

Conclusion: pseudoscience that should be mothballed

What is so powerful about this paper is the fact that he climbs into NLPs back yard to expose their so-called supporting evidence, and found it wanting. A damning statement is made about the status of the evidence invoked by NLP theorists and practitioners, “The base (NLP database) is commonly invoked by NLP followers and indicated as evidence for the existence of solid empirical grounds of their preferred concept. It is most likely that most of them have never looked through the base. Otherwise they might have come to the conclusion that it provides evidence to the contrary – for the lack of any empirical underpinnings” This is pretty damning. The paper asks a key question: “Is using and selling something non-existent and ineffective ethical?” Witkowski’s answer is clear: that is “pseudoscience” and should be “mothballed”.

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21 Comments:

Anonymous Amy said...

Thank you for this. I'm a first year Speech and Language Therapy student, and I'm being taught this by a lecturer who seems to be into any woo going. I thought it was rubbish but it's nice to have some confirmation!

8:15 PM  
Blogger KMBurow said...

I second Amy's thank you! I'm a young trainer, academic and a skeptic of NLP. I always aligned it with other mumbo-jumbo pseudosciences. I will show your blog post next time it is hinted that my skills and qualifications are lacking because I do not have NLP training.

Keep up the great work - love your postings.

6:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been taught elements of NLP many times on sales training courses and it was always very poor in its detail. I always viewed it as "no more than good inter personal and conversational skills". Learning how to talk and interact with people is a life skill, suggesting you can do more through some of this NLP junk is just OTT. Nice to know that we can resoundly state it is not worth studying as it has no proven merit!

11:37 AM  
Anonymous Marshall said...

I'll bet that most practitioners never even knew of such an archive.
I see that you've been censured for allegedly slandering some fellow named AndyB, NLP practitioner/scientologist. A funny yet predictable reaction from a religious fundamentalist: enlisting the aid of "god the moderator" in a dispute among men.

10:06 AM  
Blogger Bolt said...

As an NLP Master Practitioner I found this article very interesting. Reference the lack of scientific evidence I get that, but believe that you have to practice it to understand how powerful it can be and the impact that it can have. The challenge (in my view) is that there are some NLP'ers out there that give NLP a bad name; are very 'cult' like about it and/or not very good at practising it! I take bits and pieces that work for me and my clients, mix them up with other models, and never mention NLP unless someone asks!

8:43 AM  
Blogger Andy said...

Very interesting article. I am an NLP practitioner, convinced that it did deliver results. Since I have been reviewing the evidence and it's clear it's bogus. Hard for me to admit several hundred pounds and a year down the line. Good article. Long live evidence based training

9:04 PM  
Blogger bloke said...

Most people take all info/stats at face value and If you actually read the article his technique for deriving his conclusions are quite ignorant as they are based on whether the articles appeared in a science master journal in a library in Philadelphia, go figure, some people are just out to make a name for themselves and his credentials as a psychologist/scientist seem very vague.

1:49 AM  
Blogger Stephen Dym said...

I am a "master" practitioner of NLP. I studied and trained with John Grinder and Richard Bandler as well as many other trainers in the field. To say that NLP cannot be confirmed by science is like saying that Pavlov's dogs didn't salivate. There are many people that say they are practitioners of NLP but have had very little training and don't understand that it is a tool-box of techniques that help people learn and communicate with more precision and effectiveness. I believe NLP is an art and not a science. When behavioral therapists embrace these and similar techniques they call it cognitive therapy.

3:58 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

You may be a 'master' of NLP, but you need to reflect a little on your use of similes 'Pavlov' was a scientist and his experiments with salivating dogs laid the foundations for modern psychological research, which dismisses your 'mastery' as 'quackery'. When Pavlov measured his dogs' responses he did so using the scientific method, not by anecdote. If NLP helps one "communicate with more precision and effectiveness", then you need to go back to the 'toolbox'.

11:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Donald, for highlighting the pseudoscience elements of NLP. I found the comments fascinating. I often read about how NLP is "tosh" " bunkum" a "con" etc, and have read several papers that have shown such findings from their research. I am UKCP accredited psychotherpsist and work in a full time post, providing psychologial therapy to individuals. I have been using many elements of NLP theory and practice in my work and have had the highest level of user feedback, when compared to others in the team that do not use NLP. Of course, if NLP is pseudoscience, then should I stop using it in my practice? I need to explore further but thanks for bringing this to my attention

12:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting article Donald, and I profess to being one of those who hasn't studied the archive.... however, as an NLP practitioner, I would absolutely welcome further studies being done in the field. I have heard Bandler rabbiting on about how scientific study is irrelevant and how you can't prove that NLP works (when I heard him he was talking about education).... however I am absolutely convinced of it's efficacy in many fields - we use techniques from it the whole time in our role as parents, my husband uses it to great effect as a nurse, and it is extremely useful in my role as a business consultant. For sure, much of it is "just" communication skills - but many of us do not innately have those skills, and I would love to see more double blind studies being done to put this one to rest once and for all. As you infer, many of the so-called studies have been ill designed or not taken up by the respected press (or both).... what is needed is more proper study of this area... something which many among the NLP fraternity would welcome.

8:20 PM  
Anonymous Fiona @nlpmum said...

Interesting article Donald, and I profess to being one of those who hasn't studied the archive.... however, as an NLP practitioner, I would absolutely welcome further studies being done in the field. I have heard Bandler rabbiting on about how scientific study is irrelevant and how you can't prove that NLP works (when I heard him he was talking about education).... however I am absolutely convinced of it's efficacy in many fields - we use techniques from it the whole time in our role as parents, my husband uses it to great effect as a nurse, and it is extremely useful in my role as a business consultant. For sure, much of it is "just" communication skills - but many of us do not innately have those skills, and I would love to see more double blind studies being done to put this one to rest once and for all. As you infer, many of the so-called studies have been ill designed or not taken up by the respected press (or both).... what is needed is more proper study of this area... something which many among the NLP fraternity would welcome.

8:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just been on an NLP course this week.

Worse course I have ever been on. (The trainers happened to be good at delivery btw)

I found the material to be baseless and weird beyond belief. If it was questioned people where told to open thier minds. Do me a favour please!

It was the most uncomfortable subject matter I have ever been exposed to.

The material and messages are the stuff of religious fanatics without the religion.

12:12 PM  
Anonymous Max said...

Hello everybody.
I find this article interesting for few reasons. Firstly I'm an NLP master practitioner and secondly because I'm originally from Poland, where mr. Witkowski is from.
Me. Witkowski looks at NLP as an approach in psychotherapy, but NLP is not about psychotherapy and it's not about business or anything else. NLP is about modeling of human excellence. Few years ago my grandmother told me that her writing skills were worse than her husband and my grandfathers. She decided to look, examine, and copy the way he wrote.
She in a way wanted to acquire his skill in writing. She told me that her writing improved significantly and she was gives better job offers.
Was my grandmother did was NLP par excellence, just applied writing.

It is very difficult to evaluate NLP from the perspective of main stream psychology. It just does not work. You need to do and know NLP to disagree with it. Because there are disagreements within the field.
Churchill said that "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." And here mr. Witkowski is applying democracy to psychological research.
NLP training can vary like any other class or lesson. I did not like my intro to Psychology class last semester. Does that mean that the whole field is wrong?

And most research that mr. Witkowski has evaluated was on preferred representational system. But both co-founders retracted that there is a preferred rep system.
John Grinder: www.inspiritive.com.au/grinterv.htm

Also I want to point out that Bandler and Grinder are geniuses. They may not be geniuses like Soul Kripke, who mastered Shakespeare by the age of 12 (although I can't be sure), rather well rounded geniuses grounded both in philosophy and sciences.
I've meet dr. Bandler and he seems to be a very reliable person.
I believe NLP is a genius achievement for humanity. Some models may be outdated, something may be wrong, but NLP as a whole amazing.
regards

2:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So many psychological techniques pass muster. How come neuro-linguistic progamming fails? How come people keep trying to deny that by dissing psychology?

Because its a pseudo-scientific cult. People say much the same thing about dianetics and urine drinking.

Master practitioners of dianetics, urine drinking and neuro-linguistic programming; pretty much the same bag! There's always a so called genius at the top somewhere receiving adulation and cash for their "creations".

10:43 AM  
Blogger Greg Anderson said...

My belief is that both sides of the debate "Is NLP pseudo-science?" are right, and wrong. On the one hand, so much of what passes for NLP theory or training is either made-up, self-serving, sensationalistic, anti-scientific, narcissistic, or all of the above.

On the other hand, there does exist, under the rubric of NLP, a handful of interesting observations of human behavior which have been partially modeled and systematized by some people -- quite successfully -- for their own ends. Some of these observations come from mainstream psychology and neuroscience, and hence are accepted in other fields. Others, so far as I know, have yet to be examined in a truly rigorous scientific context, probably because of the stigma of the “NLP” and “pseudo-science” labels.

This is a shame, because as some of the previous commenters have mentioned, no matter what conclusions may be reached from a review study of previous empirical research into the claims of NLP, there is indeed a population of people who have been trained in NLP techniques and who have found efficacy, either in professional or therapeutic contexts, in some of its techniques.

In short, there is some smoke there, which some individuals manage to convert into fire.

I say this as a self-taught novice who has never paid anything to anyone for NLP training, nor do I have any need or desire to market myself as any sort of NLP practitioner. Nonetheless, I have read many of the standard books and listened to hundreds of hours of the classic lectures, and I can say that for me, while probably 90% of what I read or heard was nonsense to me, the remaining 10% was not only useful, but frequently transformative to my life.

Perhaps someday one of those successful NLP practitioners will inspire a university team to investigate a small subset of NLP which seems to have practical, repeatable application. That might give us some truly interesting insights. Sadly, I suspect most of those folks are currently making too much money to bother. ;-)

9:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This article (any select comments) is a dissertation in the use of ad hominem and appeal to authority argument to discredit a unified collection of theories.

My understanding is that NLP is a collection of various theories and tools that deserved to be analyzed and scrutinized on their own merit, irrespective of the personal credibility of Bandler or any of NLPs practitioners.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Anonymous - why is it always anonymous? Why bother posting this. Why not contribute to the debate and arguments?

6:26 PM  
Blogger Bruce Grimley said...

There is a good review of Witkowski (2010) in "Research and the history of methodological flaws" Gray et al in "The clinical effectiveness of Neurolinguistic Programming. A critical appraisal" (Wake et al 2013 Routledge 202-207)The authors point to Witkowski's comment about the force of the argument lying in weight and not in numbers as being highly relevant. The authors point to the credibility of the methodology of reviewing, however pointing out as indeed Einspruch, Eric L. & Forman, Bruce D. (1985) did, that the papers left from the sifting themselves had methodological problems. Thank you for an interesting discussion.

12:54 PM  
Blogger Dave Gould said...

Witkowski is a highly-criticised pseudoskeptic who copied Sharpley's irrelevant paper word for word and got his copy published in low quality journal.

That pseudoskeptics keep banging on about it merely shows that it's all about pseudoskepticism and not science.

The only recent meta-analysis on NLP in a reputable journal is Sturt et al 2012.

http://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?as_ylo=2009&q=neurolinguistic+programming&hl=en&as_sdt=0,5

Sturt et al says "There is little evidence that NLP interventions improve health-related outcomes. This conclusion reflects the limited quantity and quality of NLP research, rather than robust evidence of no effect."

ie the research sucks and no conclusion about NLP can be drawn. Sorry pseudoskeptics, but that's the scientific position.

Disclosure: I'm a psychotherapist using several treatment modalities including NLP.

9:37 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Hi Dave
You get ad hominem with Witkowski for cherry picking then do exactly the same thing yourself. Disclosure: "psychotherapist" you may be, that doesn't give you the right to be so primitively dismissive. In fact, it would rule you out in the minds of many serious psychologists and scientists (bias). I have written many pieces about NLP over many years quoting dozens of papers. What is astounding about the Sturt papaer is teh fact that NLP is unsupported by any robust evidence. Are you telling me that you and thousands of other so called self-pronounced and certificated practitioners are using a technique that in your own quoted paper says "There is little evidence that NLP interventions improve health-related outcomes". I wouldn't be disclosing his if I were you.
Read the Sturt paper again. It was written to STOP people ike you getting paid by the NHS to use NLP. "insufficient evidence to justify the amount of money spent on NLP by the NHs".

8:52 AM  

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