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. Great start – it gets worse…
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 is a mixed bag of modeling 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