Neuro-Linguistic Programming – the 1970s neurobollocks that just refuses to die

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I’d prefer to spend two days in a Siberian gulag than with these two smug bullshitters.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) was invented in the mid-70s by Richard Bandler (a psychology and philosophy graduate) and John Grinder (a linguist). It originally grew out of observations made in therapy, and a metaphorical extension of some of the concepts of Chomsky’s transformational grammar. In the fertile grounds of the 70s Californian therapy and self-help movement, it soon blossomed into a multi-faceted set of techniques and philosophies. By the 80s it was being widely touted as a novel therapy technique and attracted some serious attention from researchers. However it was relatively quickly understood that there was no empirical basis for its key claims, and as its practitioners began to make ever more outlandish claims, serious interest from professionals waned.

This didn’t stop the NLP-faithful though. People like Tony Robbins (who studied with Bandler) made incredibly successful careers out of the motivational speaking/books circuit.  Despite this undeniable popular appeal, NLP is nowadays widely-regarded as pseudo-scientific bollocks of a particularly refined and rarefied strain.

It’s actually quite hard to pin down exactly what the key principles of NLP are. This is partly because its founders and practitioners use such vague and amorphous language, full of metaphors and pointless jargon, but also because of the diversity of its supposed applications; from ‘traditional’ therapeutic settings, to sports coaching, to corporate training seminars, to (creepily) seduction. It aspires to include something for everyone; the best way to maximise the market and therefore the potential profit. One relatively common theme is focused on teaching communication skills in order to facilitate the learner’s personal and professional relationships. On the surface this sounds reasonable, but the communication theory that its based on has absolutely zero empirical support. The wackier variants incorporate all kinds of other bollocks like hypnosis, and many NLP-whackos talk about being able to ‘reprogram’ their own (and other’s) brain, often by claiming to influence the subconscious mind in some way.

Despite being nearly 40 years old, and a ridiculous, facile hodge-podge of concepts from psychology, philosophy, linguistics and new-age twaddle with absolutely no support from any reputable sources, amazingly, NLP is still very much alive and kicking. Bandler has kept on developing (and ruthlessly trademarking) a load of new techniques including ‘Design Human Engineering™’, or ‘Charisma Enhancement™’. A lot of his recent work also appears to include hypnosis. His website is essentially one big advertisement for his books, CDs and speaking gigs; and there are literally thousands of individuals, businesses, and ‘institutes’ offering NLP training for a bewildering variety of purposes and people. Bandler has even latterly jumped on the ‘Brain training’ trend with a new company called ‘QDreams‘ (‘Quantum brain training!’; ‘Success at the speed of thought!’ FFS…). Searching on Twitter turns up many, many people earnestly tweeting away about the benefits of NLP. Why is it so persistent? Partly this is because of Bandler’s clear talent for slick marketing, re-invention and dedication to innovative bull-shittery, and partly because NLP was never really clearly defined in the first place, which makes it highly malleable and adaptable to any pseudo-scientific new-age trends that come along. Despite a hiccup in the mid-90s (when Bandler tried to sue Grinder for ninety million dollars) it seems to be as popular as ever, and to be attracting new adherents all the time.

In my opinion the real stroke of genius in NLP, and perhaps the reason why it’s been so successful, is simply the name. These days we’re used to putting the ‘neuro-‘ prefix in front of everything, but back in the ’70s, this was way ahead of its time. Obviously there’s nothing remotely ‘neuro’ about it, though. Plus the ‘programming’ bit has a deliciously Orwellian appeal; promising the potential to effect change in oneself or others, if you just know the right techniques.

But effecting genuinely meaningful behavioural change in yourself is hard work. NLP derives from the quick-fix mentality of the self-help movement and is doomed to failure because of it. Does it actually help people? Perhaps, on some level, but any anecdotal results are almost certainly derived from a version of the placebo effect. Because of its vague nature, it’s not even really clear how its effectiveness would be meaningfully assessed anyway. Until we discover the genuine low-level programming language of the human brain we’ll probably always have to put up with this kind of bollocks being peddled.

There’s another really good article on NLP at the Skeptics Dictionary.

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31 responses to “Neuro-Linguistic Programming – the 1970s neurobollocks that just refuses to die

  1. and some of us have to put a lot of effort into keeping the Wikipedia entry for the subject under control!

  2. I find this really interesting as I didn’t know much about NLP, in fact it rather confused me (probably because the vagueness of its marketing). But what you’ve said makes me even more curious as to why so many companies still use it, so that you find most people who work in an organization have taken a course in it?

    • It’s a good question Marianne, and not one to which I have a very good answer, I’m afraid. Apart from the things I mentioned in the piece, I really don’t know why it’s survived this long, and still continues to be popular. I guess it promises quick fixes for various issues, and maybe that’s attractive for corporations?

      • Yes I guess it’s not too far from the corporate use of the Myers-Briggs test either, which I recently discovered in a post by Dean Burnett isn’t used at all in the field of psychology. Maybe once they get hold of something they think should work, they just stick with it!

    • Y did not know neuro-lnguistic programming is used by the many big organisations with the help of that people understand each other and the company gain more points. You can see here is a services provider which offers these courses.

  3. I’d say it survives for the same reason homeopathy does. The power of belief that it works provides some placebo benefit.

  4. I don’t know much about NLP. Everything I have tried to read seems like gibberish. But I can say that I have had some success with Hypnosis by people who claim some familiarity with NLP. In my experience hypnosis is a valid technique for retraining the mind for certain people.

  5. Stick to bashing NLP, but not hypnosis. You can’t be scientifically literate and bash hypnosis. I’m referring to “other bollocks like hypnosis”. Hypnosis is a highly validated phenomenon, clinically highly useful, tons of empirical evidence. You would have to ignore thousands of papers to claim it is bullocks!

    • Fair point about hypnosis, it’s definitely a real ‘thing’, though I would question it’s ability to effect positive change in the way that Bandler uses it. The whole area of hypnotherapy is very murky indeed…

  6. I have little to say except that NLP worked very well for me when I was younger, growing up in a single-parent, impoverished family. I couldn’t afford any materials like books or seminars then and scraped whatever information I could from the nascent web from trainers like Tad James. I used rapport and mirroring in job interviews. I eventually bought a few books. I use(d) reframing and submodality work on myself constantly. If a traumatic relationship breakup or other memory bothers me, I know how to minimize its memory so I’m not as pained by it. I’ve learned how the subtleties of communication work, so I hear and see the nuances in others’ communication.

    When I complained about my old job and hearing my old boss’s voice, an NLP trainer on the web taught me how to use that as a signal to start looking for a new job. And I did. Each time I heard his voice, I worked a little more on my resume. Then, when a recruiter called, I was prepared to get a new job. Since then, my career has grown steadily; I just checked online and my income level is in the 98th percentile for Americans. I have to admit, I’m not yet comfortable with this level of wealth. I bought a car recently and I’m astonished at how shiny and clean it is.

    As I’ve grown older, I’ve found many of the ideas in NLP are borrowed from other fields such as Buddhism and behavioral sciences. I’m guessing its founders were influenced by the wave of Americans like Steve Jobs etc who travel to Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. You may be frustrated at these people like Bandler (you call him ‘smug’), but maybe you’ve just found other ways to get the life and experiences you want and don’t need the benefit of his experience. As a matter of empathy, I sincerely hope you and everyone else do find your way soon and it doesn’t bother me a bit if it’s not via NLP. I was very interested in your site, because I am interested in any kind of technologies or enhancements to increase my intelligence. You appear overly hasty in your dismissal of NLP, though. I hope you’re able to provide quality information despite your biases.

    For example, it’s not hard at all to find out what the key principles of NLP are. Try looking up “NLP presuppositions.” Finally, yes of course there are people who make outrageous claims about it. That’s basically the way life goes. People evangelize about their “religions” because they want others to experience the same joy they’re feeling. You can imagine the same ecstasy about grapefruit diets, meditation, jogging or driving a new car… That doesn’t invalid the principles of disciplined practice of NLP.

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  8. I have to admit to watching a couple of people become really quite successful using the NLP bag of tricks. The main successful uses being hiding an inherent lack of knowledge in the subject they are ‘helping’ with and manipulating naive people, especially those bewildered self-therapeuting souls who get better by reliving their own hell through other people.

    No doubt our perceptions are truly sophisticated and incredibly delicate, so tricks work. That is of course until you know how the trick works. Then there is a delightful game you can play with the little dears, out-bollocksing them at their own game. The tricks don’t work when you’re conscious of them, but work brilliantly when you think nobody else is conscious of them except you. I recommend Deceit and Self-Deception by Robert Trivers, its not about NLP bit explains how to play psychological terrorism with any fool who tries it on with you.

  9. Reblogged this on Nosapience's Blog and commented:
    Yet more genius from Neurobollocks, licking on the classic pseudoscience of bollocks with the prefix “neuro” mailed on the front in an attempt to polish a turd.

    My question to all the NLPers “55% of what exactly, and I mean exactly not 54% or 56%, come on, I dare you, I have amassed copies of thge original observations, comne on, you yes you, no not somebody else, you, I know you’re reading this, I’m tracking you, answer the question, come on, you know really, you do, you know that you don’t really believe it, you’re just conning yourself aren’t you, come on, 55% of what, exactly?”

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  11. Business and education establishments seem incredibly gullible customers. People re re-hashing old 70s themes like NLP and transactional analysis, which are not used at all in the NHS, and selling them to schools and banks. Elaborate placebos are easy to invent, its just the publicity that’s difficult. But anything with neuro sounds good, as does anything with electricity involved, or any drugs that contain the letters x and z.

    • I find it hard to condemn the customers – most don’t have the knowledge and experience of psychology/neuroscience to know when they’re being fed bullshit. What we should do (and what I try to do) is call out the people selling this stuff and expose them for what they are – hopefully then some of the potential customers will take notice.

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  14. I once read a short book about NLP that had a chapter about changing habits. It used nail biting as an example. The process seemed fast and simple so, being a longtime nail biter myself, I gave it a try. It only took a couple of minutes and I haven’t bitten my nails since. That was nearly thirty years ago. It will be interesting to see if my old habit comes back now that I’ve learned that I was tricked.

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  17. I have read some NLP stuff for children…I would say that it can work for a mature mind, and maybe for compliant children and in the sales arena…but not for more complicated areas…I’m no expert and found some useful things in there but maybe the way it’s written is way too convoluted making some of it seem complicated eg. Where you sit in a chair and have the child sit in another chair and pretend you are someone else in another situation…too complicated for a child with special needs, that’s my humble opinion anyway.

  18. Even the placebo effect has its uses with treating psychosomatic conditions.

  19. Hi, I just came across this post and thought it was interesting because i’ve trained in NLP myself and although i’m not fanatic about it, I see it a little differently than you.

    After the first course I took I would’ve debunked it myself & I completely understand how you have come to this conclusion, but your overall interpretation is not quite reality.

    If you forget Bandler and the people who made it & forget the people who use it to manipulate others…NLP is neither good nor bad, that’s all about the person using it. Also, forget the techniques, because they are not what NLP is about.

    Pure NLP is about Modelling which in Psychology is ‘Social Learning Theory’ and about the language patterns, which teach you how to be more specific or more vague.
    Specific = Socratic questioning much like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
    and Vague = Ericksonian Hypnosis

    (Hypnosis by the way is just guided meditation, nothing else. I’m not really a fan of it)

    So basically NLP is about how we learn and how we communicate. If you take it at that basic level like I have then there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. There’s only something wrong with it when you get arrogant twats using the techniques to show off with.

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  23. nlp is the complete process of mind training and brushing up of mind or can say you can change your life with the help of this and also this is the process of learning how to speak, behave and many things which teach us how to leave a perfect life.

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