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