In this article we will consider an article by Professor Grant Devilly, a British academic now located in Australia. It purports to review a number of "new therapies", which are reportedly designated by some as 'Alphabet' therapies or 'Power' therapies. As far as the field of NLP (FoNLP) is concerned, this alone is immediately enough to set alarm bells ringing, since the FoNLP* isn't any kind of therapy at all.
(* The field of NLP (FoNLP) consists of (a) NLP itself, which is a specific form of non-analytical modelling, (b) the various NLP-related concepts and techniques, and (c) training in NLP and/or any of the related techniques.)
Those bells ring even louder as the erstwhile description of "NLP" proceeds from error to error, and ends up only mentioning one FoNLP technique - Visual/Kinetic Dissociation (V/KD) - which is wrongly designated 'VKD' even though one of the listed references uses the correct abbreviation.
In a later section of the article we are offered a set of nine characteristics which, we are told, provide a useful guide for spotting "a Power Therapy". On closer inspection it turns out that none of the guidelines applies to the authentic FoNLP. And in any case ... well, suffice it to say there's a sting in the tail which does nothing to add credibility to the arguments being put forward.
In short, it looks very much as though "NLP"* was only included in the article to fill up space.
(* Note: The label "NLP" is used to indicate that the text is referring to whatever it was the author thought "NLP" was about, as distinct from an accurate representation of the FoNLP.)
*** The Short Version ***
Nature of criticism:
It is concluded that these new therapies have offered no new scientifically valid theories of action [sic], show only non-specific efficacy, show no evidence that they offer substantive improvements to extant psychiatric care, yet display many characteristics consistent with pseudoscience.
There are two basic flaws in Devilly's treatment of whatever it is he thinks of as "NLP":
The treatment of "NLP" in this article is so superficial and inaccurate as to be worthless. The author provides no proof to justify his allegations, and the giveaway, as far as "NLP" is concerned, is in this phrase:
I refer to NLP [sic] here not to target the practice for further denigration ...
The words "further denigration" only make sense here if some denigration has already been offered - as indeed it has, in the previous paragraph. To offer almost nothing but misinformation, when (so far as I can tell) the "speaker" knows nothing about a subject is not, I suggest, a viable basis for a useful discussion. And this turns out to be exactly what we do not get in this article - a useful discussion. In fact the one element of the FoNLP that is mentioned by name - the Visual/Kinesthetc Dissociation technique - isn't discussed at all!
*** End of Short Version ***
*** 'Director's Cut' ***
Never Let Accurate Reporting Get in the Way of a Good Story
Right from the start of the main text the article provides misinformation on the subject of the authentic FoNLP:
In 1975 Bandler and Grinder published the first of their two volumes on Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). Their book was aptly entitled The Structure of Magic and in it they outlined a revolutionary new method for assessing, communicating with and treating patients.
The first point here is that the opening statement seems to imply that Bandler and Grinder only ever wrote two NLP-related books.
None of the books listed in bold font appear in the References for this article, even though the last one in the list includes a description of the V/KD process by one of the co-creators of NLP and the FoNLP.
The second, and rather more important point, is the reference to the FoNLP as "a revolutionary new method for assessing, communicating with and treating patients". Because it has always been publicly acknowledged that the starting point for the development of the FoNLP was the modelling of the communication techniques of several well-respected therapists already in practice - Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir, Frank Farrelly and Dr Milton Erickson - with further references to Alfred "General Semantics" Korzybski, Noam "Transformational Grammar" Chomsky and others (see the Bibliography for The Structure of Magic I).
Thus it makes no sense whatever to suggest that the co-creators of the FoNLP were representing their work as a "revolutionary" form of assessment or treatment, or that "At the time of its introduction it was heralded [by its co-creators] as a breakthrough in therapy". Though many would claim that it did indeed represent a "breakthrough in communications in the therapeutic context - and in business, and in education, etc., etc. In practice it looks like what is being set up here is not genuine "NLP", or the FoNLP, but simply a barely concealed "straw man".
The "Princeton Janitor" Ploy
This particular "straw man" seems to be an example of the "Princeton Janitor" or "Proponents Claim".
An example of the "Princeton Janitor" ploy might look like this: "A source at Princeton University reported that Einstein had considerable difficulty in getting started on his report on his General Theory of Relativity". A more accurate version would read: "A janitor at Princeton University, who thinks he remembers occasionally cleaning Einstein's office sometime around 1914 or 1915, says that whenever he saw Einstein at work he also seemed to be thinking about something that really puzzled him".
By the same token, even when one of the two named Bandler and Grinder books is cited, no page number is given, so it is impossible to be sure whether the citation is justified or not without reading the whole book until one finds what seems to be the relevant material.
A quick scan of the book did not find any references to "VKD" at all. And it is notable that the article this author seems to have used as his primary source on "VKD" actually cites a book entitled They Lived Happily Ever After (1978), authored by Leslie Cameron-Bandler.
Despite being at odds with the normal requirement - in serious journals - for such material to be fully documented, this ploy has been a regular feature of criticisms of "NLP" since as far back as the very first sentence of the main body of Sharpley's first (1984) "review" in the Journal of Counseling Psychology:
Beginning with their first publications (Bandler & Grinder, 1975; Grinder & Bandler, 1976), the proponents of Neurolinguistic [sic] Programming (NLP) have seen a notable increase of interest in their theory [sic] of human communication.
Eye Movements and Predicates
Anyway, the article goes on to assert that:
It was claimed that the trained consultant could identify the method in which the information [in "internal 'maps'"] was stored by eye-gaze patterns, posture, tone of voice and language patterns.
This, too, is a complete misunderstanding of the relevant NLP-related claims. In reality the "eye-gaze patterns" (or "eye accessing cues", as they are known to NLPers) are used to understand the sequence in which a person accesses various sensory information, constructed or recalled. Voice tone is not relevant in this particular context. And "language patterns" - I'm assuming this phrase refers to the use of sensory predicates - indicate what sensory mode a person is currently focused on.
It was further claimed that this knowledge facilitated communication during therapy to effect change (e.g. a kinesthetic representational system would be more amenable to change through the use of 'feeling' words during therapy).
This claim is, I'm afraid, simply not accurate. It is certainly true that the co-creators of the FoNLP claimed that tracking and matching a person's preferred representational system (PRS) would help to enhance the communication process. But that isn't what is being said here, and not even the acronym - PRS - is mentioned.
Likewise the notion that "a kinesthetic representational system would be more amenable to change through the use of 'feeling' words during therapy" is effectively meaningless in the context of genuine NLP-related techniques. The techniques I *think* the author may be struggling to address have the purpose of increasing someone's flexibility in the way they perceive things. They have nothing to do with changing the representational systems. Come to that, how many kinesthetic representational systems (for example) does this author think we have? And what does he think they could be changed into?
The Rot Sets In
Skipping forward a few lines we come to a rather more subtle misrepresentation::
... by the late 1980s a host of controlled trials had shed such a poor light on the practice, and those promoting the intervention made such extreme and changeable claims, that researchers began to question the wisdom of researching the area further and even suggested that NLP was an untestable theory .
This time the nonsense and the accurate information are neatly intertwined, and readers would have to be familiar with the facts already in order to sort the one from the other. What, for example, is meant by the claim that:
... those promoting the intervention made such extreme and changeable claims ...
What "promoters? What claims? Where is the evidence - documented quotes - to show that either of the co-creators behaved this way?
It is true that the late 1970s and much of the 1980s were a bumper time for articles on this subject - and that by the late 1980s the amount of research had tailed off. It may also be true that "researchers began to question the wisdom of researching the area further", referring to multiple researchers. On the other hand, it was specifically Professor Sharpley who wrote:
One may conclude that there is little use to the field of counseling research in further replications of previous studies of the principles underlying NLP.
And it was specifically Professor Sharpley who wrote:
... perhaps NLP [sic] principles are not amenable to research evaluation.
Both of which are in the article indicated by "" at the end of the quoted passage.
I must admit I cannot recall, offhand, any other critics making such comments and it does seem that two brief comments from a single article may have been conflated and inflated in order to warrant the use of the word "researchers" (plural).
The claim that "a host of controlled trials" had been conducted on NLP is a rather more obvious distortion. There were indeed a substantial number of studies. Heap (1987, 1988, 1989) managed to compile a list of just over 60 such investigations, though as with Sharpley and Einspruch and Forman's lists, almost every entry on the list addressed just one small portion of the FoNLP - PRSs and predicate matching.
Far from being "controlled" trials, however, no one amongst the critics seems to have realised, until Harris and Rosenthal prepared a background paper for the Enhancing Human Performance committee (1987), that the "observer effect" was a major stumbling block in the study of predicate matching based on people's preferred representation systems.
A series of controlled studies using reliable indicators of change in client's behavior (rather than their perceptions of counselors, which may not be correlated with problem dissolution by clients) is called for.
Would Sharpley have called for controlled studies if he knew that a number of controlled studies already existed? And if he didn't, where can we find the "host" of controlled studies that this article refers to?
In practice, almost all of the research cited by Sharpley (1984, 1987) and Heap (1987, 1988, 1989 and 2008) was based on a misunderstanding of the description of a single NLP-related concept (Preferred Representational Systems) and a single NLP-related technique (predicate matching). None of it was "controlled" in the sense of implementing single- or double-blind experimental procedures. Indeed, as Harris and Rosenthal demonstrated, the nature of the "predicate matching" technique was such as to make it impossible to use any kind of "blind" test procedure if the researchers followed the approach described by Bandler and Grinder.
It's that Damned Janitor Again
But nil desperandum. If one can't find evidence, as long as one doesn't provide any references one can insert just about any claim one can think of to fill the gap. For example, what is the basis for the allegation that "those promoting the intervention made such extreme and changeable claims"? Who, specifically made such claims? Not Bandler and Grinder, and they are the only authorities on the subject.
The next paragraph, the last in the initial comments regarding "NLP" are equally dubious:
I refer to NLP here not to target the practice for further denigration, but to hold it up as an early example of what some call an 'Alphabet Therapy' and others refer to as a 'Power Therapy'. To emphasize the issue of fads in psychotherapy what I aim to show is a cycle of business behavior in our profession. Indeed, one practice within NLP [sic] is a technique called 'Visual Kinesthetic Dissociation' (VKD [sic]) and this has subsequently become one of the 'Power Therapies' in its own right.
At this point readers not already familiar with the authentic FoNLP might be forgiven for wondering what on earth the author actually means when he refers to "NLP". In the space of two paragraphs, barely sufficient to fill half a page, we have been told that "NLP" is a "method" that can be used "for assessing, communicating with and treating [unspecified] patients"; that it is a "practice", an "intervention"; and that it is allegedly an example of both "Alphabet Therapy" and "Power Therapy".
Moreover, since it has within it "a technique" which the article refers to as 'Visual-Kinesthetic Dissociation' [which] has subsequently become one of the 'Power Therapies' in its own right, it seems that this "NLP" method/practice/intervention/technique may not be singular after all but rather some kind of collection of methods/practices/interventions/techniques.
Return of the Son of the Princeton Janitor
At this point the article completely leaves the tracks, as far as any authentic representation of the FoNLP is concerned, as we are dragged off to be introduced to the Traumatic-Stress Forum.
This entity, which the author says is the source of the term 'Power Therapy' (Devilly, 2005. Page 438) has no direct association with the FoNLP, though some of its members seem to have been interested in the possibility of using the NLP-related Visual/Kinesthetic Dissociation technique as a "powerful, painless and efficient method for eliminating the unwanted consequences of traumatic events" (quoted by Devilly, 2005. Page 438).
So what constitutes a "Power Therapy"?
It is claimed, we are told, that these 'Power Therapies' are at the cutting edge of psychiatry and psychology and that they are so termed because of their efficiency and efficacy being superior to traditional treatments. Sceptics refer to these treatments as the 'Alphabet Therapies', arguing that their major commonality is the use of acronyms and outlandish and unsubstantiated claims.
But hold on a moment. Who, precisely, has made these claims? And have they been made about all of the techniques described in the article, or is this a generalisation based on a localised event.?
Self-description? What self-description?
There also seems to be something fishy about the inclusion of any part of the FoNLP in the section headed The Power Therapies: healers, sham or spin-doctors?
Therapies are included which self-describe themselves as 'Power Therapies'.
I have to admit, here, that I don't really understand how a therapy "self-describes" itself as anything at all. Surely descriptions are made up by people? But the co-creators of the FoNLP do not refer to their creation as a therapy at all, let alone "a power therapy". So whilst the V/KD technique can indeed be used to deal with phobias or traumatic memories - as well as dealing with far less serious situations - neither it nor the wider FoNLP seem to qualify as 'Power Therapies'. So why do they appear in this article?
In a second version of the origin of the term we are told that:
The term 'Power Therapies' arose from the coming together of various therapy advocates on the Traumatic-Stress Forum e-mail list founded by Professor Charles Figley in March 1994.
Question: Was this a meeting of Einsteins, or a meeting of janitors? Were any of the "advocates" authorised to speak on behalf of the entire community to which they belonged?
Answer: In the case of the FoNLP in general, and the V/KD technique in particular: "No". This is another claim backed only, as far as the FoNLP is concerned, by the author's unsupported allegations. Moreover, as we will see later on, the last part of the quote turns out to be a complete red herring.
Spot the NVWHA (Not Very Well Hidden Agenda)
Over the next page and a half (pages 438-439) we are provided with rather superficial introductions to five of the alleged 'Power Therapies':
Of the five, at just 12 lines, the section on "VKD" is the shortest by 5 lines (compared with the 17 line "explanation of TAT (page 439). The descriptions of TFT and TIR both rate just over 30 lines; and EFT gets a relatively substantial 53 lines. The author saves his "big guns", however, for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). This gets about a half dozen lines more than two full columns in its first appearance (pages 440-441), as well as several more hits in the two and a half pages on Commonalities in practice (or how to spot a power therapy), (pages 441-443).
With such a pronounced lack of detail regarding all of the "techniques" compared with the amount of space devoted to EMDR I found it hard to avoid the impression that the other techniques were only included in order to "make up the numbers", so to speak.
The Same Old Story
The section on V/KD is in practice so brief it can be quoted in full (but don't blink, or you'll miss it).
Visual-Kinesthetic Dissociation 
Set against the author's claim, at the front of the article, that it would:
"... [outline the 'Power Therapies''] proposed procedures and the evidence for and against their use. [And] are then put [them] to the test for pseudoscientific practice.
this seems like a significantly inadequate description. And undue brevity isn't the only problem.
Unfortunately even this short description, which seems to be loosely based on one section of an article by a Dr. Fred Gallo, PhD - (item 24 in the list of references for this article) - contains several crucial errors. These errors are partly due to this author having incorrectly amended Gallo's description of the process. The errors are also attributable to the fact that Gallo's own description is somewhat inaccurate, apparently confusing the V/KD process with a process involving a concept and technique based on "time lines". In short, this part of the article offers a first class demonstration of the inadvisability of going somewhere other than to an authoritative source for information on the FoNLP. Again there is a strong implication that this article is not, in practice, based on an accurate knowledge or representation of any part of the FoNLP. Not even the technique that is allegedly being "discussed":
But it is a later section of the article that really gives the game away:
How to Spot a Power Therapy
Having earlier stated that:
It is claimed that these 'Power Therapies' are at the cutting edge of psychiatry and psychology and that they are so termed because of their efficiency and efficacy being superior to traditional treatments. Sceptics refer to these treatments as the 'Alphabet Therapies', arguing that their major commonality is the use of acronyms and outlandish and unsubstantiated claims.
After the initial section on EMDR the author returns to the latter claims in a review of an article in the magazine Skeptical Enquirer by Anthony Pratkanis, a Professor of Psychology. (Somewhat ironically, from an NLP-related perspective, Pratkanis is located at the Santa Cruz campus of the University of California - where NLP was first developed.)
This author explains that Pratkanis has written an article (see References) in which he "identifies nine tactics that are frequently used (sometimes unknowingly) by pseudoscientists", which he then takes five columns to discuss (pages 441-443). The nine tactics are:
Note: In some cases the definitions offered by this author (i.e. the author whose article is being critiqued on this web page) appear to vary, to a greater or lesser extent, from those offered by Pratkanis. Readers are recommended to view Pratkanis' original article for themselves - it is available online (see References, below).
It's a fascinating list, but how does it apply to the authentic FoNLP?
Beware - Incoming Red Herrings
In short, Pratkanis' 9 measures have little or no relevance to the FoNLP. But there's a twist in this tale in which, after all this buildup, the author effectively scuppers his own argument:
There is a rather important caveat that needs to be borne in mind when inspecting Pratkanis' methods 'to sell a pseudoscience' when considering psychotherapies: many, if not all, empirically supported psychotherapies meet at least one of these criteria! For example, nearly all have a charismatic leader, have established organizations devoted to their use and use vivid appeals to proliferate their use. The major difference, however, is that empirically supported practices build upon scientific theory and state the terms under which this theory could be falsified.
Moreover the very idea of an "empirically supported psychotherap[y]" is rather questionable. On the one hand this author names no names, so we can have no idea which brand(s) of psychotherapy he has in mind; and on the other we have the book The Death of Psychotherapy: From Freud to Alien Abductions (2000), by licensed attorney and psychologist Donald Eisner, in which the basic argument seems to be that all psychotherapy is junk.
Added to that, despite the implications that 'Alphabet Therapies' are somehow substandard by virtue of the use of an acronym (Devilly, 2005. Page 438), it must be remembered that two of the best-known and long-established forms of psychotherapy are generally referred to by their acronyms - CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy - charismatic leader Dr Aaron Beck) and RET (Rational Emotive Therapy, previously known as REBT - Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy - charismatic leader Albert Ellis).
In other words, even if the basic criticisms in this article were all fully justified, the supporting evidence is so seriously flawed as to be virtually useless. (I personally have no knowledge of any of the techniques mentioned in the article, other than "NLP", so I have no idea whether the author's comments about them are justified or not.)
To be blunt, the views on how psychology stands in relation to genuine science presented in this article seems to owe more to rose coloured spectacles than to a firm grasp on reality.
In the Conclusions section of the article we are told that:
... without a grounding in what 'evidence-based practice' actually means, [an increased focus, greater spending and more emphasis on evidence-based practice] has resulted in a larger market for pseudoscience.
Yet if we consider articles such as those by Professor John Norcross et al, we find that the "evidence" in "evidence-based practice" can itself turn out to be seriously flawed.
Flawed, to the End
In fact even the closing paragraph of the article includes both misinformation and a major blind spot:
To end where I began - NLP [sic] is no longer as prevalent as it was in the 1970s and 1980s, but it is still practised in small pockets of the human resource community today. The science has come and gone yet the belief still remains. In fact you can enroll in an Australian workshop today for certification as: an NLP Practitioner ($3995); a Master NLP Practitioner ($4395), or an NLP Trainer ($10570). The companies offering the training will even arrange finance. Be quick, places are limited!
In the first place it would be interesting to know what evidence the author has to support his claim that "NLP [sic] is no longer as prevalent as it was in the 1970s and 1980s".
In reality there are far more books, far more trainers, and far more courses relating to the FoNLP now than there ever were in the 1970s (when the FoNLP was still in its initial development) or in the 1980s (when the FoNLP began to expand to international dimensions). In the case of my own book, on the use of NLP and the related techniques and concepts in business, originally published in 1997, it has recently been reprinted in a fourth edition and is available, in translation, in over 15 countries around the world. And there are a number of other authors dealing with the subject - Bandler and Grinder, O'Connor and Seymour, Sue Knight, etc. - who are reaching audiences as large, if not larger. My book reviews (also on this web site) cover at least 150 books on the subject. A majority of those books are still in print, even though some of them were originally published 20-30 years ago.
Furthermore, a number of basic NLP-related concepts and techniques have been absorbed - without acknowledgement - into many "mainstream" business courses, etc. It would be unwise to assume, as he seems to be assuming, that NLP-related training is only present in courses that have "NLP" or "Neuro-Linguistic Programming" in the title.
For the sake of accuracy, Professor Devilly might also care to note that the FoNLP is beginning to be recognised at university level. Several recent PhD theses, at universities such as Surrey, in the UK, have been supportive of the FoNLP, and in the author's own adopted country, the NLP-oriented training company Inspiritive now offers a "Graduate Certificate in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, the World's first fully-accredited post-graduate qualification in NLP" in association with the University of Sydney.
As regards "science", I would refer this author, and other readers of this FAQ, to Does Research Support NLP? and Did Bandler and Grinder Really Understand NLP? for a more balanced representation of the evidence.
Does It Really All Come Down to Money?
And finally, the reference to training course fees.
A number of academics have made derogatory comments about the fees charged for NLP-related courses, as though paying trainers to train was prima facie evidence of skulduggery. But two important points need to be borne in mind in this respect:
Or am I missing the point?
About five years after Professor Devilly's piece was publish an article on the use of the V/KD technique in relation to PTSD by Assistant Professor Richard Gray has appeared on the NLP Research and Recognition website. I have known Dr. Gray since the late 1990s, when he was involved in dealing with addicts and addiction - another area where he was able to use his knowledge of NLP and the FoNLP to enhance the efficacy of his work. Although Dr Gray is not an authority in the same sense as Bandler and Grinder, if Professor Devilly is interested in getting a better understanding of how NLP-related techniques can be applied he may choose to read the article in question. It can be found online here: http://nlprandr.org/?page_id=593
Bandler, R. (1985), Using Your Brain for a Change. Real People Press, Moab, Utah.
Bandler, R. and Grinder, J. (1978/1979), Frogs into Princes. Real People Press, Moab, Utah.
Dilts, R.B. Neuro-Linguistic Programming: Volume 1 (1980). Meta Publications, Capitola, California.
Dilts, R.B. Roots of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (1983). Meta Publications, Cupertino, California.
Einspruch, E. L. and Forman, B. D. (1985). Observations concerning research literature on Neurolinguistic [sic] Programming. Journal of Counseling Psychology, Vol. 32, No. 4, pages 589-596.
Gallo, F. P. (1996). Reflections on Active Ingredients in Efficient Treatments of PTSD, Part 1. Traumatology (e-journal), Vol, 2, No. 1.
Gray, R. (2010). NLP and PTSD: The Visual-Kinesthetic Dissociation Protocol. In Suppose, the Official CANLP/ACPNL Bilingual Newsletter. Spring 2010, pp. 25-42.
Hammer, A. (1983). Matching perceptual predicates: Effect on perceived empathy in a counseling analogue. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 30, 172-179.
Harris, M.J. and Rosenthal, R. (1987). Interpersonal Expectancy Effects and Human Performance Research. Pages 19-26.
Pratkanis, A. R. (1995), How to Sell a Pseudoscience. In Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 19, Number 4, July/August. Pages 19-25.
Sharpley, C. (1984), Managing Conflict: The Curious Case of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, in P. Hancock and M. Tyler (eds), Managing Everyday Life. London: Palgrave.
Andy Bradbury can be contacted at: email@example.com