I read a very enjoyable article this week on the research digest blog of the British Psychological Society (BPS) entitled “10 of The Most Widely Believed Myths in Psychology” and it offers plenty of evidence base that refutes commonly held beliefs in the field of psychology.

I was feeling smug at being aware of plenty of the evidence being cited in the article and got down to myth number nine of the article, where this was written:

9. Neurolinguistic Programming is scientific

It’s true that a minority of psychologists are trained in neurolinguistic programming (NLP) and advocate its use, but it is a serious error to think that NLP is grounded in scientific findings in either psychology or neuroscience. In fact the system – which is usually marketed a way of achieving greater personal success – was developed by two self-help gurus in the 1970s who simply made up their own psychological principles after watching psychotherapists working with their clients. NLP is full of false claims that sound scientific-ish, such as that we each have a preferred “representational system” for thinking about the world, and that the best way to influence someone is to mirror their preferred system. A forensic trawl through all the claims made in NLP programmes found that the overwhelming majority are piffle. In many contexts, this may be harmless, but in 2013 a charity was called to book for offering NLP based therapy to traumatised war veterans.

I strongly recommend having a read of the links included in that snippet above, the Tomasz Witkowski PDF in particular. One of the major issues that the field of NLP faces, according to me and my personal stance, my personal bias and my personal leaning toward evidence-based practice, is that the field suffers from a lack of direct supporting evidence; though it is sometimes claimed that many underpinning principles have evidence to support them. However if you go and search for randomised controlled trials testing the very testable techniques of NLP on a research database such as PubMed or PlosOne, for example, there will be slim pickings. Certainly very slim compared to hypnotherapy and CBT, for example.

However, when this line of thought was posed to one of NLP’s co-creators, Richard Bandler, on a BBC interview about NLP, he mentioned that NLP was not really designed to be effective in the laboratory and that it was less important to fit in with the formalised psychology field in this way.

The interviewer also stated “I read in my briefings here, that neuro-linguistic programming is not supported by scientific evidence at all” to which Bandler questions the type of researchers making those claims (“social scientists or real scientists?”), and their ability to be able to employ the technique properly. He suggests that taking a group of 20 people with a fear of elevators up into an elevator shows success rather than being done by a group of scientists who don’t really know how to do it.

There are a number of other criticisms angled at NLP towards the end of the interview which he responds to and it makes for good listening. You can listen to the full interview here on YouTube:

NLP was similarly and perhaps more comprehensively critiqued by Michael Heap in 2008 who has published a number of papers about NLP and aspects of NLP, a good starting place is his NLP critique website here where you’ll also have access to his papers that were published by the Skeptical Intelligencer and the Association for Skeptical Enquiry. They make for very interesting reading.

Likewise, one of my favourite Skeptic podcasts (Skeptoid by Brian Dunning) did an episode on NLP which you can read and listen to here. Skeptoid Podcast: Neuro-Linguistic Programming

Likewise, there is much more debate and healthily sceptical appraisal to be read and examined online. Lots of what has been said in these critical appraisals has been refuted by supporters of NLP and has stimulated much debate. I know a great many very well respected NLP authors and trainers who are not interested in acceptance from the field of psychology, and again do not think that NLP is right to be tested in the more formalised clinical environment of research labs.

I’m not really making a point here about NLP. The debate I tend to offer up, is that if you seek to be an evidence based practitioner, as I do as much as is possible with the hypnotherapy field I work in, it is really quite tough to defend the use of NLP when there is such a damning lack of evidence to warrant or suggest it’s use.

That said, in the above interview, Bandler suggests that NLP is not really to be used as a therapy (as used by a great many therapists) but more as a way of “optimising individuals.” I’m not sure if that is semantic games or not, but it further fuels the debate.

I am not poo-poo-ing the use of NLP, I teach it, created a board game to help learn it, trained with Bandler, Grinder, Dilts and a number of other prominent trainers and definitely have found much use in much of what is offered in the field of NLP. I think however, that the attitude many have about NLP being scientific is probably flawed, and that rather than blindly accept it all as fact or as scientific, that we think critically about it if we want to be a responsible, evidence based hypnotherapist.