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NLP and science

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Studies related to Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and science have been undertaken virtually since NLP was first formulated in the early 1970s.

Due to its inherent preference for pragmatism over theory, its lack of formal and theoretical structure, and its lack of controls over usage, NLP doesn't always lend itself well to the scientific method. Equally (as scientific researchers have pointed out), attempts have also been greatly obfusticated by other factors, not least of which are poor scientific appreciation of the subject being researched, failure to fully consider, control and understand all key variables, unrealistic claims by some practitioners, and often, lack of high quality experimental design.

This finding was supported when, in 1988, both Heap and Druckman independently concluded that most studies to that date were "heavily flawed"[1] and that the "effectiveness of NLP therapy undertaken in authentic clinical contexts of trained practitioners has not yet been properly investigated."[2]

There is significant evidence, both in research and anecdotally, that NLP does something significantly more than a placebo,[3] but (in common with much of the psychological field as a whole) it is hard to test empirically, and lack of scientific approval or mixed findings are not uncommon. Therefore NLP has not yet been held to rigorous scientific standards, and much of the evidence is still anecdotal or debated.

Comparison of NLP and science

Science and NLP diverge in the area of how the scientific method is applied. In NLP, a "hypothesis" relates not to human processes in general, but to the inner processes of a given person at the present time, the relationship between the observable exterior and the unobservable interior, and the presence of other potential processes and inner structures which may be evidenced by deduction or suspected from prior experience. These then, form the hypotheses which NLP tests.

The methodology of NLP has therefore been compared to an engineering discipline, in that it seeks what works, rather than what is theory or true in a testable sense. It is also comparable to heuristic problem-solving methods, in that the methods of NLP are tools for the uncovering of information and for the refinement of approaches, and the information uncovered is simultaneously information about the landscape, as well as refinements to the heuristic algorithm which can help better identify what a solution might look like, and to find optimal 'next steps' to any of the many possible solutions.

A notable difference is that the subject-object or observer-observed barrier is explicitely removed in NLP, with results said to be influenced by the quality of the relational context ("rapport") achieved.

All of this sharply contrasts with many natural sciences, in which hypotheses are normally created around theories and facts of nature that are relatively static and independent of the observer. Accordingly (in common with many human-oriented fields) it is necessary to ask whether NLP is expected to act like a science, or whether it acts more like a black box in which the only effective measure is to statistically evaluate quality of output for a given input.

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Many adherents argue that NLP is like a science in that NLP has a body of accepted knowledge and it has the ability to be scientifically tested. Both agree that it is virtually impossible to make inferences from human senses which actually describe what is, but by forming and testing hypotheses based on observations made in the world, both seek to form useful generalizations about the subject concerned (known in science as theories), which can be tested and used, often predictively.

However, a high degree of variability in each individual trial, the vagarities of human whim and craftsmanship, and the existence of multiple optimal solutions, are inherent in NLP's structure. So trial by means of too rigidly defined fixed process is unworkable, since the degree of rigidity could exclude that which is intended to be tested.

Overall, NLP's results are broadly at some level, metaphorical tools which are believed to have an unusual ability to indirectly manipulate neurological structures, to obtain subjectively beneficial ends (rather than natural entities that exist or do not). Used appropriately in situ they will be found effective or non-effective rather than "true" or "untrue", and this can be tested for scientifically in a number of ways. In addition, some direct testing is possible, insofar as some forms of neurological processing can be monitored or verified clinically.

Particular factors of difficulty in studying NLP

  • Lack of well-definedness
  • Strong basis in client feedback and individualized (and potentially multiple approaches)
  • Lack of paradigm belief in "works/doesn't work", or "solution A solves problem B"; rather, NLP believes in a willingness to explore problem spaces.
  • Strong reliance upon metaphorical process: it is not clear what is intended to be taken literally, and what is merely a convenient metaphor to be interpreted by the brain.

Actual clinical studies have been more productive, but many are merely suggestive or lack formal academic rigor. Equally (as researchers have pointed out), attempts have also been greatly obfusticated by many other factors, not least of which are unrealistic claims by some practitioners, poor scientific understanding of the subject being researched, failure to fully consider, control and understand all key variables, and often, lack of high quality experimental design. Key issues expected or highlighted include:

  1. NLP is intended to be used to a goal, and contains redundancy. That is, no single strategy or approach is expected to be 100% consistent (since people vary so much), but NLP's approach overall is believed to have a better chance of producing notably more valuable information, and better potentiate change, in a more systematic manner, and in a wider range of circumstances, than previous alternatives. Much of NLP is approach-guiding principles rather than beliefs. Metastudies highlight that it is often important to measure its in situ effectiveness rather than its assumptions, many of which are metaphorical.
  2. People can misunderstand themselves, and therefore their goals are moving goals. NLP allows for this. The measure of "success" is very often subjective to the client, or may change during working, and this is an expected aspect of working with people.
  3. NLP relies on micro-observation and virtuosity (i.e., smoothness of a wide range of skill use). It is important that skilled NLP practitioners are involved in planning, and (where appropriate) as elements within experimental design, to take account of this.
  4. Not all NLP training is equal. It is important when studying "NLP" to study excellence in the field, rather than niche or exaggerating practitioners.

Known weaknesses or outdated material in NLP

How NLP practitioners test NLP in practice

Research findings

Scientific approaches to studying NLP

Comments and criticisms of research assumptions and methods

Published studies on NLP or its principles

Main article: List of studies on Neuro-linguistic programming#Published studies on NLP or its principles

It is important to recognize, that research -- both scientific and within NLP -- is susceptible to a variety of experimental errors. Readers should be aware of this if relying upon any given report, and confirm for themselves whether those concerned have taken adequate measures to control for known sources of error.

Findings within neuroscience and cognitive science

Main article: List of studies on Neuro-linguistic programming#Findings within neuroscience and cognitive science

User evaluation of NLP

A further source of views is anecdotal evidence. This is not the same as scientific evidence. If it is widely regarded, or comes from reputable stable bodies with a reputation for credibility, and especially if it appears they have tested it themselves and use it out of the benefits they have found, it can be suggestive that there are benefits to be realized. Scientists consider anecdotal evidence by its nature to be suggestive only - this is since anecdotal evidence is usually of variable quality, may be susceptible to placebo effects and other confounds, and not usually tested to formal scientific standards.

A large number of reputable bodies use NLP, including clinical, psychiatric, non-profit health, law enforcement, government, and education, giving rise to a significant number of sustained strongly positive reports. (See: List of users of Neuro-linguistic programming)

A number of reports suggest that (also anecdotally) other users have encountered charlatans and low quality or charismatic trainers who place reliance upon emotional contagion rather than methodical formal practice. (See: History of NLP -- NLP buzz)

The Irish National Center for Guidance in Education's "Guidance Counsellor's Handbook"[4] sums up NLP's user evaluation, stating that:

"NLP has been successfully applied in fields such as business, sport, teaching, the performing arts, counselling, therapy, conflict resolution, stress management and learning [...] In recent years, particularly in the USA and France, NLP has been applied with increasing success in primary and secondary education. NLP is used to great effect in maximising the effectiveness of our group teaching, in communicating more resourcefully with individual students and with our colleagues, in understanding individual learning and motivation strategies, in developing our 1:1 counselling skills and in our own personal development. NLP has been able to break down, in a similar way, the series of behaviours that consistently lead to high levels of motivation, to successful stress management, to overcoming fears and phobias and to planning for the future..."

but also that:

"Unfortunately, NLP has a history of so-called Practitioners overstating... their training... It is probably necessary to go [overseas] to be sure of training with highly qualified trainers."

This view is supported by several researchers, including Dowlen (1996),[5] and Platt (2001).[6]

Analysis of research

Summary of research

NLP as protoscience?

Protoscience is a term sometimes used to describe a hypothesis or model that has not yet been tested adequately by the scientific method, but which is otherwise consistent with existing science, or – where inconsistent – offers reasonable account of the inconsistency. It may also describe the transition from a non-rigorous body of practical knowledge into a scientific field.

NLP as pseudoscience?


See also


  1. Druckman (1988) states that anecdotal evidence on NLP is broadly credible and positive, but that most attempted studies are heavily flawed, such as (a) equating subjective empathy with clinical effectiveness, (b) studying NLP as a theory, rather than as an influencing technique pitted against existing influencing techniques, (c) Attempting to replicate findings of NLP using subjects, observers, or experimental designers who lack NLP training, and (d) lack of studies on NLP as a trainer modeling system.
  2. Heap (1988):"Einsprech and Forman are probably correct in insisting that the effectiveness of NLP therapy undertaken in authentic clinical contexts of trained practitioners has not yet been properly investigated."
  3. For example, the British Psychological Society awarded its prestigious Level B accreditation (widely recognised as a clear benchmark standard) to CDA for its NLP-based psychmetric tests based on meta-programs. CDA's Technical Director states: "When we explored the NLP phenomenon and the notion of metaprogrammes, we found solid ideas supported by robust psychological theory which provided a sound basis for understanding peoples’ behaviour and thinking." [1]
  4. [2] section 1.4.5 [3] (DOC)
  5. Ashley Dowlen, "NLP - help or hype?", published Career Development International, Feb 1996 p. 27 - 34, says "NLP is enthusiastically supported by those who practise it, and that is both its strength and potential weakness".
  6. Platt (2001) states: "the research and the findings of the investigators certainly make it clear that NLP cannot help all people in all situations, which is frequently what is claimed and what practioners assert."
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