NLP bunk

When confronted with Don A. Blackerby, whose Web site says he’s “recognized as the foremost Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) authority on Learning Disabilities, including Attention Deficit Disorder”; Shannon Sumrall of Advanced Behavioral Consultants who wrote “Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Education“; and Gordon Dryden and Jeannette Vos, who have a book called The Learning Revolution that incorporates NLP to fix just about anything, it is a pleasure to know that there are sensible folks like Steven Novella in the neighborhood. Dr. Novella, who’s an academic neurologist at Yale and a principal element in the New England Skeptics Society, published a sensible commentary on NLP that I strongly encourage readers to review. He goes well beyond debunking the woo (did I spell that correctly, Liz?) and discusses why NLP persists and what it will take to make the world safe from such nonsense.

This is not an April Fools’ Day post.

20 Responses to “NLP bunk”

  • Sure John

    NLP grew from a set of new age followings, namely the financially successful scientology, EST, Emin, and other “the map is not the territory” new age belief fields. NLP was tested using a battery of controled studies in the 80s and it flopped big time. Since then the NLP crowd have towed the scientology line by basically saying “try it for yourself” (a typical cult ploy), and whenever the scientific studies are presented, they claim that they are talking about “another kind of reality”.

    More recently, its only cultic researchers studying NLP and they generally conclude that its an archetypal pseudoscience. Its not only the fact that it failed tests, its the behaviour of NLP devotees that makes it an interesting one to study from a cultic studies point of view. Its basically a scientific sounding new age religion (similar to scientology). The jargon bares no real resemblance to anything in psychology, the claims are all hyped, there are the typical eye accessing diagrams that have as much realism as phrenology, and there is a long line of new age heros that that are worshiped beyond reason by NLPers. No real evidence of any effectiveness – except as a cult that spreads disinformation about the brain. HD

  • Nice observations, HD. Thanks.

  • Being a licensed therapist (in addition to an anthropologist trained in linguistics) and having gone through both “traditional” therapy training and NLP training I can comment that NLP is ultimately a combination of behavioral and cognitive behavioral therapy utilized with an elegant set of techniques and skills. Ultimately NLP and all therapy is designed to teach the client a set of skills they can use to be at cause in their life. NLP teaches people to think and do for themselves unlike a cult that demands obedience and cessation of independant thinking.

    As all of the referenced “skeptics” seem to bash all forms of therapy including cognitive and behavioral therapy which they have, very obviously, not done proper research on; as there exists a huge body of peer reviewed research supporting the effectiveness of behavioral and cognitive-behavioral techniques. Additionally, the skeptics seem to have no knowledge or background in the science of linguistics,which is a very large part of NLP and also has a very large body of research behind it.

    Certainly there are people that use NLP in ways that are not effective just like there are people in every healthcare field that do the exact same thing with their methodologies and tools. I’m curious as to what the “skeptics” would recommend we do to treat people in the mental health setting as they don’t seem to offer any viable alternatives or demonstrate any real “knowledge” of NLP and other therapy other than what they’ve read on the internet. What research does tell us is that therapy does work:

  • Hi, Shannon. Thanks for commenting.

    As one who’s conducted studies examing the effects of various interventions in school settings, I can say that I am not skeptical about all forms of therapy. In fact, I’ll champion therapies that meet reasoned empirical standards. When a therapy has been examined repeatedly across a range of participants and outcome measures so that we can know both when the therapy has (and may not have) beneficial effects, I’m ready to endorse it. For illustrations of some that I consider to have passed this test, please see my pages about meta-analyses of selected interventions for learning and behavior problems.

    I know of no scholarly integration of the research literature on NLP that shows beneficial effect sizes (even something better that .50). Do you have a source for such a review? I’d be interested in reading it. I’m familiar with some of the reviews sited on the page to which you refer here (and there are good ones, e.g., such as Lipsky & Wilson, 1993), but they refer to general counselling, not NLP.

  • CBT is empirically supported. NLP is not. I’m a skeptic and I actually use CBT concepts to advance myself through difficult situations. CBT works and expectations are realistic. So its satisfactory. NLP is ineffective.

    NLP is nonsense in theory, and in practice. There is nothing elegant about it at all. Its full of exaggerations such as using words like elegance, slight of tongue, the difference that makes the difference and so on. Its just a load of glossy words that are totally misleading considering NLP has failed all the tests presented. Its catchy, but its always been a flop.

    The research has always said that NLP is erroneous regarding linguistics, totally wrong in relation to neurology, and the only thing it programs is unethical attitudes.

    The pro NLP arguments are all too familiar (look at all other pro cult arguments): Try it for yourself, NLP is way beyond the measure of science, and so on. They are all pseudoscientific arguments and they are all designed to gain followers and usually for financial gain.

    CBT does none of those things. CBT developers work with scientists through empirical testing, and they don’t hype their interventions. NLP developers are usually resistant to empirical testing and full of excuses for NLP’s never ending failures (from the 80s until the present). The more recent research really does show that NLP is becoming the ultimate new age cultic pseudoscience. They claim to be able to develop congruence, but they are the most dissonant bunch in the scientology universe.


  • Skeptics are skeptical in general. They follow scientific skepticism concepts in order to make sense of the nonsense overload of the world. I’d say its a good way of looking at any therapy.

    Skeptics will actually admit that any evidence based treatment is supported only when it is supported.

    Its not just that NLP is unsupported, the fact is, NLP is characterized by fraudulent claims, and involves lots of odd group pressure methods to recruit. Its generally known as a cult and for good reason.

    The sort of concepts they promote are basically yin/yang thinking, and there are a lot of NLP methods that resemble scientology, including timeline therapy (often in relation to reincarnation) and dubious attack therapies. Its a new age therapy.

    It does look a bit scientific, and browsing the bookstores one may mistake it for management training. There are management concepts such as SMART planning etc that are often in those books. However, its all mixed up with left/right brain thinking, power therapies, and occult practices such as drawing magical circles in the ground. Both Bandler and Grinder do occulty things such as remote viewing, shamanism, and other showy confections.

    I think the name gives it all away. Neuro (like neuroscience?) linguistic (actually the linguistic concepts are nonsense. The terms are similar, but NLP is full of non-exstant universals (aka panaceas)). NLP is basically a crock. We have enough overload to cope with in life. Adding the nonsense of NLP to it is really unhelpful.

    NLPers are only really convincing to each other. Everybody else (especially in legit fields) tends to ridicule anyone wearing the NLP blinkers.


  • So, wouldn’t it be cool to subject NLP studies to the rigors of an integrative literature review? Who’s got the corpus of studies that show benefits from NLP?

  • I use CBT everyday in my current job and changes occur only within people who want to change something about themselves. I have recently discovered that CBT may well be replaced by NLP in my practice. I think to your answers can be found in whether you need empirical research to believe that NLP works. There is no empirical research to suggest that a supreme being exists but yet many believe or have faith that there is, irrespective of what faith one may follow. Then there is Darwins theory of evolution which is based on empirical science and facts. I have found NLP and CBT to be useful in my own personal life and do not see myself as a cult follower.

  • CBT is empirically supported. You have a lot of folk in white coats cheering you along. So it has mechanisms of action, and a high placebo cherry on top.

    NLP has only a minor placebo. Its crap! Its just a ritual. It may aswel be wicca. If you believe it works, it will seem like it does. The evidence? Its been tested already in the 80s and it failed!

    Its also highly embarrassing. Its ideas are founded on the actions of 60s new age heros such as Virginia Satir. Its generally sold by people such as Tony Robbins. It is full of NLPers who claim to be able to teach you to be superhuman. Most of them are obese, and the top two honchos are coke addicts. One of them is an alcoholic.

    NLP is a crock. Its easy to sell crap.

    There are evidence based methods in HRM, self-development and so on. CBT is one of them. If you think you can get away with pure belief, then just join Tom Cruise and the scientologists. Its about the same. Ok, NLP is a bit cheaper.

    NLP is basically trailertrash scientology.

  • Hi everyone,
    I will describe the experience I had with NLP, after stating explicitly my background/history so you can judge the content of my words yourselves.
    I did my NLP practitioner training some years ago as I was having some personal difficulties for a long time (depression and anxiety) and it was recommended to me by a friend of mine who I consider knowledgeable in psychology (he is a biochemist but has read a lot about all sorts of therapies).
    Since my early years I have done Behavioural therapy to CBT to Rogerian to Psychoanalysis and even tried drugs for a couple of years. I cannot say they didn’t work at all since I did learn useful things and I got some experience just by talking to those people I was seeing. Also, taking anti-depressants was an experience on its own which pushed my horizons about philosophical issues such as the mind, the self and all that. However, the “symptoms” would persist and any short term lift in my mood would quickly get back to “normal” (fluoxetine would initially work but then made no difference and I decided to quit). Also, in my experience, I have to say that at least CBT and Psychoanalysis were quite unpleasant. CBT made awkward requests (homework) and challenged my beliefs by direct confrontation (felt a bit like brute force) and also the therapist was not very concerned with our “relationship” (“no rapport”? in NLP) so it was almost as if she was a jukebox which handed out objections and homework. After a while, I felt I was wasting my money and quit. She was a chartered counselling psychologist working in London so she had respectable qualifications. Maybe I was just unlucky that I happened to see her and not someone else who did CBT (of which I was positively predisposed after reading Richard Layard’s “Happiness”). Or it could be me, maybe CBT was not my thing, or maybe my motivation was not strong enough to respond well to her “brute force” but she never mentioned anything about my motivation or anything “esoteric” like that.
    Psychoanalysis on the other hand felt like I was just overtalking towards an unresponsive therapist (I do not remember his qualifications unfortunately but was a counsellor in the university I was enrolled so it was NHS-funded I presume) whose aim was to piss me off so he can observe that I was getting pissed off and then attribute this anger to my parents, usually my dad but without offering any advice of any sort or any plan of action.

    After around 7 years of almost hopeless wandering I attended the NLP seminar which was one of the intensive 7-day ones, where you have to prepare by reading books and listening to CDs. I will not mention which one it was as I do not want to advertise or undermine the specific trainer but I will only tell you that he has a good reputation and charged on rather the upper end of standard NLP training fees.
    Initially, my experience was negative. The format and style and content of the trainer’s beliefs was quite evangelical; he mentioned that he has cured people with physiological diseases or schizophrenia using only NLP, hypnosis and timeline therapy, or that believing that anything is possible and all that new age thinking. Also, eye-accessing cues were discussed as if they are an exact science and when I was eliciting random patterns during exercises I was being told that maybe it was my first language not being English and I probably had to translate to my mother tongue what was being asked of me so I was eliciting those almost random patterns (I was not and I consider myself a fluent speaker). This was very frustrating since I really like thinking scientifically (I have enjoyed reading a lot of academic-level philosophy of science) and being attacked from the side of authority was unpleasant to say the least. My problem with eye-accessing patterns was that since I knew what the “correct” ones were, I tried consciously to feel relaxed so I would not think about where my eyes should move. This resulted in the random movements. I believe that eye-accessing patterns do have predictive value but depend heavily on the context and are difficult to be interpreted with scientific rigor. I consider it more like a rule of thumb which should not be taken too seriously. If you read the studies done properly, you will see the methodological mistakes being made and the wrong assumptions those studies were based upon. I am now convinced that NLP is NOT a science, more like an approach to solve personal problems at least and maybe for other uses as well which I have not yet tested myself.
    The big change was when the training switched to techniques for personal change (Parts Integration and Timeline Therapy) and after being lectured we had to exercise those techniques on participants and also letting others perform them on us. I will not explain here how those 2 techniques work since the post will grow even bigger, but what I need to say is that after an initial period of resistance and “conscious thinking” (at least I was being pointed out that I was “thinking” too much) I followed the instructions and there was a lot of crying after that (and I could see many others in the room doing the same, although apparently this is not necessary for those techniques to work).
    Everything changed from that day and since then I have never felt depressed and any temporary anxiety due to good reasons I could learn just by myself how to get over it (and this included doing presentations in front of crowds and not just being in the same room as many other people- I would get anxious with the latter before doing the training). Any negative emotions that come up I can since then handle relatively quickly and almost unconsciously and very effectively either by taking appropriate action or adopting more “useful beliefs” (always at the intra-personal level, not regarding how the universe works for example or even if God exists or what the human destiny is (I am happy to still be an atheist and haven’t adopted any new age beliefs of the irritating-to-the-non-initiated sort).

    So, for someone who believes that NLP does not work, I can say that even if what works is only placebo (which I think not), or just a scam (my opinion is that it is not since I did benefit from it) or a cult (well I paid the expensive fees but never had to contact them again and got in return a positive attitude towards life and got rid of a long history of “mental illness” in the psychiatric sense), and I do not come across as deluded (people think my rational thinking got to just the next level conquering logic and emotions all together).
    Assuming it is a placebo, it has had better effects than all the other approaches I have tried together. Someone could say that they manipulated me into being happier and more goal-oriented and successful in everything I get myself to do (quit smoking, healthy eating, relationships etc). If you are not ok with this idea “philosophically” or ethically as it may make you think that someone deliberately changed you to earn money (training fees) or that I am deluded that I think I am happy, so be it. It feels real as everything around me. If you think that I am super-suggestible and super-gullible, I guess I just have to resort to the classic irritating NLP response: “Just try it for yourself and see if it works for you” (but choose a training with full money back guarantee in the event that you are not satisfied). Mine had such a guarantee and I think some others had it too when I was researching on which training I should go to. Also, if you have personal problems, see a therapist who offers full money back guarantee and trained in NLP and timeline therapy, you can end up wasting just your time and you may just solve them altogether for a small fee (compared to multiple sessions using other approaches).

    Any comments would be really welcome.

  • If your very sugestible i would be doing some hypnosis work or the milton model really good stuff to learn.
    NLP Exeter

  • Coool! Now we have a multi-group study:

    Placebo control < ==> NLP < ==> CBT < ==> Hypnosis

    What would be the proper dependent variables?

  • I use NLP myself and yes, it works, but I never heard that there are statistics about the efficiency of NLP.

  • Maik, thanks for your comment. If you could explain how, on the basis of scientifically testable evidence, you can assert that NLP “works,” I’d like to learn about it. We skeptics, as Daniel noted, really need something more substantial than a testimonial.

  • Interesting blog post. What would you say was the most common problem?

  • As a long time mental health worker I was initially interested in NLP when it was part of my training as a Psychtherapist.I continue to be interested in it but am very doubtful as to many of its claims as well to be frank as to the character of its founders.If NLP is so wonderful how come they have had such problems?

    It clearly also attracts some very fringe people with outlandish views and one must ask the question why?I note also that many of its practioners when not obvious snake oil salemen seem to offer a whole range of other unproven and doubtful New Age therapies.I recently saw one who impressed me by not only offering NLP amongst a range of therapies but channelled entities from the planet Mars.I will say no more about that than say that it sounds plainly delusional and I would not take any problems to such a person.Can anyone{with the money to spare} become an NLP therapist?

  • Wow, a bunch of self-styled skeptics mindlessly blabbering about topics which they have no understanding.

    Usually I have to look up an article by Michael Shermer or James Randi in order to find such unadulterated nonsense, craven worship of authority, and flat-out misrepresentation.

    Good to know you guys are out there fighting the good fight!

  • Ed:

    I think you’re making some stuff up here.

    “As a long time mental health worker I was initially interested in NLP when it was part of my training as a Psychtherapist.”

    Oh really? And how much training did you get and what were your source materials? Where did this training occur?

    “Can anyone{with the money to spare} become an NLP therapist?”

    Well, NLP was a part of your training, was it not? I’d figure you’d have some expertise in this area…

    “I recently saw one who impressed me by not only offering NLP amongst a range of therapies but channelled entities from the planet Mars.I will say no more about that than say that it sounds plainly delusional and I would not take any problems to such a person.”

    Yes, so someone claims to offer a service and therefor that is somehow an indication that his/her beliefs are shared by everyone trained in that discipline?

    Imagine the tarring we could do of conventional medicine, engineering, dairy farming, or even the custodial arts with such a methodology.

    You know, I once knew an MD who didn’t think it was important to wash his hands. Those CRAZY medical doctors!

  • Hello, I love the Toy Story movies, super film!

  • Imagination is more important than knowledge…..

Comments are currently closed.