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Power, Arcana, and Hypnobabble

Martin Parkinson reflects on the attractions of NLP.

First appeared in: The skeptic Vol 16 no 4 Winter 2003

While researching Neuro-linguistic programming (The Skeptic vol. 16 no. 3) I experienced a disturbing sense of existential nausea. Supposing it's true? As I read the endless blandishments, the promises that you can master your mind and circumstances, that you can not just radically change your life but become a different person, the hints (often pretty deafening hints) that you can fix it so that you need never feel intimidated, bamboozled, or small ever again and that, on the contrary, you can bend people to your will yet they will love you for it rather than resent you - as I read this stuff I felt a great sorrow. I felt like the lame boy in The Pied Piper of Hamelin who couldn't keep up with his friends and had to watch as they skipped off to bliss and happiness in the magic mountain while he was left behind, forced to spend the rest of his life with the boring grownups.

I implied in my previous article that the supposed effectiveness of NLP is caused in part by some genuine 'active ingredients' beyond the usual cocktail of pseudo-causality, selective memory and wishful thinking, but that these ingredients are readily available from other sources and that if you sincerely wish to sharpen your ability to understand yourself and others and hence to communicate more subtly, you would be as well to take some acting classes. One notable 'active ingredient' is Ericksonian hypnotherapy: many of NLP's instructions about the use of language derive from the way Milton Erickson was supposed to have addressed his patients. I now think that hypnosis is the one unifying element of what is otherwise a miscellany of borrowed ideas and that NLP is basically, in the words of Singer and Lalich (1996 p.169) "an overrated version of hypnosis".

This article is not about what hypnosis may or may not be, nor about its possible usefulness. Naturally I have tried the various self-hypnosis tricks I have read about and some of them 'sort of' work - if nothing else, conjuring up sensual imagery is a pleasant activity - but their potential seems exaggerated. However, for my present purposes I am taking Hypnosis in Therapy (Gibson & Heap 1991) as an authority on the realistic uses of hypnosis (note that "therapy" here is not confined to "psychotherapy"). On this basis I am not arguing that NLP proponents have exaggerated the potential of hypnosis, I am assuming that they have in fact done so and gently suggesting what desires might underlie a willingness to accept these exaggerated claims. I shall illustrate this with examples from Frogs into Princes (Bandler & Grinder 1979), an early NLP text, which has been widely praised and recommended.

Much of NLP is about language - one could say that we can all read between the lines but NLP promises to teach us how to both listen and speak between them. Gibson and Heap say (p.64)

"[in the context of hypnosis] ...simple verbal instructions are a potent, though limited, means of effecting therapeutic change"

This in itself is rather remarkable. So remarkable, in fact, that one could easily forget the vital words "though limited". Omit that qualification and you have a version of "wishing can make it so" with apparent empirical support. Combine this with the NLP assertion that "all communication is hypnosis" (Bandler & Grinder p.100) and you have a fantasy of wizardry in all areas of life.

(It is worth noting here that there are websites which claim, more or less, that NLP can cure cancer (for example Hamblett & Bolstad 2000). Fortunately, believers usually have no problem with using orthodox medical technology in addition to their 'attitude installation'.)

Frogs into Princes

This book is a transcription of a seminar given in 1979 to a group of psychotherapists, so it is about other-help rather than self-help. It contains some reasonable material: for example, warnings against reification ("depression" is not a thing that can be acquired or lost, it is a shorthand for a set of behaviours), and the point that perception is a form of interpretation. Nevertheless, I found the book nearly unreadable because of its unpleasant tone.

For example:

I could very easily install memories in you that related to real world experiences that never occurred ...that were just bizarre hallucinations out of my fantasy. Made-up memories can change you just as well as the arbitrary perceptions that you made up at the time ...

...You can also convince your parents ...I tried that and it worked. My mother now believes she did things to me when I was a child that never happened. (p.97)

Surely it's a little odd to brag about successfully lying to one's mother? Perhaps this is just a joke that has been lost in the telling.

Here is some more on altering memory and an illustration of 'hypnobabble':

[this concerns people who have lost weight and then have problems dealing with the social expectations that thinness bring]

So instead of trying to get people to adjust, we would simply go back and create a whole new childhood and have them grow up being a skinny person. We learned this from Milton Erickson. [ ...]We started creating entire personal histories for people, in which they would have experiences which would serve as resources for the kinds of behaviors that they wanted to have. And then we extended it from weight to all kinds of behaviors.

[ ...] ...we don't ordinarily create new personal histories for people anymore. [ ...] We programmed another person to do it each night as they dreamed. We literally installed, in a somnambulistic trance, a dream generator, that would generate the requisite personal history ..." (pp. 99-101)

A claim to extraordinary power is being made: 'not only can we get inside people minds and fiddle about with their pasts but we do it so casually that actually it's a bit of a yawn and we don't bother with it these days'. There is a subtly implied invitation to the audience to ally themselves with the wielders of this power and thereby set out on the route to attaining that arcane power for themselves. You too can apply for membership of the elite.

The following is part of a description of the "quotes pattern", one of Erickson's linguistic tricks:

People have almost no consciousness of any meta-levels if you distract them with content. Once at a conference I talked to a large group of psychologists who were pretty stuffy and asked a lot of dumb questions. I told them about quotes as a pattern. Then I said for example - I even told them what I was doing - Milton Erickson once told me a story about a time he stayed at a turkey farm, and the turkeys made a lot of noise and kept him awake at night. He didn't know what to do. So finally one night he walked outside - and I faced all those psychologists out there - and he realised he was surrounded by turkeys, hundreds of turkeys everywhere. And he looked at them and he said "You turkeys!".

...I stood on stage in front of these people who were paying me a fortune and I went "You turkeys!" They didn't know what I was doing. They all sat there nodding seriously. If you are congruent they will never know. (p.62)

Why do people not notice how puerile this is? Presumably because they, like the original audience, feel included and join with Bandler (I suspect it is Bandler) rejoicing in his own cleverness. What sort of person would think themselves a part of the lumpen mass who "have almost no consciousness ...if you distract them"? Certainly not me.

A perk of being a member of an elite group with arcane knowledge is that you don't have to bother with the rules that constrain lesser folk:

The trouble with many professional ethical codes that they limit your behavior. And whenever you accept any "I won't do it," there are people you are not going to be able to work with ...I walked over and stomped on the catatonic's foot as hard as I could and got an immediate response. He came right out of "catatonia", jumped up, and said "don't do that!" (p.75)

'There would be no danger in me having the promised magical powers because I am entirely well-meaning'. Helping people must be one of the most seductive forms of power because the fact of its being an exercise of power is so easily hidden from the person doing the helping. There is arrogance implicit in the very title of the book: if you turn a frog into a prince, you have not made him your equal, because you could as easily have chosen to leave him as a frog.

Let me make it quite plain that I am not being cynical or claiming that members of the helping professions are evil or hypocritical or do no good or that altruism never exists. I am simply restating a commonplace: people are complicated, and they act from complex motives of which they are often largely unaware. That goes for me too, of course, and I hope my opening paragraph indicates that I do not feel myself (too) superior to people who fall for systems like NLP.


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

H.B. Gibson & M Heap Hypnosis in Therapy (1991) Hove, U.K. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Ltd

Hamblett, Margot and Bolstad, Dr. Richard (2000) Healing Cancer retrieved 18 April 2003 from

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

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