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.
Have some of themes here resonated with you? Then have a read of these pages:
1. Do you need help or support in a particular area of your life?
Coaching with Adam Eason Or Hypnotherapy with Adam Eason
2. Would you like a satisfying and meaningful career as a hypnotherapist helping others? Are you a hypnotherapist looking for stimulating and career enhancing continued professional development and advanced studies?
Adam Eason’s Anglo European training college.
3. Are you a hypnotherapist looking to fulfil your ambitions or advance your career?
Hypnotherapist Mentoring with Adam Eason.
Likewise, if you’d like to learn more about self-hypnosis, understand the evidence based principles of it from a scientific perspective and learn how to apply it to many areas of your life while having fun and in a safe environment and have the opportunity to test everything you learn, then come and join me for my one day seminar which does all that and more, have a read here: The Science of Self-Hypnosis Seminar.
I’m wondering what you would suggest as the next step for the NLP community as a whole to practically move toward a more evidence based method?
Since you teach NLP and have found much use in it, how do you reconcile using it at all when you want the techniques you are using to be evidence based? Really curious about this one.
Re: “I’m wondering what you would suggest as the next step for the NLP community as a whole to practically move toward a more evidence based method?”
Ah, Taylor, I don’t think the NLP community is actually that interested in becoming more evidence based, though I think it is the only way they’ll gain more credibility. I think getting more research completed and engaging with the academic community and scientific community would be beneficial.
The most prolific researcher in the field of hypnosis, Irving Kirsch, tested the fast phobia cure and could not replicate any kind of efficacy in trials. Certainly could not get anything like the kind of results that many practitioners claim to have with that technique – yet it remains something used by the majority of NLP practitioners. That research, for example. started to make the academic field suspect that there were other mechanisms making the technique effective in clinical practice, for example. Variables such as the therapists level of belief in what they were doing and expectancy in particular were cited as being drivers that make the technique work.
Re: “Since you teach NLP and have found much use in it, how do you reconcile using it at all when you want the techniques you are using to be evidence based? Really curious about this one.”
Well, certain elements of NLP that really suffer – such as the presumption that there is an unconscious mind, such as eye accessing cues and so on, I do not really use. If I think they truly suffer from lack of evidence and are pseudoscientific at best, I’ll not use them. Plain and simple.
However, many elements of NLP, especially those with roots in some other fields have principles that are evidence based or other formats of the techniques have theoretical underpinning that can be related to other evidence based notions. For example, CBT has earlier versions of things like swish and dickens pattern, Gestalt has earlier versions of parts therapy (the gestalt empty chair, for example) and reframing has been used in a lot of research in other therapeutic modalities – these are brief examples off the top of my head.
I cannot claim to be holier than thou. On occasion in my therapy rooms, I may use something that suffers from lack of evidence base in and of itself, but I know that perhaps the mechanisms making it effective have been proven (expectancy, for example) and still feel comfortable using it if it is going to help the client get better. In the main, I do my best to be as evidence based as possible. But this is not a case for scientific fascism! 🙂 But with this field, it is really tough to be wholly evidence based as we do not have as much evidence as we would like to support what we typically use or have at our disposal.
Likewise, with the training I deliver, we give both sides of any debate, argument and philosophy. If we teach certain aspects of NLP, we’ll also highlight areas where research would suggest it is flawed and then let our students make up their own minds about whether to use it or not. The small NLP components that we still teach are given a firm and fair critique.
Really great hearing from you Taylor, it has been a LONG time since we communicated, best wishes to you,
I am all for advancing the level of credibility in the field. Pure anecdotal based evidence has only brought NLP only so far and I see a lot of value in this evidence being published and recognised. I am inspired by your passion to push the boundaries in a positive direction for the industry.
A Scientific Assessment
A few years ago Dr. Heap, Principle Clinical Psychologist for the Sheffield Health Authority and a lecturer at Sheffield University, did a very careful and thorough study of all the research that has been done into certain claims of NLP, citing 70 papers in all. Specifically he was looking into the idea of the Primary Representational System (PRS), which is supposed by NLP to be a very important concept. It is claimed that people tend to think in a specific mode: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory or gustatory, of which the first three are the most common. NLP claims that it is possible to determine the PRS of a person by noticing certain words that she or he uses which will reveal the mode. It is also claimed that the direction of eye movements is an indicator of the PRS. The reason why it is said to be important for the therapist to determine the PRS of a client is that it is supposed to greatly enhance rapport if one then matches the clients PRS. According to traditional scientific research the reason our eyes move up and down or left and right is to spark the brain up to keep it alert and active and able to process information.
These three assertions are capable of being put to controlled tests to determine how far they are true. Dr. Heap, who is also Secretary of the British Society of Experimental and Clinical Hypnosis, ploughed through the literature to summarise the results of many workers and found the following.
“Although the results have been mixed, the hypothesis that a person has a PRS which is observed in the choice of words has been found not to hold by the great majority of researchers. The hypothesis that a person has a PRS which can be determined by the direction of eye movements found even less support. The third hypothesis which was looked at is the practical one of whether or not we can improve our relationship with a client by matching the presumed PRS? Again the answer is a resounding NO.”
There is no evidence that focusing on the presumed PRS modality adds anything to the widely recognised finding that matching general characteristics of verbal and non verbal communication may facilitate rapport. It is interesting that one researcher, Cody, found that therapists matching their clients’ language were rated as less trustworthy and less effective.
Dr Heap Comes To the Following Conclusions:
“The present author is satisfied that the assertions of NLP writers concerning the representational systems have been objectively and fairly investigated and found to be lacking. These assertions are stated in unequivocal terms by the originators of NLP and it is clear from their writings that phenomena such as representational systems, predicate preferences and eye movement patterns are claimed to be potent psychological processes, easily and convincingly demonstrable on training courses by tutors and trainees, following simple instructions, and, indeed, in interactions of everyday life. Therefore, in view of the absence of any objective evidence provided by the original proponents of the PRS hypothesis, and the failure of subsequent empirical investigations to adequately support it, it may well be appropriate now to conclude 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.”
“These conclusions, and the failure of investigators to convincingly demonstrate the alleged benefits of predicate matching, seriously question the role of such a procedure in counseling.” And he ends: “This verdict on NLP is … an interim one. Einsprech and Forman are probably correct in insisting that the effectiveness of NLP therapy undertaken in authentic clinical contexts of trained practitioners has not yet been properly investigated. If it turns out to be the case that these therapeutic procedures are indeed as rapid and as powerful as is claimed, no one will rejoice more than the present author. If however these claims fare no better than the ones already investigated then the final verdict on NLP will be a harsh one indeed.”
This article first appeared in: The Journal of the National Council for Psychotherapy & Hypnotherapy Register Spring 1993. The full work can be found in the volume, Hypnosis: current clinical experimental and forensic practices. Edited by Michael Heap and published by Croon Helm. It contains many other articles of great interest by reputable researchers.
More Scientific Studies Regarding the Non Efficacy of NLP
Thank you Risha, a link to all of the papers you have quoted from here is in the body of my article where I reference Heaps critique of NLP.
Best wishes, Adam.
The notion put forward by Bandler in defence of NLP that it is not amenable to scientific testing or suitable for scientific scrutiny is absurd and a big hint that it is ineffective.
Science is the methodology if discovering the true nature of reality, of what exists and what doesn’t. To suggest that something exists outside of the scientific methodology or isn’t amenable to it is nonsense. That means it either doesn’t exist or isn’t effective.
The claim is even more absurd when you consider the shear complexity of some of the phenomenon that science can uncover. By comparison the efficacy of a supposed psychological therapy is very easy to test by scientific methods.
In fact it has been tested repeatedly and found to be ineffective. So what does a charlatan or Witchdoctor do when their product has been shown empirically to be snake oil? Ignore the evidence and blame science itself. It’s a completely illogical and nonsensical argument, but one which allows them to keep peddling their product.
Thanks for taking the time to write and say as much Tim.
Best wishes, Adam.
Thank you so much for this interesting piece. I was about to sign up for an NLP course tomorrow when I found your amazing article.
I am all for scientifically proven methods and am now thinking what can I do instead?
unfortunately, I will not start a 1st and 2nd degree in psychology.
I’m very interested in the fields of: influencing people, understanding how to read them, connecting to them, and also helping them be better or overcome fears.
I would love to hear what kind of methods or courses you think would be best for me to take in order to achieve this knowledge (that I originally thought I will with NLP studies).
Thank you Yonatan, I have replied to your email messages and hope I’ve answered your questions there.
Best wishes to you, Adam.
Thank you, for sharing this blog. I am learning from you and Anil Thomas.
My pleasure Tejashvi, best wishes to you, Adam.
I’m interested in the best way of testing hypnosis and hypnotic techniques. I’m thinking it must be possible to test a hypnotic product in the same way you’d test a pill.
So say if I have I record a hypnotic induction for helping people with chronic pain, and you do the same, we could test ours on a group of people who suffer from chronic pain, some would get my recording, some yours and some just a relaxing recording of background music. We could then see who gets the best results based on their subjective score of pain, before and afterwards. Would that be a valid test?
In order to do that we’d need some people to test it on, which I guess would take time and money, although not a huge amount.
Hi Tom, it would be a test, but not necessarily a very expansive one.
Ideally, you want to limit the variables that are being tested so that just one can be isolated to see if that is actively contributing to the outcome. It is all well and good discovering that one approach seems to be more effective than others – but we’d not really know why it was more effective and neither would we know what the mechanism was that was making it more effective.
You’d probably benefit from exploring psychological research methods and scientific procedure in the first instance. Then you’d want to offer up a null hypothesis and design your experiment accordingly and from there. Good luck with it, best wishes to you, Adam.
Some 15 years ago, the British Psychological Society hired 2 NLP Master Practitioners to profile their membership in order to understand their preferences and improve communications. So, perhaps not scientific, but useful.
Thanks for this Jim, is there a reference for this somewhere? An article or official BPS announcement? I’d love to read more. Many thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, best wishes, Adam.