Why should you be wary about NLP?

Posted on February 17th, by Dr Rob Yeung . 17 comments

What is NLP?
Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a coaching methodology that was devised in the 1970s by Richard Bandler, John Grinder and Frank Pucelik. However, many evidence-based scientists and psychologists have been intensely critical of NLP, with some even adding it to a list of so-called “discredited treatments”.

After the creation of NLP, its ideas were mainly spread in the form of easy-reading books and training programmes aimed at helping people to achieve change and success. Even the self-help author Tony Robbins originally started out teaching people NLP techniques until a lawsuit in the late 1980s (brought by NLP co-creator Richard Bandler). In an out-of-court settlement, Robbins agreed to pay The Society of NLP $200 for every person that Robbins certified in NLP. Soon after the settlement, Robbins stopped training people in NLP techniques and instead created his own method, which he called Neural Associative Conditioning (NAC).

Why is NLP so controversial?
In psychological therapy, there are many alleged gurus who have created their own therapeutic techniques. Some of these supposed experts have created their own methods with a cynical view – to sell therapies in order to make money. Others of these self-styled experts may think that they genuinely are doing good – even though there is not any scientific evidence to back up their claims.

In 2006, a team of researchers conducted a survey asking 101 mental health professionals to rate the credibility of several dozen supposedly psychological therapies. The researchers were led by John Norcross, who gained a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Rhode Island. At the time of the survey, he was a professor of psychology at the University of Scranton in Philadelphia.

Norcross and his team asked the experts (who comprised mainly fellows of the American Psychological Association as well as current and former editors of academic journals in mental health) to rate the various supposed therapies on a scale of 1 (for “not at all discredited”) to 5 (for “certainly discredited”). For example, there is something called angel therapy, which practitioners use to treat mental and behavioural disorders. Angel therapy was rated at 4.98 – as something highly discredited. Past lives therapy for the treatment of mental or behavioural disorders was rated at 4.92.

NLP was rated at 3.87. In fact, it was rated as more discredited than other therapies such as psychotherapy for the treatment of penis envy (which received a marginally lower, better score of 3.52). Even acupuncture for the treatment of mental and behavioural disorders received a more favourable (i.e. less discredited) rating of 3.49.

Essentially, the problem is this: do you believe in the need for scientific evidence – or simply the beliefs of practitioners?

University of Sydney researcher Anthony Grant noted that many researchers “argue that NLP is not evidence-based (i.e. there is little peer-reviewed evidence to show that NLP actually works. The other side might then respond that practitioners know that it works because they have personally witnessed significant change in NLP clients.”

Presumably even practitioners who use angel therapy and past lives therapy believe that they have personally witnessed significant change through their methods. However, some might argue that mere belief without evidence might actually better be seen as delusion.

How much training do NLP practitioners have?
Many of the commercially available programmes say that they can certify people as Master Practitioners in NLP in around 12 to 15 days. However, consider that most counselling or clinical psychologists in the UK and US take between three to five years to gain their qualifications and certifications.

What is the modern psychological view of NLP?
Researchers and qualified psychologists are mostly damning about NLP. In a 2019 paper published in International Coaching Psychology Review, a group of experts wrote that: “there are many critics of NLP who view NLP as variably a pseudoscience, pop psychology or even a cult, with no evidence base for its effectiveness.”

Based on their own investigations of 90 articles that they found on the topic of NLP, they concluded: “In summary, there are no empirical studies that offer evidence for the effectiveness of coaching based solely on NLP tools and techniques.”

That’s important. They did not find that there were only a few scientific studies supporting NLP. They found no papers – zero, zilch, not one.

As just one example, consider a series of investigations led by Richard Wiseman, a professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. NLP contends that people’s eye movements can be indicative of their mental state or even when they are lying. However, the data gathered by Wiseman and his colleagues led them to conclude: “the results of the three studies fail to support the claims of NLP.”

In another recent academic paper, Henley Business School researchers Jonathan Passmore and Tatiana Rowson reviewed the science of NLP and concluded: “we have no hesitation in coming to the view that coaching psychologists and those interested in evidenced based coaching would be wise to ignore the NLP brand in favour of models, approaches and techniques where a clear evidence base exists.”

A separate review by Tomasz Witkowski used stronger language, criticising NLP as “full of borrowings from science or expressions referring to it, devoid of any scientific meaning. It is seen already in the very name – neuro-linguistic programming – which is a cruel deception. At the neuronal level it provides no explanation and it has nothing in common with academic linguistics or programming.” At the conclusion of his paper, he concluded that: “NLP represents pseudoscientific rubbish, which should be mothballed forever.”

If not NLP, then what else?
The British National Health Service (NHS) states that self-help books, apps and courses may be useful when grounded in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). For example, the NHS website usefully recommends some apps and online tools that can be accessed for free. In terms of books, the NHS website suggests: “Check whether a book was written by a counsellor or therapist who has lots of experience and is registered with a professional body, such as the British Psychological Society.”

17 Responses to “Why should you be wary about NLP?”

  1. KP says:

    Really interesting article, would you be able to elaborate on the section ‘If not NLP, then what else?’. I was hoping for some recommendations from your experience. Thank you.

  2. Anthony Tomeo says:

    I was skeptical of NLP from the beginning but decided to take a course on it offered on Udemy after taking a “Life Coaching” course. I will finish it and proceed with caution. I know I have a lot of faulty inner dialogue and I am struggling with depression. I am trying hard to find a way out and not give up.

  3. Nirupam Banerjee says:

    Too much criticism may make people even more curious about the NLP.

  4. James says:

    So these ‘credible’ researchers thought angel therapy which involves cultivating a belief in and connecting to your ‘guardian angels’ in each area of life had more grounding in science than NLP which teaches you to consciously adopt more constructive beliefs and interpretations of the events and attributes of your life – a principle that the newer field of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is entirely based off?

    • Dr Rob Yeung says:

      A higher score denotes that a so-called therapy is more discredited. So angel therapy (rated at 4.98) was more discredited than NLP (rated at 3.87).

      Read further on and you can see that acupuncture for mental health was rated at 3.49, which implies that it was considered less discredited than NLP.

    • Dave says:

      No, it’s the other way around. The higher the score, the more woo-woo (new age rubbish) it is. Angel therapy scored 4.98, and NLP scored 3.87. That means scientists viewed Angel therapy as more woo-woo than NLP.

  5. John says:

    NLP is nothing short of a cultish, money making scheme bereft of any scientific basis or empirical validation. In my opinion it’s practice for commercial gain is akin to fraud.

  6. Metatron says:

    To add further, NLP was never a theory nor did it ever claim to be a science, ppl need to do their hw first before talking about things which they no nothing about… NLP explicitly in its onset sets out to do pragmatic work concerning a individuals subjective experience something to which we still can barley do any experimentations around, and ironically the neuro science work that has been conducted in this are ie the work surrounding memory actually supports the fundamental ideas/approach of NLP. It’s really sad to see legitimate scientist not do the proper research into a subject just so they can discredit it. This most likely stems from the fact that many psychologists do not want to admit that the majority of their field is filled with false papers something in the 80% threshold have now been shown to be complete bunk, hence why we would see such adverse reaction to something that has been shown to work demonstrably well via anecdotal accounts and as observed in the patents behavior, something to which a psychologist is supposed to be concerned with.

  7. Neil says:

    I’m concerned at the number of people using NLP (usually dubbed “coaches”) as a means to get rich quick. It’s often promoted within a group setting using psychologgal tricks based around présentation and image. There’s often a central person presenting himself as a guru or cult figure who uses tried and tested sales techniques to persuade people to buy an NLP course. These are discounted to put you in the mindset that you’re being given a bargain. Once it’s sold to you (often by causing you to feel inferior if you refuse to buy) then you’re told that on completion you’ll be “qualified” in having found a solution to your problems, but when completed you’ll be advised that you need to upgrade by paying more for a further advanced course. It’s promoted by hooking you in and taking more money from you. People continue paying until they realise they’ve been “had” or until they’ve been likely brainwashed into believing they’re so advanced that they can also make money promoting the subject. It’s run like a pyramid scheme or network marketing programme and resembles very strongly a religious cult. It’s a money-making scam that uses sales psychology.

    • Ionel says:

      This is far from being a fair and objective article it is as if the author has his own agenda smearing NLP I wonder why?

      Because it works where tradtional outdated psychology and creeps like freud failed?

      So one of the commenters say something about a pyramid scheme….such a hypocrisy

      how about the millions of people for decades going to psychiatrists and pschologists and getting worse guys?????

      You have no brains or you have evil intentions.

      AS LONG AS IT GETS RESULTS that’s all that matters and SHAME to all academics and licensed “experts” who despite their so called science backed articles and proof and arrogance don’t deliver the results the pacients desperately need.

      There is nothing worse and evil than someone pretending to help you poising as an expert and YET after MONTHS and YEARS of therapy the pacients or clients still remain the same or the see a laughably small if any improvement.

      Beware all is paid in life friends good with good bad with bad
      Karma is a bitch dear therapists who steal from your trusting clients/pacients

      • Stefan says:

        So long as it gets results .., I guess that’s the crux of it. Is there any evidential fact supporting this? The article suggests not. I’d be interested regarding studies that might prove otherwise

  8. Gali says:

    Last month a woman was murdered by her husband here in Israel, she was a mother of 4 and was using NLP to train women how to attract a suitable husband.

    Listening to her talk on the many videos she uploaded on to social media , it is clear to me that her main motivation was self promotion and making money she needed since her husband was employed as a security guard and she had an ill child to care for.

    Whether the poor woman had actually believed in the system or not, listening to her talk, I get the sense her main motivation was money making whereas when a person goes for therapy , the main motivation of the therapist ought to be , IMHO, to help a person get better.

    Furthermore the use of medical terms in NLP is extremely misleading and is therefore very clearly according to the criteria of a fraud.

  9. Reese says:

    Has shared an excellent helpful post on why you should be wary of NLP.

  10. J Breen says:

    Educo is NLP based and considered a cult and has been called as such in many newspapers. I think this brochure of theirs is pretty evident that it’s referring to Imprinting etc

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