Martin Messier

May 16, 2023

NLP Q&A: My Take On Criticism Of NLP

A reader asked me to address some of the criticism expressed on the Wikipedia entry about NLP.

Here are my two cents on a few of the points.

“Preferred representational system” is a bogus notion

The experimental research that does exist was mostly done in the 1980s and 1990s. It consisted of laboratory experimentation testing Bandler and Grinder’s hypotheses that a person’s preferred sensory mode of thinking can be revealed by observing eye movement cues and sensory predicates in language use. A research review conducted by Christopher Sharpley which focused on preferred representational systems, in 1984, followed by another review in 1987 in response to a critique published by Einspruch and Forman, concluded that there was little evidence for its usefulness as an effective counseling tool. Reviewing the literature in 1988, Michael Heap also concluded that objective and fair investigations had shown no support for NLP claims about “preferred representational systems.”

I don’t know if I came in too late to the field. By the time I started studying NLP, no serious trainer talked about this. I personally find this idea of “preferred rep system” bogus. It may have been an attempt to use rep systems as the basis for a typology (similar to Myers-Briggs).

I’m not sufficiently familiar with that research to credit or discredit it. I do, however, disagree with the notion of a “preferred” rep system. Each of us shifts from one representational system to the next according to context. It’s not a fixed preference.

NLP as a strategy for social influence

A research committee working for the United States National Research Council led by Daniel Druckman came to two conclusions. First, the committee “found little if any” evidence to support NLP’s assumptions or to indicate that it is effective as a strategy for social influence. “It assumes that by tracking another’s eye movements and language, an NLP trainer can shape the person’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions (Dilts, 1983). There is no scientific support for these assumptions.” Secondly, the committee members “were impressed with the modeling approach used to develop the technique. The technique was developed from careful observations of the way three master psychotherapists conducted their sessions, emphasizing imitation of verbal and nonverbal behaviors… This then led the committee to take up the topic of expert modeling in the second phase of its work.”(Druckman, 2004) Von Bergen et al. (1997) state that “the most telling commentary on NLP may be that in the latest revision of his text on enhancing human performance, Druckman (Druckman & Bjork 1991) omitted all reference to Neurolinguistic Programming.” According to Gelso and Fassinger (1990) Sharpley’s literature review, marked a decline in empirical research of NLP, and particularly in matching sensory predicates and its use in counsellor-client relationship in counseling psychology.

“[…] The committee “found little if any” evidence to […] indicate that it is effective as a strategy for social influence.” No shit, Sherlock. NLP is not a strategy for social influence. It would be analogous to saying that quantum physics is a strategy to build bridges, or that you can use C++ to change someone’s mind. NLP is just a code you use to map out someone’s model of the world. It also offers a distinct modeling methodology. It’s not a silver bullet that solves everything. Anyone who tries to peddle that idea is full of it.

Next: NLP is not a technique. The text above states “the committee members “were impressed with the modeling approach used to develop the technique. The technique was developed from careful observations of the way three master psychotherapists conducted their sessions, emphasizing imitation of verbal and nonverbal behaviors.”

If you’re calling NLP a technique, you definitely don’t understand the field AT ALL.

Also, it seems a bit superficial to discredit a field just because Dr. Daniel Druckman omitted all references to it in a report. No matter what his credentials are, I sincerely doubt Dr. Druckman’s omniscience. If it’s taken me 15 years of studying NLP to get to the point where I am today, I don’t think someone could understand the field in just a few days or weeks of reviewing it from the outside. It’s like watching a Tibetan monk meditate and telling him that he’s wasting his time.

Empirical vs Phenomenological research

NLP practitioners and academics Tosey and Mathison have argued that the experimental approach is not always appropriate for researching NLP, instead proposing that NLP should be researched phenomenologically. Gareth Roderique-Davies (2009) stated that “Phenomenological research is free from hypotheses, pre-conceptions and assumptions, and seeks to describe rather than explain. Given the claims made by proponents of NLP, this adds little to the credibility debate and would produce reports concerning the experience from the perspective of the individual rather than confirmation of the claimed efficacy. The fact remains that NLP proponents make specific claims about how NLP works and what it can do and this compels providing evidence to substantiate these claims.” He argued that the proposal to conduct phenomenology research using NLP modeling “constitutes an admission that NLP does not have an evidence base and that NLP practitioners are seeking a post-hoc credibility.

Whether the field can be investigated empirically or phenomenologically, I leave those who need that kind of validation to evaluate whether to pursue the field or not. One thing is certain: I get results from it and know many people who also do.

With that said, I just feel that criticisms highlighted on the Wikipedia page effectively discredit a wrong comprehension of the field (and by the way, I have no interest no discuss, argue or prove NLP’s validity with skeptics or others). After you watch a master like Rex Sikes in action, and have the chance to interact with him, you know something is up. That’s what I’m passionately pursuing.

As I wrote on Quora a while back, NLP is just a map. The validity claim for NLP is not “is it true?” but “is it useful?” I have found, and continue to find, it very useful over the years (in the same way I continue to find HTML useful). You may or may not. Only your own experience can give you that answer.

PS: My NLP colleague Mike Bundrant has written an extensive article regarding the Wikipedia page dedicated to NLP. I suggest you read it to get a sobering perspective both on claims made on that page and on Wikipedia as a whole.

  • yeah that stuffs ridiculous forl ots of reasons

    im not sure but i think nlp trying to seem scientific etc in the earlier days didnt help the claims.

    that stuff about the rep systems is what i was talking about in a nearlier responce.
    i remember back i nthe day being compeltely repelled by nlp after looking into real/pure nlp after liknig the watered down stuff and hearing bandler saying stupid shit like people having a primary rep system, witch iseemed absolutely ridiculous to me. first it was they ahve a primary rep sys then it became but it sometimes changes, then it became more of a preference it kept changing, people jsut have rep systems and use them to perform strategies witch they use is different form context to context,
    bandler made lots of in my eyes atleast ridiculous claims, i also didnt understand the whole nested loops methaphorical story telling stuff and jsut tought he was full of it with some of his over the top claims to downright stupid or inconsistent claims. stories that had different endings or got exaggurated more as i went through the timeline.

    i get it now however i still get the idea that sometimes bandler jsut sits down starts with an outcome and then jsut goes what stuff can i pull completely out of my ass to convey it, witch in my book is not the best approach , the strong incredibility and over the top exaggeruation still is a big rapport breaker for me.. that said tho hes definatly had alot of good things to say as well.

    one of these days im gonna hit you up with some questions as well i have lots i need to formulate them tho.


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