21.   Criticism of NLP - A Case Study


Due to the ways that search engine algorithms interpret search requests, you may or may not have ended up at the right page.  To help you to get to the information you are really after, here are some related pages in this site which you might want to visit as well as, or instead of, this one:

  • FAQ #2 - Describes what "NLP" is.
  • FAQ #3 - Describes where "NLP" and the NLP-related techniques came from.
  • FAQ #20 - Describes some of the limitations of the NLP techniques.
  • FAQ #21 - An example of criticism of "NLP".  Two school textbook authors use NLP-type linguistic techniques to criticise "NLP".
  • FAQ #22 - A discussion of research of NLP and NLP-related subjects.  Includes references to over 100 such studies which have produced positive findings.
  • FAQ #27 - A detailed rebuttal of the wildly inaccurate article on "NLP" in the so-called Skeptics Dictionary.
  • FAQ #28 - Following up on FAQ #27, this "multipart" FAQ shows how poor research has meant that a dependence on flawed and even unequivocally false information about the FoNLP (field of NLP) has been commonplace amongst academic critics for over 20 years.  The subsections include details of the infamous 'reviews' by Sharpley (1984, 1987) and Heap (1988, etc.).
  • FAQ #32 - Describes exactly why research into preferred representational systems and predicate matching, which makes up an overwhelming majority of the negative "evidence", is based on an absolutely fundamental flaw.

Note:   At various points in this FAQ you will see mentions of "the FoNLP".
In reality, 'NLP' is a single modelling technique, and nothing else.  The term 'FoNLP' is used to indicate 'the field of NLP' - the modelling technique, the various authentic NLP-related techniques which were adopted, adapted and created during the development of the FoNLP, and training in the use of NLP and/or other NLP-related techniques, including trainer training.

For some strange reason, there are a number of people who clearly know little or nothing about NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) yet feel the urge to criticise "it" (few if any of these critics seem to know that Neuro-Linguistic Programming and NLP only refer to a specific modelling process).  Indeed, it often seems to be the people who present the least accurate information about the FoNLP who are most vociferous in their criticisms (see FAQs FAQ #27 and FAQ #28).

In this FAQ I want to address a brief but pungent assault which I came across in a school textbook that first appeared in 2006, and has been carried over into the 2nd edition (2007).  It is remarkable, in my opinion, in that it comes from a well-known publisher of books on psychology and yet, as we will see, it amounts to nothing more than a very distasteful and, in my opinion, a totally unprofessional, example of malicious rumour mongering.

It does, however, have value as an illustration of what criticisms of the FoNLP, even when coming from reputable sources, actually amount to.

The following material appears in a book called OCR Psychology: AS Core Studies, authored by Philip Banyard and Cara Flanagan, and published by Psychology Press.  It is the last paragraph we will be studying in detail, but it is necessary to quote the whole item to establish the context in which the critical comments are made, and in particular to demonstrate the authors' ignorance of the relationship betrween the FoNLP and science.

"Science and pseudoscience
Science is a way of collecting knowledge about the world we live in that uses objective, verifiable methods and builds up coherent theories.  It rolls back the clouds of superstition and ignorance to give us understanding and control of the world.  Pseudoscience appears to use the techniques of science but does not produce verifiable evidence.  Pseudoscience can be identified because it:

  • Makes claims that cannot be verified.
  • Makes claims that are not connected with any previous research.
  • Does not submit the data for review by other scientists.

Unfortunately psychology is not free of pseudoscience though it is sometimes a matter of opinion as to which category some research falls into.  For example, some suggest that Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) has absolutely nothing to do with biology (neuro), language (linguistic) or computers (programming), however NLP claims to be scientific and sells a lot of books.  We leave it to you to decide, but beware of the fakers and charlatans."
(page 213)

Please note:   The following comments represent my personal opinion.

Firstly, the opening paragraph is unrealistic, idealistic and hence seriously misleading.  Scientists are, though it really shouldn't need saying, human beings just like the rest of us.  They do NOT come riding forth on white chargers, interested only in pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge and always ready to change their opinion when the evidence suggests that they should.

On the contrary, scientists in general - again just like the rest of us - have prejudices, beliefs and blind spots.  And far from readily changing their minds, they have a vested interest in preserving the status quo and their own position in the pecking order.  This is simply a fact.

Secondly, let's be clear that the following statement is also highly misleading:

'Unfortunately psychology is not free of pseudoscience though it is sometimes a matter of opinion as to which category some research falls into.

In fact pure psychology - psychology not based around some form of neurophysiology - is never 'scientific' in the sense that biology, physics, chemistry, etc. (the true sciences) are scientific.  So in that regard, any psychological research that claims to be scientific is actually pseudo-science.
See The 'Scientific Evaluation of NLP' Myth for a short discussion of this statement.

It is also the case that the most "investigated" technique in the whole of the FoNLP cannot, in fact, be evaluated by standard scientific testing, another simple fact which, in this case, was established by Harvard Professor of Psychology Robert Rosenthal in 1987 - and ignored ever since.  See Did Bandler and Grinder Really Understand NLP? for a basic explanation of this statement.

In practice, then, the most remarkable thing about that final paragraph is that it contains only one unambiguously correct statement.  Yet if the authors had adequately researched NLP before writing this nonsense they would have known that their claims were untrue.  Thus:

  1. Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) has absolutely nothing to do with biology (neuro)".
    In fact "neuro" refers to "neurology" in particular rather than the all-embracing field of biology.  That is a minor point.  Far more interesting is the irony of these authors making this claim, since their textbook includes a section on the 1974 research by Loftus and Palmer on the effect of words on perceptions.
    The irony is that Loftus and Palmer extended their original experiment to produce evidence that words may not only change our perceptions in the here and now but may also cause us to unconsciously edit our memory of a perception.  And that, if true, can only mean that words can change our neurology.
    Then again, in relation to the NLP-related technique of anchoring, this is closely allied - though not exactly the same as - Ivan Pavlov's "conditioned reflex", which is also covered in the textbook.  Again the implication is that the relevant NLP-related techniques are tied in to our neurology.
  2. Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) has absolutely nothing to do with ... language (linguistic)".
    This is the most nonsensical part of this claim, and the surest indication that Banyard and Flanagan have no idea what NLP or the NLP-related techniques are about.  (Apparently they don't know what the study of linguistics is about, either).
    One of the very first models devised by the co-creators of NLP and the FoNLP is known as the "meta model."  This is based on (but not a direct copy of) Transformational Grammar, devised by American linguist Noam Chomsky.  One of the co-creators of NLP was Dr John Grinder who had previously worked with Chomsky and had co-authored a college-level textbook on Transformational Grammar.  At the time when work on the development of what became known as "NLP" began, Grinder was an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC).
    And finally, I'm not sure how Grinder could have written so much linguistic material into the first two books on the FoNLP - The Structure of Magic I and The structure of Magic II - if it were true that there was no linguistic component to the FoNLP.
  3. Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) has absolutely nothing to do with ... computers (programming)".
    Correct, after a fashion.  But it is of no relevance or value because no one ever claimed that NLP had anything to do with computers in the first place.
    The word "programming," in this context, is an analogy referring to the way that human beings often repeat patterns of inappropriate thoughts and/or behaviour with the same inflexibility that a computer executes the instructions in its software, regardless of whether those instructions still (or ever did) make sense.  (This does not infer that humans are computers of some kind, only that they sometimes act as if they were.)
  4. NLP claims to be scientific
    In the first place NLP is a specific form of modelling and therefore doesn't claim to be anything.  And secondly the co-developers of the FoNLP have never claimed that it was scientific.  On the contrary, they have overtly avoided any such claim.
  5. NLP ... sells a lot of books
    No.  "NLP" is a modelling yechnique and doesn't sell any books at all.  The FoNLP, on the other hand, includes a variety of ideas and techniques that people want to read about - and that factor does help to sell a lot of books.  But what does this have to do with the validity of NLP and/or the various NLP-associated techniques and applications?
    (In fact this "accusation" seems to have a very definite purpose, as we'll see in a moment.)

So, despite having been written by two supposedly knowledgeable people, the paragraph is almost totally untrue, except for the comment about selling books.  But here's the irony - to make its points the sentence actually relies on a number of language formulations identified and defined within the FoNLP (field of NLP) - which, we must remember, these authors have already told us "absolutely nothing to do with language (linguistics)":

  1. Let's start with the seemingly innocent phrase, "some suggest ...", which is presumably a short form of "some people suggest ..."
    In the FoNLP this would be referred to as an example of a "lack of referential index".  That is to say, we are not told who these "some [people]" are.  Nor are we told what qualifications they have to make these claims, or whether they have any genuine knowledge of the FoNLP.  And since we don't know who "some [people]" are, we readers cannot collect the rest of the information for ourselves.  In short, we actually have absolutely no way of evaluating the claims.
    Which is somewhat ironic since the original quote lists: "Makes claims that cannot be verified" as one of the characteristics of pseudoscience.
    Having said that, since the claims appear in a textbook written by two people who are supposedly experts on psychology (why else are they being paid for writing textbooks?), anyone who does not already know enough about the FoNLP to recognise that this is nothing but ill-informed rumour-mongering might reasonably assume that the claims are true (why else would the authors be telling us about them?)
  2. The phrase "some suggest" also marks the commencement of a technique referred to in the FoNLP, for fairly obvious reasons, as "quoting".  The authors appear to be attempting to hand off responsibility for their own views by attributing them to someone else (why else would they give us the useless information that the anonymous "some" have said it?).  In the authentic FoNLP this technique is used benignly to minimise the resistance that might arise if someone were given a direct command.  Here it seems it is being used with purely negative intent.
  3. The construction of the whole sentence

    "For example, some suggest ... (programming), however NLP claims to be scientific and sells a lot of books."

    is quite a skilful use of what is known in the FoNLP as "scope ambiguity".  That is to say, since there are no "quote marks" in the paragraph it isn't clear whether the phrase "some suggest" refers only to the first half of the sentence - up to and including the word "(programming)" - or to the whole sentence.  Did the mysterious "some" state that "NLP claims to be scientific"?  Or is this particular piece of misinformation all the authors' own work?
    Again, in the FoNLP this is a technique which is only used legitimately for benign purposes.  Here it appears to be another ploy by which the authors present wholly incorrect and derogatory allegations whilst trying to hand off any responsibility for their actions.  Is their standard of professionalism such that they do not believe they have any responsibility to check the material they choose to "quote"?

  4. And still we haven't finished with this sentence.  Remember I questioned what the phrase "and sells a lot of books" had to do with anything?  Well note that whole section of the sentence:

    "... however NLP claims to be scientific and sells a lot of books."

    Here we have an example of an untruth linked to a truth to create "validation by association," another originally benign technique, in this case inherited from the work of Milton Erickson.
    The statement "NLP claims to be scientific" is untrue, but the claim that books about the FoNLP sell in quite large numbers, overall, is true.  Thus, it appears to me, there is an attempt to slip through the untrue claim by placing the true statement not only right next door to it, but also AFTER it, thus making it less likely that we will consciously notice or question the misinformation in the middle of the sentence.

  5. The last sentence of the paragraph is only partially related to any NLP-related technique.  It is, however, as questionable as anything else written here.
    It starts with the claim that the authors are leaving it to the reader to evaluate the claims they have cited.  Yet they have (a) not acknowledged that the first four claims are unsubstantiated, nor have they (b) given us any factual information about the FoNLP except that a lot of books on the subject have been sold!  How, then, can we genuinely decide for ourselves?
    The answer is in the second part of the sentence - we don't have to make a decision at all, the authors are going to do it for us:
    We leave it to you to decide, but beware of the fakers and charlatans.
    And now we come to another NLP-related touch - the use of the carefully positioned word "but".
    It looks innocuous enough, yet what Bandler and Grinder observed was that but using the word "but" one can effectively eliminate whatever has gone before it.  Thus the real meaning of statements containing "but" is often to be found simply by negating the words before the "but", and changing the word "but" itself into "and".  As in:
    "I don't know if this is relevant, but ..."
    Which turns into, "What I'm about to say is entirely relevant, and that is ..."
    "I think that's a great idea, but ..."
    Which turns into, "I don't think that's such a great idea, and here's a much better one..."
    And in the example we're look at:
    "We leave it to you to decide, but ..."
    Which turns into, "We don't trust you to reach the "right" evaluation, and you should believe that ... "
    In reality, of course, it seems fairly obvious that the authors have no desire to present a fair or accurate picture of NLP.  On the contrary, all I can see here is the intention to create a particular impression of whatever it is the authors think of as "NLP" - that it is the work of fakers and charlatans.  Why else finish with that highly emotive phrase?

And there is possibly a final twist.
When I first wrote this FAQ I suggested that these authors may have been fooled by some of the nonsense which has appeared on the Wikipedia page for NLP.

Since then, I have discovered an even more likely culprit - an e-mail posted to the author of a website called The Skeptic's Dictionary.  My hunch is based on the following similarity:

Extract from reader's comments (no supporting evidence is supplied):

"I can assert that NLP has nothing to do with neuroanatomy, nothing to do with linguistics, and nothing to do with programming."
(From e-mail sent by Malcolm Mclean, 15 December, 1999, posted online at http://www.skepdic.com/comments/neurocom.html)

Extract from text book:

"... some suggest that Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) has absolutely nothing to do with theories of biology (neuro), language (linguistics) or computers (programming)."
(AS CORE Studies PSYCHOLOGY OCR, P Banyard and C. Flanagan (2006).  Psychology Press, Hove. page 213)

The reader's comment on the Skeptic's Dictionary website is as ill-informed as the article itself (see FAQ #27 for detailed analysis).  How ironical then, if this was indeed the basis for Banyard and Flanagan's comments, that they should have so unquestioningly trusted in nothing more than a couple of pieces of unsubstantiated misinformation.

And what a pity a well-respected publisher has allowed such propaganda to appear in one of their publications.ignorant