Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is one of many self-help programs that emerged in the 1970s and ’80s but whose popularity has waned somewhat in recent years. NLP might be seen as a competitor with Landmark
Forum, Tony Robbins, and legions of other
enterprises promising to teach the masses the key to success, power, health, and happiness.
is probably the most successful “graduate” of NLP. He started his own empire
after transforming from a self-described “fat slob” to a firewalker to (in his own words) “the nation’s foremost authority on the psychology of peak
performance and personal, professional and organizational turnaround.” The founders
of NLP, Richard Bandler and John Grinder, might disagree about who is the master authority on the psychology of self-help and success.
NLP seems to have something for everybody, the sick and the healthy, individual or corporation.
In addition to being an agent for change for healthy individuals,
NLP is also used for individual psychotherapy for problems as diverse as phobias and schizophrenia. NLP also aims at transforming corporations, showing them how to achieve
their maximum potential and achieve great success. If you shop around, you’ll find NLP Practitioner Certification Training for under $100 and only a couple of days of your time. What is NLP? “NLP is the comprehensive training that covers everything you need to know to succeed (and help others succeed) in any area of life including business, relationships, career and any other area of life.”
Who discovered NLP?
NLP was begun in the mid-seventies by a linguist (Grinder) and a
student of mathematics (Bandler) who had strong interests in (a) successful people, (b) psychology, (c)
language and (d) computer programming. It is difficult to define NLP because those who started it and those involved in it use such vague and
ambiguous language that NLP means different things to different people. While it is
difficult to find a consistent description of NLP among those who claim to be experts at
it, one metaphor keeps recurring. NLP claims to help people change by teaching them to
program their brains. We were given brains, we are told, but no instruction manual.
NLP offers you a user-manual for the brain. The
brain-manual seems to be a metaphor for NLP training, which is sometimes referred to as
“software for the brain.” Furthermore, NLP, consciously or unconsciously, relies
heavily upon (1) the notion of the unconscious mind as
constantly influencing conscious thought and action; (2) metaphorical behavior and speech,
especially building upon the methods used in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams; and (3) hypnotherapy as
developed by Milton
Erickson. NLP is also influenced by the work of Gregory Bateson and Noam
One common thread in NLP is the emphasis on teaching a variety of communication and
persuasion skills, and using self-hypnosis to motivate and change oneself. Most NLP
practitioners advertising on the WWW make grand claims about being able to help just about
anybody become just about anything. Below is an excerpt from a website called The National Board of Professional and Ethics Standards on the wonders of NLP:
NLP can enhance all aspects of your life from improving your relationships with loved ones, learning to teach effectively, gaining a stronger sense of self-esteem, greater motivation, better understanding of communication, enhancing your business or career, bending steel bars in a single bound and an enormous amount of other things that involve the use of your brain.
The National Board of Professional and Ethical standards is not an accredited board, but a name pulled out of the air by a guy in Florida named D. A. “Doc” Brady. Brady says he has three doctorates, but he doesn’t say where he got them, and he is certified in NLP. One critic claims he got his doctorates from a diploma mill. Brady doesn’t say where he got certified in NLP.
Some advocates claim
that they can teach a highly reliable method of telling when a person is lying,
but others recognize
that this is not possible. One NLP guru,
Dale Kirby, informs us that one of the presuppositions of NLP is “No one is wrong or
broken.” So why seek remedial change? On the other hand, what Mr. Kirby does have to
say about NLP which is intelligible does not make it very attractive. For example,
he says that according to NLP “There is no such thing as failure. There is only
feedback.” Was NLP invented by the U.S. Military to explain their “incomplete
successes”? When the space shuttle blew up within minutes of launch, killing everyone
on board, was that “only feedback”? If I stab my neighbor and call it
“performing non-elective surgery” am I practicing NLP? If I am arrested in a
drunken state with a knife in my pocket for threatening an ex-girlfriend, am I just
“trying to rekindle an old flame”?
Another NLP presupposition which is false is “If someone can do something, anyone
can learn it.” This comes from people who claim they understand the brain and can
help you reprogram yours. They want you to think that the only thing that separates the average person from Einstein
or Pavarotti or the World Champion Log Lifter is NLP.
NLP is said to be the study of the structure of subjective experience, but a
great deal of attention seems to be paid to observing behavior and teaching people
how to read “body language.” But there is no common structure to non-verbal
communication, any more than there is a common structure to dream symbolism. There
certainly are some well-defined culturally determined non-verbal ways of communicating,
e.g., pointing the back of the hand at another, lowering all fingers but the one in the
middle, has a definite meaning in American culture. But when someone tells me that the way
I squeeze my nose during a conversation means I am signaling him that I think his idea
stinks, how do we verify whether his interpretation is correct or not? I deny it. He knows
the structure, he says. He knows the meaning. I am not aware of my signal or of my
feelings, he says, because the message is coming from my subconscious mind. How do we test
these kinds of claims? We can’t. What’s his evidence? It must be his brilliant intuitive
insight because there is no empirical evidence to back up this claim. Sitting
cross-armed at a meeting might not mean that someone is “blocking you out” or
“getting defensive”. She may just be cold or have a back ache or simply feel
comfortable sitting that way. It is dangerous to read too much into non-verbal behavior.
Those splayed legs may simply indicate a relaxed person, not someone inviting you to have
sex. At the same time, much of what NLP is teaching is how to do cold
reading. This is valuable, but an art not a science, and should be used with caution.
Finally, NLP claims that each of us has a Primary Representational
System (PRS), a tendency to think in specific modes: visual, auditory,
kinaesthetic, olfactory or gustatory. A person’s PRS can be determined by
words the person tends to use or by the direction of one’s eye movements.
Supposedly, a therapist will have a better rapport with a client if they
have a matching PRS. None of this has been supported by the scientific
literature.* Dr. Michael Heap evaluated some 70 papers on NLP and concluded: “…the assertions of NLP writers concerning the representational systems have been objectively and fairly investigated and found to be lacking.”
Bandler’s First Institute of Neuro-Linguistic Programming™ and Design Human
Engineering™ has this to say about NLP:
“Neuro-Linguistic Programming™ (NLP™) is defined as the study of the
structure of subjective experience and what can be calculated from that and is predicated
upon the belief that all behavior has structure….Neuro-Linguistic Programming™ was
specifically created in order to allow us to do magic by creating new ways of
understanding how verbal and non-verbal communication affect the human brain. As such it
presents us all with the opportunity to not only communicate better with others, but also
learn how to gain more control over what we considered to be automatic functions of our
We are told that Bandler took as his first models
(“The Mother of Family System Therapy”),
Milton Erickson (“The Father
of Modern Hypnotherapy”) and Fritz Perls
(who coined the expression ‘Gestalt Therapy’) because they “had amazing results with their
clients.” The linguistic and behavioral patterns of such people were studied and used
as models. These were therapists who liked such expressions as ‘self-esteem’, ‘validate’,
‘transformation’, ‘harmony’, ‘growth’, ‘ecology’, ‘self-realization’, ‘unconscious mind’,
‘non-verbal communication’, ‘achieving one’s highest potential’–expressions which serve
as beacons to New Age transformational psychology. No neuroscientist or anyone who has
studied the brain is mentioned as having had any influence on NLP. Also, someone who is
not mentioned, but who certainly seems like the ideal model for NLP, is Werner Erhard. He
started est a few miles north (in San Francisco) of Bandler and
Grinder (in Santa Cruz) just a couple of years before the latter started their training
business. Erhard seems to have set out to do just what Bandler and Grinder set out to do:
help people transform themselves and make a good living doing it. NLP and est also have in
common the fact that they are built up from a hodgepodge of sources in psychology,
philosophy, and other disciplines. Both have been brilliantly marketed as offering the key
to success, happiness, and fulfillment to anyone willing to pay the price of admission.
Best of all: no one who pays his fees fails out of these schools!
the ever-evolving Bandler
When one reads what Bandler says, it may lead one to think that some people sign on
just to get the translation from the Master Teacher of Communication Skills himself:
One of the models that I built was called strategy elicitation which is something
that people confuse with modeling to no end. They go out and elicit a strategy and they
think they are modeling but they don’t ask the question, “Where did the strategy
elicitation model come from?” There are constraints inside this model since it was
built by reducing things down. The strategy elicitation model is always looking for the
most finite way of accomplishing a result. This model is based on sequential elicitation
and simultaneous installation.
Many would surely agree that with communication like this Bandler must have a very
special code for programming his brain.
Bandler claims he keeps evolving. To some, however, he may seem mainly
concerned with protecting his economic interests by trademarking his every burp. He seems
extremely concerned that some rogue therapist or trainer might steal his work and make
money without him getting a cut. One might be charitable and see Bandler’s obsession with
trademarking as a way to protect the integrity of his brilliant new discoveries about
human potential (such as
enhancement) and how to sell it. Anyway, to clarify or to obscure matters–who knows
which?– what Bandler calls the real thing can be identified by a license and the
trademark™ from The Society of
Neuro-Linguistic Programming™. However, do not contact this organization if you
want detailed, clear information about the nature of NLP, or DHE (Design Human Engineering™
(which will teach you to hallucinate designs like Tesla did), or PE (Persuasion
Engineering™) or MetaMaster Track™, or Charisma Enhancement™, or
Trancing™, or whatever else Mr. Bandler and associates are selling these days. Mostly
what you will find on Bandler’s page is information on how to sign up for one of his
training sessions. For example, you can get 6 days of training for $1,800 at the door
($1,500 prepaid). What will you be trained in or for? Bandler has been learning about
“the advancement of human evolution” and he will pass this on to you. For $1,500
you could have taken his 3-day seminar on
Creativity Enhancement (where you could learn why it’s not creative to rely on other
people’s ideas, except for Bandler’s).
Grinder and corporate NLP
John Grinder, on the other hand, has gone on to try to do for the corporate world what
Bandler is doing for the rest of us. He has joined Carmen Bostic St Clair in endorsing an
organization called Quantum Leap,
“an international organisation dealing with the design and implementation of cross
cultural communication systems.” Like Bandler, Grinder claims he has evolved new and
even more brilliant “codes”.
…the New Code contains a series of gates which presuppose a certain and to my way
of thinking appropriate relationship between the conscious and unconscious parts of a
person purporting to train or represent in some manner NLP. This goes a long way toward
insisting on the presence of personal congruity in such a person. In other words, a person
who fails to carry personal congruity will in general find themselves unable to use and/or
teach the New Code patterns with any sort of consistent success. This is a design I like
very much – it has the characteristic of a self-correcting system.
It may strike some people that terms like “personal congruity” are not very
precise or scientific. This is probably because Grinder has created a “new
paradigm”. Or so he says. He denies that his and Bandler’s work is an eclectic
hodgepodge of philosophy and psychology, or that it even builds from the works of others.
He believes that what he and Bandler did was “create a paradigm
The following claim by Grinder provides some sense of what he thinks NLP is:
My memories about what we thought at the time of discovery (with respect to the
classic code we developed – that is, the years 1973 through 1978) are that we were quite
explicit that we were out to overthrow a paradigm and that, for example, I, for one, found
it very useful to plan this campaign using in part as a guide the excellent work of Thomas
Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) in which he detailed some of the
conditions which historically have obtained in the midst of paradigm shifts. For example,
I believe it was very useful that neither one of us were qualified in the field we first
went after – psychology and in particular, its therapeutic application; this being one of
the conditions which Kuhn identified in his historical study of paradigm shifts. Who knows
what Bandler was thinking?
One can only hope that Bandler wasn’t thinking the same things that Grinder was
thinking, at least with respect to Kuhn’s classic text. Kuhn did not promote the notion
that not being particularly qualified in a scientific field is a significant condition for
contributing to the development of a new paradigm in science. Furthermore, Kuhn did not
provide a model or blueprint for creating paradigm shifts! His is an historical
work, describing what he believed to have occurred in the history of science.
Nowhere does he indicate that a single person at any time did, or even could, create a
paradigm shift in science. Individuals such as Newton or Einstein might provide theories
which require paradigm shifts for their theories to be adequately understood, but they
don’t create the paradigm shifts themselves. Kuhn’s work implies that such a
notion is preposterous.
Grinder and Bandler should have read Kant before they set off on their quixotic
“Copernican revolution” might be considered a paradigm shift by Bandler and
Grinder, but it is not what Kuhn was talking about when he was describing the historical
development of scientific theories. Kuhn restricted his concern to science. He made no
claim that anything similar happens in philosophy and he certainly did not imply that
anything NLP did, or is doing, constitutes a paradigm shift. Kuhn claimed that paradigm
shifts occur over time when one theory breaks down and is replaced by another. Scientific
theories break down, he claimed, when new data can’t be explained by the old theories or
when they no longer explain things as well as some newer theory. What Bandler and Grinder
did was not in response to any crisis in theory in any scientific field and so cannot even
be considered as contributing to a paradigm shift much less being one itself.
What Grinder seems to think Kuhn meant by “paradigm shift” is something like
a gestalt shift, a change in the way we look at things, a change in perspective. Kant
might fit the bill for this notion. Kant rejected the old way of doing epistemology, which
was to ask ‘how can we bring ourselves to understand the world?’ What we ought to ask,
said Kant, is ‘how is it possible that the world comes to be understood by us?’ This was
truly a revolutionary move in the history of philosophy, for it asserted that the world
must conform to the conditions imposed on it by the one experiencing the world. The notion
that one has the truth when one’s mind conforms with the world is rejected in favor of the
notion that all knowledge is subjective because it is impossible without experience which
is essentially subjective. Copernicus had said, in essence, let’s see how things look
with the Sun at the center of the universe, instead of the Earth. Kant said, in
essence, let’s examine how we know the world by assuming that the world must conform to
the mind, rather than the mind conform to the world. Copernicus, however, could be
considered as contributing to a paradigm shift in science. If he were right
about the earth and other planets going around the sun rather than the sun
and the other planets going around the earth–and he was–then astronomers could no longer do astronomy without profound changes in their
fundamental concepts about the nature of the heavens. On the other hand, there is no way
to know if Kant is right. We can accept or reject his theory. We can continue to do
philosophy without being Kantians, but we cannot continue to do astronomy without
accepting the heliocentric hypothesis and rejecting the geocentric one. What did Grinder
and Bandler do that makes it impossible to continue doing psychology or therapy or
semiotics or philosophy without accepting their ideas? Nothing.
Do people benefit from NLP?
While I do not doubt that many people benefit from NLP training sessions, there seem to
be several false or questionable assumptions upon which NLP is based. Their beliefs about
the unconscious mind, hypnosis and the ability to influence people by appealing directly
to the subconscious mind are unsubstantiated. All the scientific evidence which exists on
such things indicates that what NLP claims is not true. You cannot learn to “speak
directly to the unconscious mind ” as Erickson and NLP claim, except in the most obvious
way of using the power of suggestion.
NLP claims that its experts have studied the thinking of great minds and the behavior
patterns of successful people and have extracted models of how they work.
“From these models, techniques for quickly and effectively changing thoughts,
behaviors and beliefs that get in your way have been developed.”* But studying Einstein’s or
Tolstoy’s work might produce a dozen “models” of how those minds worked. There
is no way to know which, if any, of the models is correct. It is a mystery why anyone
would suppose that any given model would imply techniques for quick and effective change
in thoughts, actions and beliefs. I think most of us intuitively grasp that even if we
were subjected to the same experiences which Einstein or Tolstoy had, we would not have
become either. Surely, we would be significantly different from whom we’ve become, but
without their brains to begin with, we would have developed quite differently from either
It seems that NLP develops models which can’t be verified, from which it develops
techniques which may have nothing to do with either the models or the sources of the
models. NLP makes claims about thinking and perception which do not seem to be supported
by neuroscience. This is not to say that the techniques won’t work. They may work and work
quite well, but there is no way to know whether the claims behind their origin are
valid. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. NLP itself proclaims that it is pragmatic in its
approach: what matters is whether it works. However, how do you measure the claim
“NLP works”? I don’t know and I don’t think NLPers know, either. Anecdotes and testimonials seem to be the main measuring devices. Unfortunately, such a measurement may
reveal only how well the trainers teach their clients to persuade others to enroll in more
If you don’t trust me, take a look at:
Thirty-Five Years of Research on Neuro-Linguistic Programming. NLP Research Data Base. State of the Art or Pseudoscientific Decoration?
Research findings on neurolinguistic programming: Nonsupportive data or an untestable theory?
NLP – training’s shameful, fraudulent cult (for what it’s worth, I would not classify NLP as a cult, but devotion to Bandler might seem so to some critics)
Neuro Linguistic Programming: Mental health veterans therapy fear
and the Wikipedia article on NLP, which is much more thorough than the SD entry.
postscript: On a more cheerful note,
sued Grinder for millions of dollars. Apparently, the two great communicators and paradigm innovators
couldn’t follow their own advice or perhaps they are modeling their behavior after so many
other great Americans who have found that the most lucrative way to communicate is by
suing someone with deep pockets. NLP is big on metaphors and I doubt whether
this nasty lawsuit is the kind of metaphor they want to be remembered by. Is Bandler’s
putting a trademark on half a dozen expressions a sign of a man who is simply protecting
the integrity of NLP or is it a sign of a greedy
books and articles
Barry, Dave. “Altered States” in The Miami Herald, April
13, 1997. (Humorist Dave Barry takes Peter Lowe’s SUCCESS 1997 12-hour success seminar
featuring Anthony Robbins, Elizabeth Dole, Rabbi Harold Kushner, Brian Tracy, Lou
Holtz, Jim Morris, Peter Lowe, Pat Riley, Dr. Ted Broer, George Bush, and Dan Kennedy.)
Heap, M. (1988). Neuro-linguistic programming, In M. Heap (Ed.) Hypnosis: Current Clinical, Experimental and Forensic Practices. London: Croom Helm, pp 268-280.
Roderique-Davies, Gareth. 2009. Neuro-linguistic programming: Cargo Cult Psychology? Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education Volume 1, Number 2. pp. 57–63. “…after three decades, there is still no credible theoretical basis for NLP, researchers having failed to establish any evidence for its efficacy that is not anecdotal.”
Salerno, Steve. (2006). Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America
Helpless. Three Rivers Press.
Schacter, Daniel L. Searching for Memory – the brain, the
mind, and the past (New York: Basic Books, 1996).
Method by Frank Clancy & Heidi Yorkshire (A 1989 article from
Mother Jones magazine that accuses Bandler of alcohol and drug
addiction, and argues he was guilty of the murder he was charged with in
interview with the head honcho himself. Read it. He reveals it all in this interview.
1996 Interview with Dr John
Inspiritive’s page on NLP
Scientific Assessment of NLP by Dylan Morgan
Neurologica (Dr. Steven Novella) – Neurolinguistic Programming and other Nonsense
“…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.”