Debunk-Tuesday – Neuro-Linguistic Bullshit

in psychology •  4 months ago

Every Tuesday I am going to address one specific myth, urban legend, conspiracy theory or piece of pseudo-science. This time we take a closer look at an incredibly popular concept, even among people who can be considered as academically educated and intelligent: Neuro-Linguistic Programming or NLP.


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Some of you might already be familiar with the term of Neuro-Linguistic Programming(1). At least I can remember some people in university talking a lot about it and how it changed their lives and how absolutely awesome it is. Except, it is not.
I recall a conversation I had with a guy once, who was so convinced by this technique, that he didn’t care about any counter-evidence I provided. He just said something like

”Well, big companies are using NLP to improve the efficiency of their employees – and they wouldn’t do that, if it all were useless crap. Take this, genius!”

Well, first of all: big companies do a lot of things, which are itself sometimes quite questionable. Some are even selling homeopathic “medicine”, despite its obvious uselessness. So, this is no argument for anything.
Fast forward a few years back into the present. Lucky you, since you have stumbled across this blog, your days of endless wanderings in the desert of ignorance are finally over. Like Moses, I was sent to guide you out of the valley of darkness and pseudoscience into the realm of scientific enlightenment. I’m such a nice guy, I know. No need to thank me.


A Map to Nowhere

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Anyway. Enough about me (sorry, life is full of disappointments). Let’s talk about Neuro-linguistic Bulls…uhm, Programming(2).
It is a psychological technique which was created in the 1970’s by Richard Bandler and John Grinder. According to their idea, you can imagine yourself as some kind of mind-body system, which consists out of certain neurological structures (hence, neuro), language (therefore linguistic) and your adapted behaviour (the programming aspect) (3).
And since your body, brain and behaviour are so comfortable distinguishable from each other, you can tap into each one of them and change them for the better.
The main idea behind this concept is mostly compared to a map everybody has, which is his individual representation of the world surrounding him. Since we are not able to experience reality as it really is but merely its reflection, it’s important to be aware of this subjective approach of each one of us.
Although I do like this constructivist view of human perception, I tend to disagree with the conclusions NLP-apologists are drawing. According to them, while using Neuro-Linguistic Programming you will be able to accomplish amazing goals.

In fact, you can achieve quite remarkable results just by using NLP: in his book Time For A Change Richard Bandler wrote, that it’s possible get rid of serious issues like phobias and allergies in just A SINGLE SESSION OF NLP(4). Wow. That’s some impressive stuff right there. I have known many people with serious psychological problems for years now. Why did no one ever tell them, that it’s this easy to get rid of their mental issues? Could it be the case that the promises of NLP are actually not as vivid when tested against reality?
Naaaah. Thousands of people can’t be wrong, right?
Well, since I’m German, I’m kind of an expert regarding mass confusion.
Or we can just take a look at the scientific research, then you don’t have to trust a random German weirdo on the Internet. There are enough of them anyway.

It appears, that most researchers agree with my initial statement, that NLP is utter nonsense. I am quite happy about the fact, that at least one of my sources is open access, so I am able to quote this beautiful statement by Tomasz Witkowski(5):

My analysis leads undeniably to the statement that NLP represents pseudoscientific rubbish, which should be mothballed forever. One may even come to believe that my analysis was a vain effort after all. It yielded the same conclusions as the ones arrived at by Sharpley (1984, 1987), Heap (1988) and others. Without doubt, NLP represents big business offering and tempting people with amazing changes, personal development and, what is worst, therapy. In this respect the analysis is an update of the state of knowledge on the subject by reviews published in the period after the latest analyses. Furthermore, is also provides arguments sufficient to answer the following ethical question: Is using and selling something non-existent and ineffective ethical?

I’m probably in love right now. If you know my articles, I’m usually not a fan of big quotes, but this one is a perfect conclusion for the current state of research regarding the effectiveness of Neuro-Linguistic Programming.
Witkowski came more than twenty years later to a result, which was already provided by Dowlen in 1996(6). She stated, that neither does the little available empirical evidence support the beneficial claims of NLP nor is can its apologists provide convincing supportive research backing up their loud remarks. This is consistent with the findings of Daniel Druckman and his team during a meta-analysis of NLP research and applied programs(7).
They made it quite clear, that at no point of their research they were able to find strong evidence for NLP’s main assumption, that it’s indeed an effective way to influence the social behaviour of other people. Regardless what its believers are telling you: It’s not working.
This is why it comes to not much surprise to me, that not a single one of the therapists I have encountered during my life ever suggested to treat me using NLP. And it’s not because I’m far beyond help anyway.


Godless Religion

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Interesting to note is the cult-like mindset of NLP-believers. Remember the guy I tried to argue with regarding the pseudoscientific claims of NLP? He was incredibly passionate about his belief, he was so convinced of being right, that nothing I told him would have ever made a difference.
This might be the reason why it earned its place in Peter B. Clarke’s Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements (2006) (8) - the belief in something which is not there, is a common sign either of religious belief or mental illness. Some would argue there is no difference after all.

Amazingly, most people I met believing in NLP are actually quite secular. They tend to think religion is for the weak and uneducated, without realizing their own inherent religious behaviour when it comes to one’s sanctified convictions.
Until today I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with these kinds of people properly. Apparently, a rational debate is quite pointless, because as long as they are convinced, that NLP was able to make wonders happen, there is no way in overcoming this belief.
I fear, they will not reflect on their behaviour until it’s already too late.
Life can hit incredibly hard sometimes and bring down even the toughest among us. I sincerely doubt, that NLP will help anyone to deal with these issues.
Instead, it is important to be open-minded for solid scientific research and increase your ability to reflect on yourself every single day.


Feel always free to discuss my ideas and share your own thoughts about the things I’m writing about. Nobody is omniscient and if we all walk away a bit smarter than before, we’ll have achieved a lot.
Thanks for reading and stay curious.
Ego



Make sure, to check out #steemstem for more science related content.

References

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuro-linguistic_programming
(2) Tosey, Paul; Mathison, Jane. Introducing Neuro-Linguistic Programming. 2006
(3) Dilts, R. and DeLozier, J. (2000) Encyclopedia of Systemic NLP and NLP New Coding, Capitola, California: Meta Publications
(4) Brandler, Richard. Time For A Change. 1993. Meta Pubns
(5) Witkowski, Tomasz. Thirty-Five Years of Research on Neuro-Linguistic Programming.
NLP Research Data Base. State of the Art or Pseudoscientific Decoration?. Polish Psychological Bulletin 2010, vol 41 (2), 58-66 DOI - 10.2478/v10059-010-0008-0
(6) Ashley Dowlen, (1996),"NLP - help or hype? Investigating the uses of neuro-linguistic programming in management learning", Career Development International, Vol. 1 Iss 1 pp. 27 - 34
(7) Druckman, Daniel. Be All That You Can Be: Enhancing Human Performance. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. Volume34, Issue11. November 2004. Pages 2234-2260
(8) Clarke, B. Peter. Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements. Routledge. 2006


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Hi @egotheist
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I have also made the mistake of debating people with religious-like beliefs. If the belief is based on faith, you are never going to change it with logic. I think the only way to change it would be by appealing to their emotions. They need to ‘feel’ that something is right.

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I think the only way to change it would be by appealing to their emotions. They need to ‘feel’ that something is right.

I strongly agree with this. A while ago I came up with the hypothesis, that people are only willing to change, if emotional problems are forcing them to do so.

Made a quick wiki search and found this:

NLP has been promoted with claims it can be used to treat a variety of diseases including Parkinson's disease, HIV/AIDS and cancer.

Wow. And people are still marketing it even after its been scientifically discredited.

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If there is money to make, people will sell it.

Hi.

Many thanks for posting this. I agree with you and I am very upset that there is a lot of people who belive that NLP works and they kinda belive it can cahnge their life. I find your post educating and really appreciate your work

Best,
Smashedturtle

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Thanks a lot for your kind words! :)

I think it's really important to at least try to educate people about common misconceptions about the world around them. They should at least have the possibility to re-evaluate their position :)

I'm familiar with most of your topics in this series, but this was new to me.
Thanks for your post.

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Then I'm glad, I was able to teach an old dog a few new tricks :P

And since your body, brain and behaviour are so comfortable distinguishable from each other, you can tap into each one of them and change them for the better.

I'm terribly sorry, I know I'm a scientist and that I should be ashamed of myself, but - I didn't understand a single word about this!

Well, since I’m German, I’m kind of an expert regarding mass confusion.

You're killing me!
😂 😂 😂 😂 😂

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I'm terribly sorry, I know I'm a scientist and that I should be ashamed of myself, but - I didn't understand a single word about this!

They probably don't understand it either.

You're killing me!

Haha! I finally defeated the Serbian wrath! Take this!

Hello Ego,
I hope you are fine :)
Thank you very much for this post!
All the best to you always.

Hey Bud!!!
As you well aware I took some time off which lead me to write my next series of posts and after reading this article of yours, I have a feeling my next series may be of interest.....
Hope you don't mind if I tag you in my next series.
Great article as always!!!

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I'm looking forward to it :)

Great post! It's amazing how so many of the pseudoscience concepts in the field of psychology are based on quite a sound or legitimate basis, but simply go on to the almost predictable "taking advantage of this one simple trick you can achieve all your goals"...

Thanks for the read :)

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It's amazing how so many of the pseudoscience concepts in the field of psychology are based on quite a sound or legitimate basis

Yeah. This is really sad. Especially because psychologists are usually working with a lot of empirical data.

Like Moses, I was sent to guide you out of the valley of darkness and pseudoscience into the realm of scientific enlightenment. I’m such a nice guy, I know. No need to thank me.

Oh dear @egotheist. You are such a generous human. Thank you for rescuing me from the hellhole of ignorance. Alas, i can see the beam of enlightenment..Thanks for this post.

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Always at your service :)

Hello Friend! I saw this publication because it has been shared, by my friend @abigail-dantes and these issues really call my attention, personally I am a bit skeptical with this issue of the NLP. But I can not help but think, that there are several techniques that some specialists use, to help patients with problems of alcoholism and smoking, and I think they work, we can not ignore how deep the human mind can be.
I also mention a movie that I liked very much, that mixed with science fiction gave a lot to talk about is called "flees" and without mentioning episodes of the television series "Law & Order" where they simulated some cases of violations using NLP, it is say that if it is a lie, well at least it serves to entertain us on tv.
Very interesting, I liked your publication a lot.

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But I can not help but think, that there are several techniques that some specialists use, to help patients with problems of alcoholism and smoking, and I think they work, we can not ignore how deep the human mind can be.

Therapeutic methods are different from NLP since their effectiveness was empirical evaluated. Sure, not every method of therapy works for everybody - this is why we have different methods. In contrast to NLP there is empirical research backing these methods up :)

For what is worth, self-deceit(which can work really well in some twisted way for some) and "placebo" can be godsends.

To make an example, many of the most prescribed antidepressants perform only slightly better than placebo. Is the right conclusion stopping taking the medication (no side effects encountered) because it doesn't really work that much beyond my self conditioning? No. The fact of doing something for yourself is helping.
I am aware that this statement pretty much gives some kind of validity to such ghastly practices like homeopathy. I feel slightly uneasy for that as matter of fact ahah
But it remains that as long as you do it to yourself,you don't throw too much money at it, and you don't create annoying situation with others, anything can work and as such be alright within that individual's experience of life

I personally believe bashing myself to sleep and right after waking takes the edge off and allows me to have a great life. ARE YOU SAYING IT'S BUNK @egotheist ?

So interesting, and I hand't heard about this but looked it up after your post/article.

When thing seems to be a hard and true fact about the human condition: People want to believe something and thus will always get sold anything. I guess that main human quality is what makes advertising truly a mind control device formulated by psychology. There will always be 'snake oil salesmen', they used to come to town to town by horse and buggy with their 'cure all' for sale in a bottle, now it can be an idea in a book.

Again, really interesting.

Okay, as far as I can see the first 1/3 of this post is you describing very abstractly and poorly what NLP is. Then you use the rest of the article to just keep hammering in your point that NLP is anti-science and more like a cult then a true therapy that can help people. But I don't think you give any concrete examples of ways that NLP is such a scam that you say it is. All you do is point to references of what you call "solid science" but you never even care to share the very "solid" arguments against NLP. You mostly just share that there is a conflict, period. This feels very much like a straw-man argument, and someone like I that only know loosely what NLP is would have liked a debunking article to have more substance then this.

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Okay, as far as I can see the first 1/3 of this post is you describing very abstractly and poorly what NLP is.

Fun fact: This is actually based on a description by NLP-practicioners (some may argue, there is even a reference to that).

But I don't think you give any concrete examples of ways that NLP is such a scam that you say it is. All you do is point to references of what you call "solid science" but you never even care to share the very "solid" arguments against NLP. You mostly just share that there is a conflict, period.

Wrong. There is no "conflict", but after more than 30 years of research still no solid evidence backing up the claims of NLP. This is why I referred to several meta-analyses, stating exactly this. That's the problem. In your profile you're stating you're a student of psychology. Good. I encourage you to ask your professors about NLP. I would argue, it's quite likely they will be as dismissive about NLP as my psychology profs were. In empirical psychology NLP is not considered a valid concept of either psychotherapy in special or useful to solve psychological issues in general. Maybe I'm a bit biased, since the psychology departement of my university had an intense focus on empirical research and statistics.

and someone like I that only know loosely what NLP is would have liked a debunking article to have more substance then this

There is a reason I provided every source I used. For additional details feel free, to educate yourself further. On this series I usually provide some kind of overview regarding the current state of research of a given topic. Not an in-depth analysis. If I choose to provide a highly detailed explanation of a certain topic, I do it in a series of its own.
These Tuesday-posts are aiming to be short, (hopefully) entertaining and to provide some new insights. Nothing more. At no point I would suggests, this is a highly detailed explanation of everything there is.

Don't get me wrong here: I appreciate critical comments like yours, it just seems you were focusing on something I never intended to do.

Best regards
Ego

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Okay, first a thank you for a thorough answer is in order. Thank you, it shows that you probably are an honest content creator :)
But I want too highlight that my main criticism is that I hate when people act like they know more then they show just by merely referencing to other material. I think that's something you can relate too if you are on this quest of debunking fiction with no real validity too it. So, even if these "Tuesday-posts" are meant to be some tongue-cheek rants about myths that you find annoying with no hardcore intellectual work involved (which btw is completely fine) I would still like if you had at least one solid example of some stand out stupidity. Just so it feels like you are playing with open cards. Maybe your line about how our body, brain and behavior are so not so comfortable distinguishable from each other was suppose to be that example, but it still feels shallow to me without showing us little bit of your counterpoint.
Still, I might be a little hard on you as I don't really know how serious these installments are suppose to be. But maybe this is something worth being mindful of.

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Thank you, it shows that you probably are an honest content creator :)

Well, that's what I try, at least :P

I would still like if you had at least one solid example of some stand out stupidity. Just so it feels like you are playing with open cards

Yeah, that sounds reasonable. I thought, the mentioning of the possible wonders of NLP Bandler wrote in his book about, would be sufficient, but I guess you're right. I will keep this in mind and will include more examples in future posts of this series.

I love this post it’s perfect . And the way of writing is wonderful

It makes life for millions better.
There is nothing quite so tragic as a directionless sheep.

It is a multi million dollar industry which allows directionless sheep to give their money away, and feel good about it - hassle free.

It allows employment for thousands of opportunistic people.
People who may be forced to do cup and ball tricks on street corners for income, otherwise.

It keeps empty lecture halls, that would only be gathering dust, very busy!

.....I guess this wasn't what you meant though, was it...?
😂

oh, nice post btw.

I've run across NLP a few times before. So, so not a fan. Thanks for writing this one up!