A Brief Introduction to Neuro-Linguistic Programming

Widely claimed to be indispensable for anyone who wishes to communicate better, NLP tempted Martin Parkinson to enter the jargon-jungle and find out more.

First appeared in: The skeptic Vol 16 no 3 Autumn 2003

NLP is the next generation of may be as profound a step forward as the invention of language
(O'Connor & Seymour, 1995)

It goes without saying (or else why would there be an article in The Skeptic about it?) that "Neuro-Linguistic Programming" is a misnomer. It has nothing to do with neurology or neurolinguistics. The name is sometimes justified by vague gestures towards hemispheric specialisation and the first book on NLP (The Structure of Magic I, Bandler & Grinder 1975) makes an unconvincing tie-in with transformational grammar (co-founder John Grinder was a student of Chomsky's). "Programming" is a piece of science-fiction fluff designed to give the impression that human behaviour can be changed as reliably as programming a computer. A more accurate name would be something like 'mind/language/hypnosis games'.

It claims to be a set of techniques ("toolkit" and "technology" are favoured terms) which will radically improve your work and personal life. It has its origins in an attempt to copy the work of particular psychotherapists who were held (by some) to be so effective that their work seemed to amount to 'magic': hence the title mentioned above. Although it has spread far beyond its roots in 1970s psychotherapy there is still a specific school of NLP therapy which in the UK is trying to get itself accepted by the NHS (Weaver, 1999).

My initial reaction to NLP was one of frustration because I could see no underlying coherence. It is basically a ragbag of dodges, tricks, and tips: some genuinely helpful, others banal space-fillers. This makes it difficult to cover properly in a short article - for example I do not have the space to examine the place of hypnosis in NLP. However, NLP does propose a fairly scientific psychological model which sheds a glow of credibility over everything else. It is further claimed that this model can give us a reliable way to understand and influence people (and to manipulate one's own behaviour). NLP is therefore marketed to salesmen, psychotherapists, educators, managers (oops, sorry, I mean 'leaders'), and those seeking self-help advice. Some of the hype is extraordinary: the quote at the head of this article is not unusual, (and I would put the authors at the more respectable end of the spectrum - they were at least embarrassed enough to hide that assertion away on page 205).

There is no single definitive version of NLP, but accounts are broadly consistent. The box contains my summary of NLP theory derived from all materials read, especially Bandler and Grinder (1976 & 1979) and O'Connor and Seymour(1995).

NLP theory

1. Our internal representations (how we experience the present, remember the past and plan the future) show a broad preference for a particular sensory modality (the Preferred/Primary Representation System or PRS). e.g. one can be a 'visual-, 'auditory?', or 'kinaesthetic thinker'. Gustatory and olfactory PRSs are rare.

2. PRS is expressed in language. For example, a visual thinker will tend to say "I see what you mean, it looks ok…"; whereas an auditory thinker says "I hear what you're saying and it rings a bell…"; overall, a visual thinker will use a greater proportion of words related to seeing etc.

3. Eye movements during cognition also indicate PRS. These "automatic, unconscious eye movements, or 'eye accessing cues', often accompany particular thought processes, and indicate the access and use of particular representational systems" (Dilts, 1998). For example if a (right-handed?) person is asked to remember the colour of, say, their grandparents front door, you will see their eyes move up and to the right of the viewer.

(Some authors hold that PRS is also expressed in global body language: for example an auditory thinker will tend to stand with their head tilted to one side, as if listening)

4. Putting the forgoing points together gives us a straightforward and reliable way to influence people. Deducing a person's PRS using verbal and eye-movement clues and tailoring one's language to it by matching their preferred modality will result in them feeling you are "on the same wavelength" or "seeing eye to eye" and hence more amenable to your machinations.

(The word "rapport" is given a technical meaning within NLP to refer this pseudo-intimacy. It is held that "gaining rapport" can also be achieved by mirroring the body language, tone, speed of voice and breathing patterns of one's interlocutor. See Singer & Lalich (1996) pp. 173-174 for some examples of this in practice).

I think NLP theory looks pretty plausible, at first blush. So how testable is it in principle?

Presumably MRI could tell us something about Point 1, but I am not aware that any relevant work of this kind has been done - doubtless the NLP people would have told us if it had. In the absence of that, the place to start is Point 2: does most individuals' language-use have clear modality 'winners'? If so, this possibly says something about their internal representations.

One might approach Point 3 by first, having established an individuals preferred 'language-modality', looking for a 'preferred eye-movement', and then looking for correspondences across individuals (i.e. most people who prefer the same modality as expressed in language also prefer to move their eyes in the same way as each other). Point 1 would then be an interesting speculative inference drawn from Points 2 and 3.

The more I think about this the more tenuous it seems and the chain of speculation rests ultimately on an implicit assumption about the transparency of language. However, even if points 2 and 3 could be clearly demonstrated and point 1 accepted as a potentially fruitful working hypothesis, Point 4 does not logically follow (maybe if I was a visual thinker I would be more persuadable by non-visual language because it would have a forceful freshness for me). Equally, even if Point 4 were independently demonstrated it would provide no support for Points 1, 2, or 3 - language matching might work for quite other reasons.

NLP books contain detailed diagrams linking eye movements to internal states and the claim is sometimes made that one can derive a surefire method for telling when someone is lying from this information (e.g. Dilts, 1998). Certainly, it needs no rigorous experiments to demonstrate that language and body language give us detailed information about peoples beliefs, intentions, emotions etc - we 'read minds' in this way all the time and normal social interaction depends on it. Some individuals are clearly better at it than others. It wouldn't be stretching a point to suppose that practice might improve one's 'mind-reading' ability, because practice improves most complex skills and there might indeed be methods of improving 'mind-reading' that work unusually well. However the NLP claim is much stronger than this: in effect it says it has found an infallible 'body-language dictionary'. Has it?

There is a body of experimental research, mostly published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, investigating the PRS theory. There are two comprehensive reviews of this literature, both published in 1988. The first was in a report by "The Committee on Techniques for the Enhancement of Human Performance" which was commissioned by the US army to examine various techniques including NLP. In addition to reviewing the research literature they talked to co-founder Richard Bandler. Here are some of their comments:

"The underpinnings of NLP are not a set of findings and propositions arranged so that they imply the NLP statements of structure; instead, they are a series of concatenated anecdotes and facts that lead to no particular conclusion.[...]

In brief, The NLP system of eye, posture, tone and language patterns as indexing representational patterns is not derived or derivable from known scientific work" (Druckman & Swets, 1988, pp. 141-142)

In the UK Dr Michael Heap of Sheffield University and Sheffield Health Authority approached NLP from the angle of its potential therapeutic usefulness. His conclusion was:

"The present author is satisfied that the assertions of NLP writers concerning representational systems have been objectively and fairly investigated and found to be may well be appropriate now to conclude that there is not, and never has been any substance to the conjecture that people represent their world internally in a preferred mode which may be inferred from their choice of predicates and from their eye movements" (Heap, 1988, p. 275)

Well that seems pretty definite. Nonetheless, PRS is presented as established knowledge in books ranging from the serious (McDermott & Jago, 2001) to the silly (Heskell, 2001).

Partway through the American Commission's investigation, they were informed by Richard Bandler:

"...that PRS was no longer considered an important component. He said that NLP had been revised....Bandler stated that NLP was a system based on modelling not theory" (Druckman & Swets 1988, p. 140).

It would take too long to give a proper discussion of NLP modelling here. It is sometimes used in a sense in which PRS theory is used to model someone's expertise. But this sense slides into a sense closer to that of "role model" and it is the looser sense that seems to be most commonly used. This latter sense, as far as I can see, doesn't amount to much more than the most basic of all human learning methods: copying someone else in such a way that one is in effect pretending to be them. This is done unselfconsciously by children and undoubtedly has its uses for adults; NLP is implicitly claiming that it has found some reliable and systematised method of improving this skill but I am so far unconvinced. (I prefer acting classes myself but then my adult dignity does not require the reassurance of obfuscatory jargon and a quasi-corporate setting).

I was surprised by the degree of cultural penetration NLP has achieved. It pops up (not always attributed) in all sorts of materials related to communication and management - and just take a look at this gem from the non-commercial Living NLP website:

"Teachers and children at Tyssen School will be able to learn NLP and have their teaching integrated with NLP skills and techniques, and the centre will also provide a resource base for other educators, parents and adult learners.

Headmaster Martin Webb, a Master Practitioner in NLP,...Ever since he read Frogs into Princes he realised how important NLP would be for education. His staff are now looking forward to working with the founders of the NLP Education Network..." (The Central London NLP Group, 1999)

This brings me to my final point. So many things about NLP scream that it is just a clever scam: the strident appeal to one's inner toddler (one book is actually called NLP:The new art & science of getting what you want (Alder, 1994), Richard Bandler's desperate legal attempts to hog NLP as his intellectual property, the absurd claims of transcendent efficacy, the sheer nastiness of the name itself. Yet there are genuinely intelligent, altruistic and sincere people involved in it who have vowed to use their NLP powers solely for good. It is quite possible, probable even, that people attending training courses do gain some benefits. Tyssen Primary School is in one of the most deprived boroughs in the country, so voluntary help from some keen extra teachers can do it nothing but good. But this does not in itself demonstrate anything about the validity of NLP's theoretical claims. And if the theoretical claims evaporate, what is there to make it stand out from the crowd?

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Alder, Dr. Harry (1994). NLP: The new art & science of getting what you want. London: Piatkus.

Bandler, Richard & Grinder, John. (1975) The structure of Magic I. Paolo Alto, California: Science & Behavior Books.

Bandler, Richard & Grinder, John. (1976) The structure of Magic II. Paolo Alto, California: Science & Behavior Books.

Bandler, Richard & Grinder, John. (1979) Frogs into Princes. 1990 London edition: Eden Grove editions.

The Central London NLP Group (1999) Living NLP the newsletter of the Central London NLP Group. Issue 5 Autumn 1999. Retrieved 27 October 2002, from

Dilts, Robert. (1998). Eye Movements and NLP. Retrieved 27 October 2002, from

Druckman, D & Swets, J.A. (eds.) (1988). Enhancing Human Performance: Issues, Theories, and Techniques. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Heap, M. (1988). Neurolinguistic Progamming - an Interim verdict. In Heap (ed.), Hypnosis: current clinical, experimental and forensic practice (pp. 268-280). London: Croon Helm.

Heskell, Peta (2001). Flirt Coach. communication tips for friendship love and professional success. London: Thorsons.

McDermott, Ian & Jago, Wendy (2001). Brief NLP Therapy. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

O'Connor, Joseph & Seymour, John (1995). Introducing NLP. Psychological skills for Understanding and Influencing People. London: Thorsons.

Shapiro, Mo (1998). Understanding Neuro-Linguistic Programming in a week. London: Hodder & Stoughton

Singer, Margaet Thaler & Lalich, Janja (1996). "Crazy" Therapies. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Weaver, Martin. (1999) July 13th 1999 Retrieved 27 October 2002 from

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© copyright 2005 Martin Parkinson, all rights reserved; moral rights asserted. Last updated 22 may 2005