Neuro-linguistic programming

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is an approach to communication, personal development, and psychotherapy created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in California, United States in the 1970s. NLP’s creators claim there is a connection between neurological processes (neuro-), language (linguistic) and behavioral patterns learned through experience (programming), and that these can be changed to achieve specific goals in life.[1][2] Bandler and Grinder also claim that NLP methodology can “model” the skills of exceptional people, allowing anyone to acquire those skills.[3][4] They claim as well that, often in a single session, NLP can treat problems such as phobias, depression, tic disorders, psychosomatic illnesses, near-sightedness,[5] allergy, common cold,[6] and learning disorders.[7][8]

NLP is marketed by some hypnotherapists and by some companies that organize seminars and workshops on management training for businesses.[9] There is no scientific evidence supporting the claims made by NLP advocates and it has been discredited as a pseudoscience.[10][11][12] Scientific reviews state that NLP is based on outdated metaphors of how the brain works that are inconsistent with current neurological theory and contain numerous factual errors.[13][14] Reviews also found that all of the supportive research on NLP contained significant methodological flaws and that there were three times as many studies of a much higher quality that failed to reproduce the “extraordinary claims” made by Bandler, Grinder, and other NLP practitioners.[11][12] Even so, NLP has been adopted by some hypnotherapists and also by companies that run seminars marketed as leadership training to businesses and government agencies.[9][13]


History and conception

Early development

According to Bandler and Grinder, NLP comprises a methodology termed modeling, plus a set of techniques that they derived from its initial applications.[15][16] Of such methods that are considered fundamental, they derived many from the work of Virginia Satir, Milton Erickson and Fritz Perls.[17]

Bandler and Grinder also drew upon the theories of Gregory Bateson, Alfred Korzybski and Noam Chomsky (particularly transformational grammar),[15][18][19] as well as ideas and techniques from Carlos Castaneda.[20]

Bandler and Grinder claim that their methodology can codify the structure inherent to the therapeutic “magic” as performed in therapy by Perls, Satir and Erickson, and indeed inherent to any complex human activity, and then from that codification, the structure and its activity can be learned by others. Their 1975 book, The Structure of Magic I: A Book about Language and Therapy, is intended to be a codification of the therapeutic techniques of Perls and Satir.[15][21]

Bandler and Grinder say that they used their own process of modeling to model Virginia Satir so they could produce what they termed the Meta-Model, a model for gathering information and challenging a client’s language and underlying thinking.[15][21][22] They claim that by challenging linguistic distortions, specifying generalizations, and recovering deleted information in the client’s statements, the transformational grammar concepts of surface structure yield a more complete representation of the underlying deep structure and therefore have therapeutic benefit.[23][24] Also derived from Satir were anchoringfuture pacing and representational systems.[25]

In contrast, the Milton-Model—a model of the purportedly hypnotic language of Milton Erickson—was described by Bandler and Grinder as “artfully vague” and metaphoric.[26] The Milton-Model is used in combination with the Meta-Model as a softener, to induce “trance” and to deliver indirect therapeutic suggestion.[27]

However, adjunct lecturer in linguistics Karen Stollznow describes Bandler’s and Grinder’s reference to such experts as namedropping. Other than Satir, the people they cite as influences did not collaborate with Bandler or Grinder. Chomsky himself has no association with NLP whatsoever; his original work was intended as theory, not therapy. Stollznow writes, “[o]ther than borrowing terminology, NLP does not bear authentic resemblance to any of Chomsky’s theories or philosophies – linguistic, cognitive or political.”[18]

According to André Muller Weitzenhoffer, a researcher in the field of hypnosis, “the major weakness of Bandler and Grinder’s linguistic analysis is that so much of it is built upon untested hypotheses and is supported by totally inadequate data.”[28] Weitzenhoffer adds that Bandler and Grinder misuse formal logic and mathematics,[29] redefine or misunderstand terms from the linguistics lexicon (e.g., nominalization),[30] create a scientific façade by needlessly complicating Ericksonian concepts with unfounded claims,[31] make factual errors,[32] and disregard or confuse concepts central to the Ericksonian approach.[33]

More recently (circa 1997), Bandler has claimed, “NLP is based on finding out what works and formalizing it. In order to formalize patterns I utilized everything from linguistics to holography…The models that constitute NLP are all formal models based on mathematical, logical principles such as predicate calculus and the mathematical equations underlying holography.”[34] However, there is no mention of the mathematics of holography nor of holography in general in McClendon’s,[35] Spitzer’s,[25] or Grinder’s[36] account of the development of NLP.

On the matter of the development of NLP, Grinder recollects:[37]

My memories about what we thought at the time of discovery (with respect to the classic code we developed – that is, the years 1973 through 1978) are that we were quite explicit that we were out to overthrow a paradigm and that, for example, I, for one, found it very useful to plan this campaign using in part as a guide the excellent work of Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) in which he detailed some of the conditions which historically have obtained in the midst of paradigm shifts. For example, I believe it was very useful that neither one of us were qualified in the field we first went after – psychology and in particular, its therapeutic application; this being one of the conditions which Kuhn identified in his historical study of paradigm shifts.

The philosopher Robert Todd Carroll responded that Grinder has not understood Kuhn’s text on the history and philosophy of science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Carroll replies: (a) individual scientists never have nor are they ever able to create paradigm shifts volitionally and Kuhn does not suggest otherwise; (b) Kuhn’s text does not contain the idea that being unqualified in a field of science is a prerequisite to producing a result that necessitates a paradigm shift in that field and (c) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is foremost a work of history and not an instructive text on creating paradigm shifts and such a text is not possible—extraordinary discovery is not a formulaic procedure. Carroll explains that a paradigm shift is not a planned activity, rather it is an outcome of scientific effort within the current (dominant) paradigm that produces data that can’t be adequately accounted for within the current paradigm—hence a paradigm shift, i.e. the adoption of a new paradigm.

In developing NLP, Bandler and Grinder were not responding to a paradigmatic crisis in psychology nor did they produce any data that caused a paradigmatic crisis in psychology. There is no sense in which Bandler and Grinder caused or participated in a paradigm shift. “What did Grinder and Bandler do that makes it impossible to continue doing psychology…without accepting their ideas? Nothing,” argues Carroll.[38]

Commercialization and evaluation

By the late 1970s, the human potential movement had developed into an industry and provided a market for some NLP ideas. At the center of this growth was the Esalen Institute at Big Sur, California. Perls had led numerous Gestalt therapy seminars at Esalen. Satir was an early leader and Bateson was a guest teacher. Bandler and Grinder claimed that in addition to being a therapeutic method, NLP was also a study of communication and began marketing it as a business tool, claiming that, “if any human being can do anything, so can you.”[22] After 150 students paid $1,000 each for a ten-day workshop in Santa Cruz, California, Bandler and Grinder gave up academic writing and produced popular books from seminar transcripts, such as Frogs into Princes, which sold more than 270,000 copies. According to court documents relating to an intellectual property dispute between Bandler and Grinder, Bandler made more than $800,000 in 1980 from workshop and book sales.[22]

A community of psychotherapists and students began to form around Bandler and Grinder’s initial works, leading to the growth and spread of NLP as a theory and practice.[39] For example, Tony Robbins trained with Grinder and utilized a few ideas from NLP as part of his own self-help and motivational speaking programmes.[40] Bandler led several unsuccessful efforts to exclude other parties from using NLP.[41] Meanwhile, the rising number of practitioners and theorists led NLP to become even less uniform than it was at its foundation.[18] Prior to the decline of NLP, scientific researchers began testing its theoretical underpinnings empirically, with research indicating a lack of empirical support for NLP’s essential theories.[12] The 1990s were characterized by fewer scientific studies evaluating the methods of NLP than the previous decade. Tomasz Witkowski attributes this to a declining interest in the debate as the result of a lack of empirical support for NLP from its proponents.[12]

Main components and core concepts

NLP can be understood in terms of three broad components and the central concepts pertaining to those:

  • Subjectivity. According to Bandler and Grinder:
    • We experience the world subjectively thus we create subjective representations of our experience. These subjective representations of experience are constituted in terms of five senses and language. That is to say our subjective conscious experience is in terms of the traditional senses of vision, audition, tactition, olfaction and gustation such that when we—for example—rehearse an activity “in our heads”, recall an event or anticipate the future we will “see” images, “hear” sounds, “taste” flavours, “feel” tactile sensations, “smell” odours and think in some (natural) language.[42][43] Furthermore it is claimed that these subjective representations of experience have a discernible structure, a pattern. It is in this sense that NLP is sometimes defined as the study of the structure of subjective experience.[44]
    • Behavior can be described and understood in terms of these sense-based subjective representations. Behavior is broadly conceived to include verbal and non-verbal communication, incompetent, maladaptive or “pathological” behavior as well as effective or skillful behavior.[45][46]
    • Behavior (in self and others) can be modified by manipulating these sense-based subjective representations.[47][48][49][50][51][52]
  • Consciousness. NLP is predicated on the notion that consciousness is bifurcated into a conscious component and a unconscious component. Those subjective representations that occur outside of an individual’s awareness comprise what is referred to as the “unconscious mind”.[53]
  • Learning. NLP utilizes an imitative method of learning—termed modeling—that is claimed to be able to codify and reproduce an exemplar’s expertise in any domain of activity. An important part of the codification process is a description of the sequence of the sensory/linguistic representations of the subjective experience of the exemplar during execution of the expertise.[54][55][56][57]

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