Monday, April 30, 2012

Bandler NLP: No Longer Plausible: training’s shameful, fraudulent cult?

Richard Bandler, a cocaine addict, was arrested for murdering a prostitute by shooting her in the head, the girlfriend of his drug dealer. Despite the presence of her blood on Bandler’s shirt both he and the drug dealer admitted being in the room when she died but as each accused each other, both were acquitted. No one has been charged with the crime. He's one of the founders of NLP. These founders and their heirs have been involved in incredibly bitter disputes about the so-called theory and ownership of the NLP brand.

NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming)
NLP propelled itself into the heart of the training world. Yet NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) has little to do with serious neuroscience or linguistics, and is not taken seriously by academics in either field. However, it certainly is a programme. Indeed it has been criticised for being a ‘programme’, many seeing it as not more than a well-marketed cult.
NLP is not a unified theory, it’s a mixed bag of modelling techniques, where tutors diagnose people through keywords (predicates) and 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. So can we tell from simple scientific trails whether this is all true or not?
Heap did exactly this. He 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 Heap also found that there was no scientific evidence for the claim that these techniques improve rapport. 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”.
Sharpley’s 1984 literature review found "little research evidence supporting its usefulness as an effective counseling tool" no support for preferred representational systems (PRS) and predicate matching, then in a 1987 study states "there are conclusive data from the research on NLP, and the conclusion is that the principles and procedures of NLP have failed to be supported by those data".
USNRC produced an academic  report stating that "individually, and as a group, these studies fail to provide an empirical base of support for NLP assumptions...or NLP effectiveness.". The whole edifice of influence and rapport techniques "instead of being grounded in contemporary, scientifically derived neurological theory, NLP is based on outdated metaphors of brain functioning and is laced with numerous factual errors".
NLP is also 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.”
Efran and Lukens (1990) stated that the "original interest in NLP turned to disillusionment after the research and now it is rarely even mentioned in psychotherapy". In his book, The Death of Psychotherapy, Eisner couldn’t find “one iota of clinical research” to support NLP.
Even Albert Ellis,the grandfather of cognitive behavioral therapy, specifically identified NLP as one of those, techniques to be avoided. This was the one therapy he abhorred because of its “dubious validity”.
Tomasz Witkowski in his paper Thirty-Five Years of Research on Neuro-Linguistic Programming. NLP Research Data Base. State of the Art or Pseudoscientific Decoration? puts the theory to the test. 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). However, after subjecting NLP research to the filters of reputable, peer=reviewed journals he finds, quite simply, that that is “pseudoscience” and should be “mothballed”.
New age fakery
Corballis (1999) is even more scathing, "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 sub-discipline of neurolinguistics". Others, such as Beyerstein, accuse NLP of being a total con, new-age fakery to be classed alongside scientology and astrology. Beyerstein (1990) asserts 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."
So, having been abandoned by serious theorists it is still hanging around in education and HR. Von Bergen et al (1997) showed that NLP had been abandoned by researchers in experimental psychology and Devilly (2005) makes the point that NLP has disappeared from clinical psychology and academic research only surviving “in the world of pseudo new-age fakery and, although no longer as prevalent as it was in the 1970s or 1980s… is still practiced in small pockets of the human resource community”. The science has come and gone, yet the belief still remains. So why is a theory with no credible academic basis in psychology, linguistics and neuroscience still being delivered as serious training? NLP rose on the back of a recent movement that saw marketing trump science. Aggressive selling of pop psychology has led to an explosion of ‘courses’ on NLP, learning styles, brain gym and dozens of other non-validated theories. It would seem that the training world is sometimes happy buying and selling cleverly marketed classroom ‘performance’ products that are, in fact, pseudoscience.
Heap, M. (1988). Neuro-linguistic programming, In M. Heap (Ed.) Hypnosis: Current Clinical, Experimental and Forensic Practices. London: Croom Helm, pp 268-280.
Heap, M. (1989). Neuro-linguistic programming: What is the evidence? In D Waxman D. Pederson. I.
Sharpley, C. F. (1984). Predicate matching in NLP: A review of research on the preferred representational system. Journal of Counselling Psychology, 31(2), 238-248.
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.
Druckman and Swets (eds) (l988) Enhancing Human Performance: Issues, Theories, and Techniques, National Academy Press.
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.
Efran, J S. Lukens M.D. (1990) Language, structure, and change: frameworks of meaning in psychotherapy, Published by W.W. Norton, New York. p.122
Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, Jeffrey M. Lohr (eds) (2004) Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology


Anonymous said...

All the feedback provided in this article was given more than a decade ago in most cases. As NLP has evolved and more people have personally felt the benefits thereof, I would be very interested to see more recent comments on whether or not NLP works

Donald Clark said...

Anonymous (why?)- 2004/2005/Witkowski was 2009. As I explained serious researchers abandoned the subject as it was so universally disgraced. For more see:

Unknown said...


As with most of these things it is the end user who creates the effect, positive or negative in the use of such a technique/programme, call it what you will.

I have personally worked with a coach who very successfully helped me move to a more focused and happier place in my life. I subsequently found out that some of the techniques were what the coach had learned as NLP.

Now if the technique works does it matter what we call it?

I'd be interested to hear your alternative as I'm sure you are not simply a nay sayer throwing hand grenades for the sake of it simply because you have too much time on your hands.

I look foward to your alternative and helpful comments.


Unknown said...

Hi Donald

Interesting note on NLP.

I hail from a place where if we see things working we accept the positives, take what we can learn from it and move on.

I personaly had a very successful coaching experience a few years ago that helped me move to a more positive place and focus in both my work and personal life.

My coach subsequently revealed to me that some of the techniques she had used were known as NLP.

I'd be very interested in your alternative approach to NLP as I'm sure you are not just a nay sayer with too much time on your hands.

I very much look forward to your positive comments and feedback.


Chris said...

Anonymous is right - there is nothing new here at all. Your article could be a cut and paste of many articles. Firstly discredit the subject by digging up dirt on ONE of the founders - I guess there must be scientific research to show that anyone who was charged with murder or did cocaine never did anything of value - then you describe NLP in a way that shows a distinct lack of knowledge of the subject.

I have to ask - if NLP is a mixed bag of modelling techniques (which I won't disagree with), then which bits are discredited? Are all the 'borrowed bits' discredited? Is milton erickson discredited for instance? To say that NLP is discredited is like trying to catch fish with chocolate and then stating that fishing doesn't work.

The problem is that NLP somehow or other gets results, and that is why people continue to use it.

Perhaps you could explain how I can cure phobias time and time again using NLP methods that apparently don't work.

Finally, rather than 'so universally disgraced' - which doesn't make sense does it? It's either universally disgraced or it isn't - perhaps you could find a phrase that actually more closely matched the facts you are basing your argument on.

Donald Clark said...

Let me respond to the abov comments in general. I have written about NLP for many years and the defence always seems to be either 'I sell it and it works' or 'I've benefited personally and it works'. The problem with both of these arguments is that they are merely personal testimonies. Even worse the testimonies of those who market and sell the technique. People make the same claims about astrology, homeopathy and dozens of other fads. The way to settle the matter is by appeal to the objective, scientific evidence and on that front the conclusion is clear. Happy to listen to evidence that is more than mere anecdote - the plural of anecdote is NOT data.

Chris said...

Again donald, you're showing an incredibly poor level or reasoning and somewhat crafty writing. You also ignored all the points I made in my post.

And as of 10:46, you're implying that - as most people think astrology and homeopathy are rubbish, then stating that NLP and these subjects rely on personal testimonies means - NLP is equivalent to astrology. Nice try, but even you must realize how poor - and unscientific - a comparison you are making. Are you hoping to become a politician?

As I mentioned before, NLP is a many headed beast - your collection of scientists have barely studied any of it. And of course scientists are always completely impartial as we've seen in the resent climate change controversy. Actually, that's a joke, my issue with their research is more to do with the specific nature of the research than with their ethics.

And as a previous poster asked, whats your angle? I don't believe in the loch ness monster but don't feel the need to spend my life writing about its non-existence.

I mean, have you ever actually tried any NLP techniques? Or would that be too subjective for you?

Jim Hamlyn said...

"The plural of anecdote is NOT data."

Yes, absolutely.

I don't think I've posted this link before (hopefully) but there's a really interesting interview of psychologist Nicholas Humphrey by Richard Dawkins that I think you might be interested in on the subject of how alternative medicine works:

The reason I think you might find it interesting is because it makes a persuasive case for the role of the expert practitioner as an instigator of, as yet barely understood, processes of change in the individual (in this case the immune system). Might it be possible, do you think, that similar processes might be at work in other instances where people are exposed to 'face to face' meetings with highly respected and regarded individuals whether they are possessed of genuine insight or not? In other words, might all these seemingly bogus positive testimonials regarding NLP be the result of processes that have nothing to do with NLP but something else of which Humphrey elsewhere calls the Evolved Self Management system?:

Donald Clark said...

Chris - why do I have to have anangle, beyond teh search for what's right. I've spent 30 years in the education and training business and have witnessed a plethora of po-psychology and pseudoscience invade the field. This is one of the reasons politicians, employers and other managers in businesses see training as 'flaky'. I've spent most of my adult life doing real things in the real world to advance education and training - that's maybe my 'angle'. Getting rid of the nonsense is part of that work.

Chris said...

Why do you have a have an Angle? Well, you don't have to, but you've just shown that you do. I wasn't trying to catch you out or suggest there was a financial element, just find out what your 'context' was - why you're interested enough in NLP to write about it.

It's very easy to be critical of NLP (and many NLP trainers certainly don't help this), but when so many people have had results and changes in themselves then it simply isn't enough to tell them it's rubbish because science says there is no evidence (yet).

If I said I saw the virgin mary appear before me, then you wouldn't be able to convince me simply by saying that its rubbish and that science has seen no evidence for the existence of the virgin mary. You need to provide an alternative explanation for my vision, or in the case of NLP explain why people who were shaking themselves to pieces can be cured of their phobias within ten minutes. Its no good telling me its just personal testimony because its MY personal testimony and I know I didn't make it up - and the same is true for thousands of NLP practitioners throughout the world. How are we seeming to get the results with get if its all rubbish?

To be honest you opened yourself up for people to take you less than seriously as soon as you lead the piece with muck slinging at bandler - its nothing new and it hardly sets the tone for scientific rigor.

Donald Clark said...

What's this demand for an 'angle'? I've blogged about hundreds of subjects over many years, talked at conferences on dozens of subjects over many years..... I have supported and promoted good theory and practice when I've seen it, and tried to dispel the myths around bogus theory and practice when I see it. Your Virgin Mary argument is odd as it would be up to you not me to prove that you had seen her. I don't have to provide an explanation for your vision. As Christopher Hitchins often says, "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." To repeat myself, I've come across thousands of astrology believers but I don't take them seriously because I can prove it's not true, similarly with NLP. As for Bandler, you can support megalomaniacs like him if you want but I'll say what I think - he's not credible and quite possibly someone capable of putting a Magnum up the nostril of a young woman and blowing her brains out. You keep your company, I'll keep mine!

Donald Clark said...

J Hamlyn
Thanks, interesting comment and it really made me think. It's quite possible that a placebo effect or some other hidden cause(s) is at work here, However, the way to test this, is to do the studies. These have been done, and the evidence, when you actually trial these techniques is clear - they don't work. In fact it's the fact that Bandler and co are treated as experts that gives them this aura of credibility, like mediums and astrologers. What it all comes down to is the testimony of the people who sell these services (dodgy for obvious reasons) and the testimony of those who claims it works (self delusion). Having blogged on this subject many times I've had many people also testify, after attending NLP courses, that they're bogus and a waste of time. That's why we have to look at objective evidence.

Chris said...

Donald, from reading your 4:52pm you seem to have misunderstood my point about your angle. I was just trying to find out where you were coming from - no more no less. Your continued defense is not necessary.

The reason for my Virgin mary example was simple - most people would dismiss the event as nonsense but no one bothers to find an explanation - which is why some people may continue to think a supernatural is plausible.

Whatever you think of Bandler (and you've made it very clear), there are thousands of NLP practitioners who have followed his instructions and had results, but the scientists know better which can only mean that we are we all liars or deluded? So if we're deluded than how are we deluded?

Is it some kind of placebo effect?

Because all that you have is that some scientists have tried a few experiments and couldn't get results to match our experiences.
How much experimentation does it take to decide it's all rubbish? Seems to me that they stopped the experiments too soon and should have tried to develop an experiment based on training someone in something made up to see if the trainees could get results.

I thought the whole point of science was that scientists were open minded and science changed over time. Not much of that going on here. Even the idea that you can discredit NLP (which is not a single thing as I mentioned before and you ignored) is dubious.

Sorry if this is a little rambling, but I think I've made my point.

Donald Clark said...

The key phrase in 'thousands of NLP practitioners'. This is a self selecting, self-certifying group who have to buy the theory and practice as that is what they are expected to sell. There are thousands of astrologers, homeopaths and sundry other peddlers of oddball theories that have been shown to be false. I find it shameful that HR departments have been fooled into thinking that it really does work. Of course, it doesn't really matter because, apart from the US Army, who stopped using it, it is never evaluated.

Chris said...

Donald, there is one big difference between NLP and Astrology or Homeopathy. When someone goes to see an Astrologer(sp?) or a homeopath there is little feedback. The client goes home and either gets a subjective positive result or they don't - and if they don't they I guess they don't come back. This can easily create a false sense of skill.

On the other hand, if I see someone for a phobia I know before they leave if I have fixed the phobia or not because I can (and always do) test my work. There isn't a 'single size fits all' cure for most NLP issues - The practitioner often tries several approaches until they find the key to get the result required.

The results of many NLP interventions can be seen very simply and there is almost no way for the client to fake it simply to please the practitioner.

You still haven't answered my question as to whether NLP practitioners are delusional or liars.

Will said...

Great article Donald. First visit to your blog btw.. Gotta come back for more.

Look how cheap is a workshop with Bandler:

Cool way to make money.

Greetings from Brazil.

Craig Aaen Stockdale said...

Great article, Donald. Here's some recent deveopments you might be interested in:

Anonymous said...

Wow! You're the guy I've been looking for. When you think of a past experience, you don't see any images in your head, you don't talk to yourself, you don't hear any sounds in your head, smell or taste anything or feel any feelings related to that experience. So my question is, how do you construct your thoughts?

Donald Clark said...

Wow! It's called 'memory, something that we know a lot about - sensory memory, working memory, long term memory, episodic memory, semantic memory. What we do know about memory is that the so called NLP techniques are of no relevance. If you're going to comment anonymously, make a point.

Anonymous said...


It's interesting to read your thoughts on NLP and how opposed you are to this technology.

I was also wondering what your angle is, for want of a better word. Is it that you had a particularly bad experience with NLP or someone involved in NLP?

The first thing I noticed about your article was how you launched your "tirade" by digging up some dirt on Richard B. Talk about bad taste! I wonder if someone were to dig up the dirt on you, what they would find - regardless of whether it is true or not?

I must say, the article itself was not in very good taste and overall did not do a very good job of convincing anyone that NLP is a dubious practice.

Bottom line? Forget about teaching people what you think about NLP, which after all is only your opinion (albeit of course there will be others who share it). There are as many opinions as there people on the planet - everyone has one. Instead, just continue doing whatever it is you do in your quest helping people's lives more fulfilled (or whatever it is).


Donald Clark said...

In bad taste? The man was in a room with a drug dealer and his girlfriend, had blood all over him and helped dispose of the body! You can dig all you want Nick but you are unlikely to find that I have been charged with murder. Your second point is the usual point made by NLP fans, that Imust have had a bad experience with NLP. Well no. I have simply looked at the evidence and spoke to many people who do the training and have attended the courses, as I have spentover 30 years in the training industry. If, as you say, there are as many opinions as people on the planet, then why proffer any in comments on blogs that invite debate? I will, as you suggest, continue to do what I do and ignore anonymous posts by people who offer no debate, arguments or data, just the usual childish rubbish.

lincolnstoller said...

I have not read all of the comments in this thread so I apologize if my comments have been said before. I have just finished carefully reading Bandler's "Trance-formation" book as part of my hypnotherapy training. I am a physicist, an entrepreneur, I've been training people using neurofeedback for 8 years, and I've been offering regression therapy for the last 9 months. Here are my comments after reading Bandler.

- He comes across as a narcissistic megalomaniac. I have met others who fit this description and I believe I can recognize their signature.

- One of the consequences of the above point is that Bandler does not have much regard for the boundary between truth and falsehood, as is clearly reflected in his anecdotal method of argument. He has no concern for evidence, analysis, criticism, or the opinion of anyone who does not support him.

- His insight in to the use of trance makes his observations interesting to me and to others in the field of hypnotherapy. The intuitive feeling he displays works in conjunction with his inflated sense of self-confidence. It is well known that an essential part of using one's intuition is stilling one's critical mind. Bandler listens, he listens intently. He exercises little hesitation, self criticism, or circumspection.

- Bandler flagrantly uses the fact, which is always amazing to recognize, that people in trance are suggestible and pliable to the extent of allowing permanent changes. He will brashly do or say anything to his clients in order to get the result he wants, and his quite proud of it. He does not count his successes against his failures. He erases his failure. He performs experimental psychology on living patients, and there is much to learn in doing so.

- He is an extreme example of the latitude granted to psychologists, therapists, coaches, counselors, social workers, energy healers, spirit channels, and shamans. As a physicist I have high hurdles for "truth" and many categories of it. Working in psychology I find low hurdles and few compelling results. This is so typical that most practitioners do not discern levels or even aspire to a high level of truth. These fields are market driven and Bandler is an extraordinary salesman.

- I read his book and I found that if I took his hypnotic suggestions at face value, they were insightful and valuable. If I dismissed his NLP which, by the way, plays a minor role in his techniques, then I missed nothing. I believe that Bandler is a poor judge of which part of his skills come from his intuition, and which ride on his NLP techniques. I conclude that few to none of them do.

Reading Bandler to learn psychology is like studying Leni Riefenstahl to learn propaganda. There is genius there, and much to be learned by studying it, but there is a fine and delicate line between genius and psychopathology. The two often come together.

Anonymous said...

Really bad "reasoning". "Scientific" proven always relies on certain, artificial assumptions. You change the parameters, you change the result. You use old "psychological" parameters for "objective" "scientific" testing, you get results based on that.
Now, Bandler and many, many others claim that the psychology you refer to is non-working and out-dated. I certainly believe so.
You say that personal experience was so indicator that it worked - WHAT ELSE?
And _everything_ _always_ is in the human mind.
So you also can't rely on a statement of someone who says it doesn't work if he didn't do the work itself within himself due to lack of understanding oder yes, belief. Because everything is belief.
Your science is not _the_ reality. Reality is what you present within yourself and what you create yourself. My point here is that this is a truth which has been stated a LONG time before Bandler was born.
- - -
You refer to NLP techniques which are NO LONGER a part of NLP!!!! For MANY years, eye movements, etc. etc. are out-dated and were replaced by other techniques. Though they are not _entirely_ wrong.
NLP uses - what works. It doesn't matter why.
- - -
Are you speaking out of own experience?
Obviously not.
I have worked with international teachers from various traditions and the one single experience where truly someone was able to teach me something in a matter of minutes with HUGE change as a result was - Richard Bandler. When I met him personally.
And when you talk to him you raelize that he knows - or understands - more about cognitive science and the workings of the human neuropaths than most.
But again, that is irrelevant. Because the difference he makes is that he looks at HOW people can USE it for themselves to change in their lives what they individually want to change.
And yes, without testing - like what do you suggest, lighting up areas in the brain of the rat? As Bandler stated - people are not rats. You can ASK them. So one personal testimony is absolutely of more value to me that anything else.

However, your socalled "facts" are ridiculous and your presentation of that murder case is the biggest most stupid try to manipulate people into your direction for selling YOUR offers, I have ever seen.
What you state is one-sided and not at all! what has been reported. Who are you to judge the statements of Bandler on this event? Or to judge at all?
And why would you have to?

I don't think NLP ever claimed to be a science. It is simply a method to find out what works for human beings and to teach them to use that.

nlpcourse01 said...

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Donald Clark said...

Stupid Ponzi scheme spam from NLP.....

Anonymous said...

Hi Donald, I just want to say thank you for your good article about bogus NLP. All your detractors have proven is that some ppl will just keep spouting something based on personal belief regardless of any real science. They're all experiencing placebo, it's not a bad thing, which could just come from persuasive, charismatic, genuinely well meaning practitioners of nlp who might succeed just by being supportive and attentive, or mixing in more proven material without realising or just incorporating common sense. All these can help, even just having a person who takes the time to try encouraging a person and check their progress could be a pick me up or confidence boost a person needs. That does not mean it's not placebo. if nlp is mumbo jumbo pseudoscience then you are right to call them out on it.

You don't seem to have an "angle" peddling blind faith in placebo like some of the replies, it's quite simple; if the evidence doesn't stack up then you drop the failed model and move on.

If the nlp crowd is so dismissive and contemptuous of the science which debunked them, well then fine, but they should come out and say their thing is non evidence based, blind faith based, anecdotal personal stories and testimonials, and stop calling it science. Anecdote is no better than an ad for used cars which says " I bought a car here and they sure helped me!" No matter how many such replies are posted, science is the method by which you test, if it performs no better than helpful supportive placebo coaching with science sounding window dressing, then it is basically nothing special. People are all free to do what they want, if they wanna waste their own money on window dressing it's their business, but not everything deserves to be called science. And for the person who says there's simply no evidence for nlp 'yet' ...well likewise there's no evidence for a flat earth (yet) but don't hold your breath waiting for it to be found, because it doesn't deserve endless research to keep seeing it's not there, that's why the research by serious students has dropped off. Ben goldacre in his book "bad science" does a great expose of nlp and other bunk parading around with "sciencey"

Keep up the good work on your blog.

Josh A. said...

This book: — The Clinical Effectiveness of Neurolinguistic Programming: A Critical Appraisal — goes over the research that supports NLP, discusses its quality, and points the direction for future research.

Donald Clark said...

The authors are less than inspiring and clearly part of the Ponzi scehme itself. As for the guy who has a qualification from the Institute of psychiatry - read what they have to say about NLP -

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