Mar 28 2007

Neurolinguistic Programming and other Nonsense

There is an episode of Spongebob (one of those few cartoons accessible to both young children and adults) where Patrick, upset that his friend Spongebob has won so many awards and he has won none, decides to copy everything Spongebob does. Patrick is a lazy, dumb, pathetic, (but charming) do-nothing, and he is no less so by simply mimicking Spongebob’s every move – hence the comic irony my four-year-old can appreciate. Neurolinguistic programming (NLP), at its core, takes the Patrick approach to success and counseling.

The wikipedia entry on NLP is fairly factually thorough, and I won’t waste time here reproducing it, so for background I suggest reading the entry. Also, this recent blog post by Donald Clark is a good summary of the scientific reviews of NLP – all damning. Briefly, NLP was developed in the 1970’s and is based upon the notion that success can be achieved by simply modeling the language, behavior, and thought patterns of successful people. Various versions of this have been applied to counseling by simply modeling the language and behavior of supposedly successful counselors.

When first proposed there was nothing overtly pseudoscientific about NLP. It was a bit simplistic and naïve, but may have had some merit. But it turns out that the assumptions of NLP, namely that our cognition, behavior and emotions can be “programmed” by mimicking the more superficial aspects of those with desirable attributes (for example posture and mannerism) are wrong. The last thirty years of research have simply shown that NLP is bunk.

New ideas in applied science (like health care or counseling) are evaluated in two ways – are the basic science premises of the idea valid, and does it work. Although the latter trumps the former, both are important to consider because evidence of efficacy is often less than definitive, and the threshold of evidence necessary to accept a new therapy should be modified by it’s plausibility (in contrast to the precepts of evidence-based medicine, but that’s another blog entry).

In the case of NLP it has failed every test of both its underlying theories and empirical tests of its efficacy. So, in short, NLP does not make sense and it doesn’t work. In science you don’t get three strikes, those two and you’re out. It turns out that improving one’s cognitive ability and emotional stability is hard work – there’s no quick short cut. The brain is not infinitely reprogrammable – it can learn and change, but there is an underlying structure and function that is pretty resistant to change, and this resistance increases as we age. Change is possible, but it’s hard work. You can’t just download a new personality.

So why, then, has NLP persisted for 30 years despite all the evidence against it? I think this reflects an endemic problem within the mental health field. Part of the problem is that the field is very broad, with multiple parallel professions, including psychiatry, clinical psychology, social work, and counseling. Also, within each profession there are multiple theories and traditions, many mutually exclusive. The degree of dedication to science and evidence-based practice is also highly variable. The bottom line is that, although there is a great deal of legitimate science within the mental health field, in practice it is rife with pseudoscience and nonsense.

This results from the fact that new ideas and practices may go from inception to application without taking a detour through the trials of experiment and review. It is not uncommon for a practitioner to get a new idea about how to approach counseling, they then start doing it in their practice, then write a book, teach classes and seminars, if successful they create an institute, and before you know it there is a thriving infrastructure dedicated to this new method within the mental health field. At some point after this process is already under way someone may bother to do some scientific studies, but by then it’s too late. There is already too much invested in the technique, and too many practitioners who “know” that it works because they have seen in work with their clients. This is the story of NLP, and many other methods – like repressed memory therapy, eye movement desensitization therapy, and countless others.

The introduction of new pseudoscientific counseling techniques is driven by market forces, which demands easy answers to complex questions. Everyone would like the quick and magical fix for their complex psychological issues. NLP fits this mold perfectly – just program the brain to model after a successful person, and you will magically become successful.

There are also numerous reasons why any psychotherapy method may seem to work. There is generic benefit from just sitting and talking with another person. The introduction of a novel method into therapy creates the expectation that something should happen. Both the counselor and the client want the sessions to be successful, so there is a motivation to perceive success. So any counseling method will have both non-specific benefits and a large false perception of benefit – even if the technique itself is worthless and the underlying principles absurd.

There doesn’t appear to be an easy fix for these problems either. Ideally, an academic and scientifically grounded group with grab the reigns of the therapy professions and instill quality control by setting practice standards based upon scientific plausibility and evidence for efficacy. New ideas will be tested before they are widely disseminated. It’s hard to imagine this happening, however, because the field is comprised of so many independent and often competing professions. There is no one set of reigns to grab. Infatuation with alternative medicine ideology has also made this more difficult, as efforts to impose scientific standards are dismissed by some as male western demagoguery.

Those who advocate for more science and reason within the mental health field will keep plugging away, and I will cheer them on. But we will likely need either a cultural revolution or a massive overhaul of the system before we will see significant progress. Until then NLP and other counseling nonsense will endure.

9 responses so far

9 thoughts on “Neurolinguistic Programming and other Nonsense”

  1. Andy B. says:

    Steve begins his criticisms thus:

    “There is an episode of Spongebob (one of those few cartoons accessible to both young children and adults) where Patrick, upset that his friend Spongebob has won so many awards and he has won none, decides to copy everything Spongebob does. Patrick is a lazy, dumb, pathetic, (but charming) do-nothing, and he is no less so by simply mimicking Spongebob’s every move – hence the comic irony my four-year-old can appreciate. Neurolinguistic programming (NLP), at its core, takes the Patrick approach to success and counseling.”

    What irony, then, to find that Steve has also followed Patrick’s lead. And so has the Donald Clark about whose blog Steve is so enthusiastic.

    In brief, both people – like many others before them – have seized aupon Dr Heap’s 1988 review, presumably without bothering to read either the original paper, its 1989 re-issue, or any of the actual abstracts that Heap reviews.

    If they had done all of those things, they would have discovered some interesting facts:

    1. Dr Heap did not understand what Bandler and Grinder were claiming in 1988, and he still doesn’t. This I know because I have been in communication with Dr Heap (who is a very pleasant and courteous gentleman if his e-mails are anything to go by). In fact he has invited me to write a piece for his annual journal for skeptics which I believe is called “The Investigator” (?)

    2. Most of the people who carried out the experiments which Dr Heap reviewed were NOT trained, experienced researchers. They were candidates for a Master’s degree. And very few of them understood what Bandler and Grinder were claiming, either. In fact some of the students, such as Allen Hammer and Bruce Graunke actually confirm an important detail of Bandler and Grinder’s claims
    – the need to continually track a subjects predicates – yet imagine that they have disproved Bandler and Grinder’s claims.

    3. This is a fairly ludicrous situation, since Einspruch and Forman pointed out in 1985 where Sharpley (a previous reviewer – 1984) had missed various errors in the experiments he reviewed – and four years later Heap proceeded to make the same error.

    4. As a matter of interest, nearly 50% of all the abstracts reviewed by Heap actually supported the claims made about preferred representational systems and eye accessing cues. This would be obvious to anyone reviewing the abstracts who had a solid grounding in NLP-related concepts.

    In short, from as far back as the late 1970’s people have been conducting experiments which are based on misunderstanding the claims made about NLP-related techniques – because they didn’t take the time to get an accurate understanding. And then some academics come along and evaluate the uinvestigations inaccurately because they have also failed to do the necessary research.

    And all of this is referred to over and over again as “proof” that NLP is invalid – by people who have quite obviously made no effort at all to check the validity of Sharpley and Heap’s reviews.

    To borrow Novella’s comparison – the is nothing but a sea of Patricks – including Novella himself.

    Readers can check Dr Heap’s website to see which abstracts he reviewed, and look here for the actual abstracts:

  2. Hangon says:

    Greetings and so on

    I’ve been watching the debate with some fascination

    Andy Bradbury (the NLP author and sales person), you seem to have a problem with researching the wrong thing, or perhaps just missing out very very important matters

    Lets compare your argument with that of another NLP group

    This NLP group (Inspiritive) follows your line until they get to the Einspruch and Forman (1985) research. Quite rightly, they mention Sharpley followed up with a further piece of research in 1987, adding a further set of findings that NLP failed.

    Einspruch and Forman could make no reply at all.

    Unfortunately the NLP group Inspiritive actually try to twist the findings around in order to promote their business as if a failure of NLP means a failure of some NLP sales people, and not the failure of Inspiritive in their adoption of an ineffective pseudoscience.

    I did at one time believe in the power of NLP and I did spend money on it. I was misled. You are an NLP author/sales person, and you offer nothing but more nonsense. I got nothing but nonsense from your NLP forum, and NLP seems to be a sort of religion for the inept.

    Thank you for directing me here, and thank you for unintentionally giving me the opportunity to present my view without all the social pressure you get in a pseudoscientific forum.

    Hanna Gondle

  3. Andy B. says:

    Don’t be silly.

    You STILL keep using the same old material, the same lies, the same half-baked arguments and claims that all your sockpuppets use. And you clearly still don’t know what you are talking about.

    Whether Inspiritiive did or did not give a reply that you approve of is irrelevant. Heap said what he said, based on failure to carry out adequate research. And Novella and Clarrk have followed Heap’s lead without doing the necessary research. So in Novella’s terms they’re all the kind of “Patricks” that Novella affects to despise.

    And as soon as I posted a copy of my response on NLPconnections you rush over here, pausing only to change your name from Rich Farnham to Hanna Gondle – to post your ill-informed answer.

    In my opinion you seriously disrespect Prof. Novella by making use of his blog to pursue your infantile games for no useful purpose whatsoever.

  4. ColinBright says:

    Hello Andy B

    Sorry mate, but you seem to have started off on the wrong foot. This is a sceptics thinking blog not a soap box. Your link doesn’t work. Here is one that does:

    If Heap, the hypnotist you refer to has changed his mind about NLP and now thinks it’s the greatest thing since homeopathic dehydration cures, then fine for him. But your addition really makes it look like NLP is just a lot of pseudo for pseudos.

    Just getting past all the personal attacks, the information (taken from the blog and listed below) shows pretty straight that there is no support for NLP and the later lit talks about NLP being the ultimate modern pseudoscience. Heap might have had some ideas, but all the other reviewers who seem to be eminently well published, show a no go on effect. No result, pseudo promises, pseudo concepts, and pseudo behaviour. You show crank behaviour by putting the onus on the researchers and attacking people who question your methods (NLP).

    Seriously, I reckon you need to re-hash your approach.

    Colin B

    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.

    Beyerstein.B.L (1990). Brainscams: Neuromythologies of the New Age. International Journal of Mental Health 19(3): 27-36,27.

    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

    Von Bergen, C W, Barlow Soper, Gary T Rosenthal, Lamar V Wilkinson (1997). “Selected alternative training techniques in HRD”. Human Resource Development Quarterly 8(4): 281-294.

    Grant J. Devilly (2005) Power Therapies and possible threats to the science of psychology and psychiatry Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry Vol.39 p.437

  5. N1ckw1ld says:

    If people get help to their problems from NLP, great.
    Its better than them being depressed or stressed or anxious.
    I’ve never understood the resistance that people always like to have towards anything “alternative”. Maybe even more drugs from a GP would be better. Happy pharmaceutical companies.

  6. JosieX says:

    Hello Nick

    You might just as well have said:

    “If people get help to their problems via

    Pillow bashing
    Angel therapy
    Drinking blood
    Praying (and calling it neurospiritual transcendence)
    Out demons out!
    Drinking urine
    Tapping their meridians
    Regular hyperventilation
    Spirit mediumship
    and so on

    then great.
    Its better than them being depressed or stressed or anxious.
    I’ve never understood the resistance that people always like to have towards anything “alternative”. Maybe even more drugs from a GP would be better. Happy pharmaceutical companies.”

    Really Nick

    If you can’t understand why people resist “alternative” things, then have another good long look at the list above, and have a look at the list of things on the alternative medicine menu on the web.

    They are all quite similar in that they are all in the same category of pseudoscience. Especially when its recommended by people posing as professional therapists who charge money for it.


  7. Andy B. says:

    “Colin”, what on earth is the point of constantly swapping names if you keep using such an easily recognised style of writing, and such a limited vocabulary:

    “a lot of pseudo for pseudos”

    “ultimate modern pseudoscience”

    “No result, pseudo promises, pseudo concepts, and pseudo behaviour”

    And there are at least four other sockpuppets on the go right now with the same obsessive claims that everything about NLP is pseudo something or other.

    I wonder if “you” could actually give a sensible/accurate definition of “pseudoscience”?

  8. Andy B. says:

    This post is in response to several recent visits to my website from this blog. To be honest I’d forgotten about it, and I cannot remember why I didn’t reply to Carl Thorn’s post, which is as flawed as the other criticisms.

    Anyway,reading through the comments I see that I made several claims about what was going to happen, but without any URLs of course no subsequent visitors could check whether anything actually happened – all in one:

    Sockpuppet “Hangon” started rather badly, I thought, by claiming that sehe had been “watching the debate with some fascination”, but what debate? Novella wrote a blog, I wrote a reply. Not much of a “debate”. There was more of an exchange of views between Novella and myself in a short exchange of e-mails.

    S/He claimed that Einspruch and Forman “coiuld make no reply at all” to Sharpley’s second article – wich was literally true, but NOT because they had nothing to say.
    It is a convention in many professional journals that if person/people A writes an article, and person/people B submits a full length rebuttal (which is printed) then person/people A has the right to reply. And that’s it. They do not allow any further directly relevant articles by either side.
    So the lack of any further article by Einspruch and Forman appeared in the journal in question tells us precisely NOTHING about whether they *could* have replied to Sharpley’s second article, if they’d had the chance.

    But clearly “Hangon” didn’t have access to that kind of information.

    Hangon then went on to bad mouth the Australian NLP training company “Inspiritive”. In case “s/he” should happen to drop by again, Inspiritive are still going strong and are now partnered with the University of Sydney in providing an official post-graduate qualification in NLP.

    ColinBright wrote that the link on my first comment didn’t work. My apologies, it did when I tried it and I’ve no idea why it didn’t work for him.

    He then suggested, if I understood him correctly, that it would be more useful to read Dr Michael Heap’s articles on NLP at

    I said at the time that Heap had invited me to write an article about his criticisms of NLP, and that went ahead as planned. Heap refers to my article on his web page. My response to his claims can be found here:

    Colin also provided a list of references for articles he imagines prove the invalidity of the element(s) of NLP that they addtress. I now have a page on my website which links to 21 book chapters and articles that criticise some aspect of NLP, each of which provide a detailed explanation of why each and everyone is based on misunderstanding or plain ignorance. The list includes all but one of the items cited by Colin, with one exception (which I have also read but not got around to writing up. It is no more accurate than any of the other items).

    If JosieX is interested in the truth rathjer than vague accusations may I suggest she reads this description of NLP, posted on the web site of a US government web site with no perceptable reason to promote NLP:

    “Neurolinguistic Programming

    A set of models of how communication impacts and is impacted by subjective experience. Techniques are generated from these models by sequencing of various aspects of the models in order to change someone’s internal representations. Neurolinguistic programming is concerned with the patterns or programming created by the interactions among the brain, language, and the body, that produce both effective and ineffective behavior.

    Year introduced: 2000”

    This can be found this website:

    Carl Thorne’s contribution is particularly revealing in that anyone with a basic education in statistics – even if they know nothing at all about NLP – should be able to spot the abyssmal level of the research behind Norcross’ two articles (there was an earlier, but very similar survey which Thorne either didn’t bother to mention or just didn’t know about. The quality of the research was so poor that participants were asked to give ratings for alleged therapuetic techniques for which no descriptions/definitions were provided. In the case of the NLP entry in each survey the title given referred to a non-existent technique. Full details can be found here:

    And a rebuttal of Novella’s criticisms can be found here:

    In short, there is very little accurate information – regarding authentic NLP (as developed and recorded by Bandler or Grinder) – in this blog or any of the attached criticisms.
    Full Stop [“period” if you’re reading this in American ;¬) ]

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