27.   The Skeptic's Dictionary Debacle


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 critism 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.


In FAQ 21 I provided an example of a poorly researched allegation about "NLP" made by a couple of school textbook writers.  Unfortunately, however, rather than being a lone example of this kind of thing, it turns out that those two critics are merely the tip of a substantial iceberg of supposedly authoritative criticisms based on uncritical repetition of seriously flawed "information".  I hope it will encourage readers to be especially cautious about accepting the validity of such criticisms, even when they appear to come from genuinely knowledgeable sources.

Anyway, according to it's owner, the online version of the so-called "Skeptic's Dictionary" began in 1994, followed by a hard copy version, published by John Wiley & Sons in 2003.  I mention this only to illustrate the fact that owner of the website - who appears to be the sole author of both the website and the book - has had more than a decade to get his facts right.

In practice the material looks more like a rather mediocre encyclopaedia than a dictionary, offering numerous articles, of varying lengths rather than the correct spelling and brief definitions of individual words.  But then again, "accuracy" is not a word I would associate with this particular material.

In the book version, at 9.5 columns this article is the longest by about half a column, and only a handful of other articles are anything like the same length.  One might be forgiven, then, for supposing that the author has been particularly thorough in his research.  Unfortunately it seems that exactly the opposite is true.
(The online version of this article can be found at http://www.skepdic.com/nlp.html.  The book version is on pages 252-260 of the "Skeptic's Dictionary", John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003.)

When is a "fact" not a "fact"?

neuro-linguistic programming (NLP)
[Lowercase lettering as in the original]

The critique in this FAQ addresses specific statements within the online version of the article, numbered 1, 2, 3 etc., for easy reference:

1.   Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is one of many New Age ...

Unfortunately the author doesn't actually provide a definition of the term "New Age" so we cannot be sure what he means here.  He does, however, include a short list of characteristics in his article "(New Age) psychotherapies" which presumably represent, at least in part, his ideas on the subject.  This grab bag list includes:

"[belief] in God, reincarnation, alien abductions, possession by entities, inner children, Primal pains, channeling, miracles, or any other metaphysical, religious or pseudoscientific notion."
(Opening paragraph, "(New Age) psychotherapies" at http://www.skepdic.com/therapy.html)

To this we might add tarot reading, Gaia, the Findhorn community, belief in ley lines, crystals, druidic and/or magick rituals, and so on.  But even with this extended list it is still safe to say that neither NLP nor any authentic NLP-associated techniques are concerned with any of these subjects.  Nor is it a cult (see FAQ 23), and the "New Age" allegation is simply the first of the many, many errors in this article.

Indeed, it is interesting to note that in the book version the words "New Age" have been dropped from this sentence.  Maybe the author himself isn't sure what he was trying to say?

And there's more.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming is now listed in two categories at the end of the book version: Alternative medicine (page 443), and misspelt in Junk science and pseudoscience (page 444).  What the author has apparently overlooked is that (a) NLP isn't any kind of medicine at all, alternative or otherwise, and (b) by his own definition, pseudoscience is: "Nonscientific theories that are claimed to be scientific by their advocates" (page 306).  Since the co-creators of NLP have never claimed that NLP is scientific, this second claim is also entirely unjustified.

2.   ... Large Group Awareness Training programs.

According to a separate article on the site:

"A large group awareness training (LGAT) program is a personal development training program in which dozens to hundreds of people are given several hours to several days of intense instruction aimed at helping participants begin to discover what is hindering them from achieving their full potential and living more satisfied lives."
(the opening sentence of the article: "large group awareness training program" at http://www.skepdic.com/lgsap.html)

Which clearly demonstrates four points regarding the author's misconceptions about NLP:

(a)   He makes no distinction between NLP and training in NLP and/or NLP-associated techniques.  This is presumably due to his misguided belief that NLP is some kind of variation on the Landmark Forum (see quote 3, below).

(b)   By the same token, he apparently has no idea what a genuine NLP training course is like.  NLP training is skills training, not "awareness" training (in the sense that this term would apply in Landmark Forum or est courses, for example).

For the record, a training course in any aspect of NLP or any associated techniques usually follows a simple pattern:

  • The trainer describes and explains a technique
  • The trainer demonstrates the technique with one or more volunteers
  • Then the delegates form groups of two, three or whatever and practise the technique under the supervision of the trainer and his/her assistants.
  • This cycle is repeated a number of times (with different techniques, of course), depending on the length of the course.

The training format I have described is clearly laid out in several books, such as Submodalities for Beginners by MacDonald and Bandler.

(c)   Contrary to this author's apparent beliefs, the training is in no sense "intense", and trainees can come and go as they wish, with the sole proviso that they shouldn't disrupt whatever is going on at the time.  Nothing takes place that resembles the kind of hard-edged, coercive behaviour which has reportedly been a feature in Landmark Forum and est courses.  If any trainee experiences this kind of behaviour on what is presented as an NLP course, of any kind, they should leave immediately and ask for a refund because what they are being offered isn't authentic NLP.

(d)   Quite apart from the gross imprecision of the notion that "large" means anything from a couple of dozen to several hundred, this author is entirely misguided if he thinks that there is some kind inherent minimum group size for an NLP-related training course.

In practice there are indeed some trainers who go for groups of 200-300, but many more restrict themselves to 40, or a couple of dozen, or pretty much whatever number of delegates is required to make the course financially viable.  MOREOVER, it is entirely possible to do a distance learning course version of the practitioner training, so it can be done by just two or three people (preferably, for the sake of the carrying out the exercises) or at the extreme, just one person on their own.

3.   NLP is a competitor with Landmark Forum, Tony Robbins, and legions of other enterprises ...

Not true.  The other groups named here offer completely different products compared with NLP and aren't in any sense "in competition".  Since this author is so completely vague about the "legions of other enterprises" I can only comment that if they aren't authentic NLP or NLP-related courses then they clearly cannot be in competition with NLP.  And if they are authentic NLP-related courses, then the competition is simply normal business rivalry between trainers/training companies, not between NLP and some hypothetical alternative.

(Note:   In the book version the reference to "Tony Robbins" has become a more respectful "Anthony Robbins & Associates".)

4.   ... which, like the Sophists of ancient Greece, travel from town to town to teach their wisdom for a fee.

Not true.  NLP trainers mostly conduct a fixed number of courses per year and at certain preferred locations (finding suitable venues is NOT easy.  Believe me, I spent many years traveling round Britain conducting IT trainings for a large communications company with offices all round the country, and there are some truly awful hotels/venues out there!)

5.   Robbins is probably the most successful "graduate" of NLP. He started his own empire after transforming from a self-described "fat slob" to a fire walker to (in his own words) "the nation's foremost authority on the psychology of peak performance and personal, professional and organizational turnaround."  The founders of NLP, Richard Bandler and John Grinder, might disagree.

Bandler and Grinder "might disagree" with what, specifically?

More to the point, as far as I know Tony Robbins did indeed do the basic practitioner training with Bandler and Grinder, BUT that was a long time ago.  Robbins has long since developed his own NAC training courses which are entirely unlike any NLP-related course I know of.  Though the author refers to Tony Robbins several times in the course of the article, all of the references are complete red herrings.

6.   NLP has something for everybody, the sick and the healthy, individual or corporation.  In addition to being an agent for change for healthy individuals taught en masse, ...

The first sentence is another example of the author's frequent use of vague innuendo and simply doesn't make sense as it stands, as we'll see in just a moment.  The second sentence confuses NLP training with other groups, as explained above.

7.   NLP is also used for individual psychotherapy for problems as diverse as phobias and schizophrenia.

Not true.

  1. NLP is NOT a form of psychotherapy and never has been
  2. There is an NLP-associated technique known as the "fast phobia cure" (which has already been successfully demonstrated in several UK TV shows), but this is categorically not a form of "psychotherapy" in the conventional sense
  3. Having said that, some NLP-associated techniques are suitable for improving communications in a therapeutic context, amongst others
  4. And some NLP-associated techniques may occasionally be useful when dealing with problematic behaviour, provided that they are used selectively and where appropriate.  However the idea that NLP or any NLP-related technique could be used to "cure" a physiologically-based illness, as the author seems to be implying, is twaddle.

8.   NLP also aims at transforming corporations, showing them how to achieve their maximum potential and achieve great success.

"Aiming" to do something is like "trying" to do something.  The rest of the sentence is too vague to answer with any precision.  Suffice it to say that some NLP-associated techniques can often be used to improve the way the staff of a company manage their communications and perceptions and hence improve overall company performance.

9.   What is NLP? [section heading]
NLP was begun in the mid-seventies by a linguist (Grinder) and a mathematician (Bandler) ...

To be precise, John Grinder was already an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz when he first met Bandler.  Bandler was a student at UCSC, studying computer science, mathematics, etc.  The "etc." included a course in psychology, and Bandler finally opted for a first degree in psychology.

10.   ... who had strong interests in (a) successful people, (b) psychology, (c) language and (d) computer programming.

Bandler was interested in what made some people more successful than others (rather than in success for its own sake), psychology (where it was used to help people), and computer programming.  Grinder started out as an expert on linguistics and learning, but despite having a first degree in psychology he had very little knowledge of the practical application of psychology and not much interest in it until he began to work with Bandler.

11.   It is a difficult to define NLP because those who started it and those involved in it use such vague and ambiguous language that NLP means different things to different people."

At last we come to the crux of this article - the author doesn't know what NLP is!  (And no, he does NOT clarify matters later on.)  Which is rather remarkable, since the he quotes from an interview with John Grinder in which Grinder makes it crystal clear what NLP is (see comment on quote 59, below).

So why on earth is this author claiming to explain a subject about which he is so comprehensively ignorant?  Beats me.

The comment about vagueness and ambiguity is a red herring since we have already seen that the author himself is willing to be vague on a grand scale - when defining a "large" group, for example - along with a host of errors of fact and interpretation.

12.   While it is difficult to find a consistent description of NLP among those who claim to be experts at it ...

Two points would surely have become clear to the author had he read the Grinder interview in full:

  • The description of NLP is as simple as this: NLP is a specific method of modeling human performance.  That's it.  How ambiguous or vague is that?
  • The overall field of NLP, including associated techniques, applications, etc. is far too nuanced to be summed up in a single "sound bite", which seems to be what this author is looking for.  So yes, there are a number of snappy descriptions going around.  But to anyone who has a genuine understanding of the topic it will be clear that they are all inter-related and meaningful.

13. ... one metaphor keeps recurring.  NLP claims to help people change by teaching them to program their brains.  We were given brains, we are told, but no instruction manual.  NLP offers you a user-manual for the brain.  The brain-manual seems to be a metaphor for NLP training, which is sometimes referred to as "software for the brain."
(Italics as in the original.)

If my memory serves me correctly, the author is actually quoting phraseology most commonly found in the work of Michael Hall.  Since Mr. Hall, so far as I know, is neither an originator nor a co-developer of NLP his views may be of interest, but are hardly authoritative.
Incidentally, it should be noted that the "brain as computer" metaphor was used just as frequently by mainstream psychologists etc., though there are signs that it is no longer as popular as it was.  Thus, for example, William Haney, in his book Communication and Interpersonal Relations (Richard D. Irwin, Inc., Boston.  1st edition 1960, 6th edition 1992), wrote:

"Although psychotherapy is conducted in a wide variety of ways, its basic purpose is to help the patient (or client) to better understand how his/her self-image, on the one hand, and his/her self, on the other, may be out of alignment.  For when the map and the territory are out of sync. the individual's ability to function - to perform adequately as a spouse, parent, student, manager, employee - and to live a creative, productive life can be impaired.
      To the extent that the therapy is nondirective or client-centered, it is the individual who engineers any changes in his or her self-image and/or self.  Desirably, such changes lead to increased congruity between the two, thus liberating the person from internal conflict.  In sum, psychotherapy is a professional mode of reprogramming."
(page 144.  Italics added for emphasis)

If this particular metaphor has any value we must understand that it is NOT intended to mean that the human brain is a form of computer but rather that we take in all sorts of rules, information, etc. during our lives (as a computer receives "input data and instructions") which we then "run" (make the basis of our thinking and behaviour) often without ever giving thought to whether the data and rules are really appropriate, viable, etc., in the same way that a computer runs programs and uses data without making any attempt to evaluate the validity/viability of what it is doing.

Another useful description comes from Edmund Bolles' book A Second Way of Knowing (Prentice Hall, 1991):

The chemical links [in the synaptic gaps] permit the neuron's most astonishing characteristic.  Neurons can change their activity so that identical inputs can lead to different outputs.  It is as though the neuron has been reprogrammed. ...
"Neuron reprogramming appears to be the basic physical event behind all learning."
(page 64)

If we were to cross-reference between NLP terminology and that of mainstream neuroscience:

programming / reprogramming = long-term potentiation (LTP) / synaptic modification

That Bandler came up with the title "neuro-linguistic programming" is all the more notable because, as Bolles notes:

Modeling the brain's actual circuitry is an idea that only came of age in the mid-1980s.  Before then computational psychologists argued that the circuitry could not matter.  [when it came to understanding how the brain works]
(page 63)

In the context of NLP, the metaphor puts forward the idea that if our computer doesn't give us the quality of results that we want then we need to check the appropriateness of the "programs", do some "debugging", where necessary, and improve the accuracy and relevance of the data.  With ourselves we need to check whether the ideas we have co-opted from generally accepted "wisdom" is entirely "fit for purpose" - is it really necessary to avoid stepping on the cracks in the pavement (US "sidewalk")?  Will an apple a day really keep the doctor away, or is eating apples that frequently more likely to encourage tooth decay (an error in my own "programming" pointed out by my dentist!).

Thirdly, it is well worth remembering that when Bandler and Grinder started making claims about changing the brain like this, the accepted wisdom amongst neuroscientists was that there was a small window in infancy during which the physiology of the human brain was plastic (i.e. flexible, malleable) and that thereafter it was essentially fixed for life.  Thus Bandler and Grinder were way ahead of the pack in suggesting - in layman's language - that the brain remained plastic throughout our life time AND could be deliberately altered.

14.   Furthermore, NLP, consciously or unconsciously, relies heavily upon ...

What an interesting way to start a claim.
Firstly the author, having already admitted that he doesn't know what NLP is all about, and having made several false claims (regarding "New Age", "LGAT", etc.), nevertheless now claims to know what the key factors are in NLP.  This is all the more surprising when we remember that NLP is simply a modeling technique.

Secondly, the author has created what is known as a double bind to protect himself from criticism.  If we agree with the author's claims then well and good.  If, however, we suggest that he is mistaken, then he can refer us to the phrase "or unconsciously", implying that we only disagree because the founders of NLP weren't aware of what influences were involved in their developmental work.

In reality, however, the bind is not based on genuine facts, and can easily be dismissed as being of no consequence.

The author then compounds the vague ambiguity by using the phrase "relies heavily upon" without the slightest indication of what that means in practical terms.  The full implications of the latter point will become clearer in just a moment.

15.   ... the notion of the unconscious mind as constantly influencing conscious thought and action;

This is almost correct. It would be more accurate, however, to say that a number of NLP-associated techniques address and/or utilize the unconscious brain.

More to the point - Bandler and Grinder, following a notion presented by Dr. Milton H. Erickson, were correct.  In fact many scientists now try to claim that "free will" is an illusion since so many of our decisions are made at a subconscious level shortly before we become consciously aware of our decision.  See, for example, 'Unconscious Decisions' (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081224215542.htm) and 'Our Unconscious Brain Makes The Best Decisions Possible' (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=unconscious-decisions).

16.   (2) metaphorical behavior and speech, especially building upon the methods used in Freud's Interpretation of Dreams; ...

Speaking in metaphors I understand, and that certainly is a technique often used by NLP practitioners, but what is meant by "metaphorical behaviour"?

The reference to Freud is entirely invalid.  Bandler and Grinder gave an annotated bibliography in their first NLP-related book "The Structure of Magic I".  It made no mention of Freud and I cannot think of any NLP-related technique which makes use or "builds on" any part of specifically Freudian ideas.  Indeed, much of Freud's work involves "psycho-archaeology" of a kind which is in direct opposition to the orientation of NLP-related techniques in general.  Freud's work on dreams is packed with examples of dream 'content' whereas NLP-related techniques are concerned with processes.

As I understand it, Freud's "method" when interpreting dreams was simple in the extreme.  People described their dreams and Freud explained why their dream, and ANY dream, was an example of wish fulfillment - usually, but not always, sexual in nature.
Freud did not use metaphors himself when analyzing dreams (as this author possibly imagines), rather he claimed that dreams themselves tend to be metaphorical.  NLPers, on the other hand, use stories and metaphors in order to help people understand whatever it may be that they need to understand.  In short there doesn't seem to be any NLP-associated technique which comes anywhere near replicating or "building upon" Freud's methods; not unconsciously and not consciously.

I have e-mailed the author asking him to indicate what specific aspects of Freud's work he is referring to - but so far (a matter of a month or two at the time of writing), he has declined to answer.

17. ... (3) hypnotherapy as developed by Milton Erickson.

Not really correct.  Many NLP-oriented techniques, and even NLP itself, owe a debt to Milton Erickson's work.  However Erickson created and used a variety of techniques that cannot be identified as hypnotherapy as such.  Some NLP-related techniques, such as the pattern interrupt, use "trance", but hypnotherapy itself is not part of these techniques.

18.   NLP is also heavily influenced by the work of Gregory Bateson and Noam Chomsky.

Some elements of Chomsky's "Transformational Grammar" were adapted for use in NLP and some NLP-oriented techniques - the "meta model", "surface" and "deep" structure, etc.  But part of what makes NLP and the NLP-related techniques so useful is the way in which Grinder and Bandler built on Chomsky's ideas rather than simply using them as they stood.
In the case of Gregory Bateson, it isn't entirely clear which foot the shoe is on.

Whilst his book Steps to an Ecology of Mind is included in the bibliography of "The Structure of Magic 1", his foremost contributions to the development of the field of NLP seem, in practice, to have been his encouragement and his recommendation that Bandler and Grinder should study the work of Milton Erickson.
Indeed, Bateson himself, in his introduction to Bandler and Grinder's first NLP-related book, The Structure of Magic I, writes:

"[Bandler and Grinder] have tools which we do not have - or did not see how to use.  They have succeeded in making linguistics into a base for theory and simultaneously into a tool for therapy.  This gives them a double control over the psychiatric phenomena, and they have done something which, as I see it today, we were foolish to miss."
(page x)

Who, then, was learning from whom?

19.   One common thread in NLP is the emphasis on teaching a variety of communication and persuasion skills, and using self-hypnosis to motivate and change oneself.

This also goes to the heart of the author's misconceptions about NLP.  The first part of the statement, about communication and persuasion skills, is essentially correct.  The second, which seems to arise from the belief that NLP is simply some kind of "self awareness" training, has to be clarified to evaluate it adequately.

Many NLPers, whether formally trained or not, have an interest in hypnosis and/or self-hypnosis.  These techniques are not, however part of NLP or the NLP-associated techniques.  Likewise NLP training is usually about skills that can be used to improve one's interactions with other people.  They are seldom if ever purely centered on mere self-improvement - though that can often occur as a bonus.

20. Most NLP practitioners advertising on the WWW make grand claims about being able to help just about anybody become just about anything. The following is typical:
NLP can enhance all aspects of your life by improving your relationships with loved ones, learning to teach effectively, gaining a stronger sense of self-esteem, greater motivation, better understanding of communication, enhancing your business or career... and an enormous amount of other things which involve your brain. (from the now defunct http://www.nlpinfo.com/intro/txintro.shtml archived here)

In the first place it is questionable whether this author has actually visited all of the existing NLP-oriented web sites, and thus his sweeping generalization is just that - yet another allegation based on minimal/inadequate evidence.

Moreover, the author again fails to distinguish between two distinct entities.  Whatever this, that or some other NLP practitioner may say about NLP, that tells us what the person who wrote it thinks about NLP.  If they get carried away and make excessive claims that only reflects on the practitioner - unless their name is Richard Bandler or John Grinder (i.e. unless they are one of the co-creators of NLP) such comments do not constitute an authoritative description of NLP, any NLP-associated techniques or what results can be expected from using NLP or any associated technique or application.
Pulling claims like these off the internet is simple "quote mining" - a practice much deprecated by authentic scientists.

(For what it's worth, I personally think the specific claims are entirely reasonable.  It is unfortunate, but typical, that the author doesn't tell us what the "enormous amount of other things" are, or what it is he actually objects to.)

21.   Some advocates claim that they can teach an infallible method of telling when a person is lying, but others recognize that this is not possible.  Some claim that people fail only because their teachers have not communicated with them in the right "language".

Same objection applies.  There are a number of good NLP-associated books on the market, which present a realistic picture of the subject, thus making quote mining totally unnecessay.

I have also e-mailed this author to ask what books, if any, on NLP/NLP-associated techniques he has read.  But it seems that this is another question the author is not prepared to answer.

22.   One NLP guru, Dale Kirby ...

There seems to be no rhyme or reason for this sarcasm.  Dale Kirby has had a website which includes a section on NLP-related topics for over ten years, to my certain knowledge.  As far as I'm aware, Dale has never tried to do anything other than provide useful information for the NLP community.

23.   ... informs us that one of the presuppositions of NLP is "No one is wrong or broken."  So why seek remedial change?

Is this a serious question?  Where does the author get the idea from that all change must be remedial?  Has this author ever tried to contact an NLP practitioner in search of clarification?  Since the question is still in his article presumably his interest does not extend as far as seeking answers.

24.   On the other hand, what Mr. Kirby does have to say about NLP which is intelligible does not make it very attractive.  For example, he says that according to NLP "There is no such thing as failure.  There is only feedback."  Was NLP invented by the U.S. Military to explain their "incomplete successes"?  When the space shuttle blew up within minutes of launch, killing everyone on board, was that "only feedback"?  If I stab my neighbor and call it "performing non-elective surgery" am I practicing NLP?  If I am arrested in a drunken state with a knife in my pocket for threatening an ex-girlfriend, am I just "trying to rekindle an old flame"?

More of the same.
At this point the author seems to be descending into a somewhat incoherent rant, and we really need to ask the true purpose of the article.  It evidently isn't to provide accurate information, since the author hasn't bothered to do any research worthy of the name.  It clearly isn't to get answers, since the author has posted his questions here instead of asking any of the owners of the websites he says he has visited.  So what is his true motivation, I wonder?

25.   Another NLP presupposition which is false ...

Notice the linguistics here: "Another ... which is false".  What was the first presupposition which was false?  Surely not "There is no such thing as failure ..."?  Or does the author, who has been Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Sacramento City College (back cover of the book version), seriously believe that a couple of snide comments and some "hot under the collar" rhetorical questions constitute a reasoned argument?  Surely not?

26.   ... is "If someone can do something, anyone can learn it."  This comes from people who claim they understand the brain and can help you reprogram yours.  They want you to think that the only thing that separates the average person from Einstein or Pavarotti or the World Champion Log Lifter is NLP.

Oh, no!  Not the dreaded "They".
Yet again the author demonstrates how little thought has gone into this article.  We are told that the proposition, "If someone can do something, anyone can learn it." is false, because - well we aren't actually told why.  I'm guessing that this author read the presupposition somewhere and made a leap of error, interpreting it thus:

"If someone can do something, anyone can learn and do the same thing"

But that ISN'T what the presupposition, as quoted by Dale Kirby, actually said.  To take the author's own example, what the presupposition is saying is:

If the Champion Log Lifter can lift a log of such and such a size, then anyone can learn how he did that.  That is to say, they can, to a certain extent, MODEL his performance.

There isn't even a hint that just because we know HOW someone did something then we can automatically go out and replicate their performance if we don't also have the right physique, the right mechanical equipment or whatever.  Once again the author merely demonstrates his lack of comprehension.

In regard to the comment about "reprogramming", see the answer to point 13.

27.   NLP is said to be the study of the structure of subjective experience, but a great deal of attention seems to be paid to observing behavior and teaching people how to read "body language."

Yes, one description of what we can learn about is subjective experience and its structure.  So why is that presented as though it were some kind of problem (why the "but")?

ALL experience is subjective, and since he claims to have taught philosophy this author must surely know that.  That it has a "structure" simply means that people tend to act in a fairly consistent manner.  We develop patterns of behaviour which we tend to stick to over long periods of time, they follow certain sequences, they are based on certain sets of perceptions and beliefs, and so on.

The error, this time, is in the author's apparent misunderstanding of what is meant by the term "body language," which in any case is NOT a term frequently used by NLPers, who tend to refer instead to "cues".  Thus the author continues:

28.   But there is no common structure to non-verbal communication, any more than there is a common structure to dream symbolism.  There certainly are some well-defined culturally determined non-verbal ways of communicating, e.g. pointing the back of the hand at another, lowering all fingers but the one in the middle, has a definite meaning in American culture. But when someone tells me that the way I squeeze my nose during a conversation means I am signaling him that I think his idea stinks, how do we verify whether his interpretation is correct or not?  I deny it.  He knows the structure, he says.  He knows the meaning.  I am not aware of my signal or of my feelings, he says, because the message is coming from my subconscious mind.  How do we test these kinds of claims?  We can't.  What's his evidence?  It must be his brilliant intuitive insight because there is no empirical evidence to back up this claim.  Sitting cross-armed at a meeting might not mean that someone is "blocking you out" or "getting defensive".  She may just be cold or have a back ache or simply feel comfortable sitting that way.  It is dangerous to read too much into non-verbal behavior.  Those splayed legs may simply indicate a relaxed person, not someone inviting you to have sex."

Not only does this author now make a further descent, this time into sarcasm, but in a nutshell these comments are entirely irrelevant because, as I have said, this author has no idea what kind of non-verbal cues NLP practitioners look for.

In reality NLPers watch for small, subtle signals such as eye movements, tension or relaxation of the facial and body muscles, changes in breathing patterns, and so on.

29.   At the same time, much of what NLP is teaching is how to do cold reading.  This is valuable, but an art not a science, and should be used with caution.

Since the whole of psychology, including NLP, is an art rather than a science, that is not much of a revelation.  As for the comment about "cold reading" this is yet another red herring, apparently intended to smear NLP practitioners by association.  In "cold reading" (sometimes used by fortune tellers, etc.) the subject is told things about themselves as though the "reader" had some kind of extrasensory power.  In NLP-associated techniques the NLPer makes no such pretensions to special powers, and does not use the "calibration" process to boost their own credibility.  Instead they use the information they gain in order to adjust their own actions and fit them to the other person's responses.  Indeed, ideally the practitioner's behaviour should be so subtle that the person/people the practitioner is interacting with may be completely unaware that the NLPer is working to improve the quality of the interaction by calibrating the signals or "cues" they are putting out.

30.   Finally, ...


In a section entitled "What is NLP?" the author has:

  • admitted that he doesn't know what NLP is
  • misrepresented the key influences in the development of NLP
  • misrepresented the methodology of NLP
  • Quoted some irrelevant online comments allegedly about NLP
  • Quoted and misrepresented 3 NLP-associated presuppositions, which aren't NLP (i.e. NLP is purely a specific modeling technique)
  • Misrepresented an element of NLP and many other NLP-associated techniques which he erroneously refers to as "body language", which isn't NLP
  • and he wraps up the section with some comments about the Primary Representation Systems, which also aren't NLP.

If he wants to discuss NLP-related techniques, what about the Meta and Milton Models, Meta Programs, Well-formed Outcomes, Pacing and Leading, the many other NLP-associated techniques, not forgetting NLP itself, which the author still hasn't described?

31.   ... NLP claims that each of us has a Primary Representational System (PRS), a tendency to think in specific modes: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory or gustatory.  A person's PRS can be determined by words the person tends to use or by the direction of one's eye movements.  Supposedly, a therapist will have a better rapport with a client if they have a matching PRS.  None of this has been supported by the scientific literature.*
(Asterisk and underline as in the original text)

Once again the author presents us with nothing but misinformation.

In brief, many NLP-associated techniques make use of the fact that we have five known senses, which are presented as five representational systems.  This much is so basic and obvious that the word "tendency" is quite incomprehensible.  How else can we think other than in the five ways we gather information in the first pace?  A visual experience may be converted into words, but it cannot be converted into a sensory/representational system that we don't have.

Next, NLP most certainly does not say that "each of us has a [single] Primary Representational System," though quite a few scientists* made that same error when they decided to investigate what they thought of as NLP in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
(*It seems that most, if not all of these "scientists" were actually students rather than men and women in professional positions.)

Apart from the fact that NLP (being nothing but a modeling technique) doesn't "say" anything at all, it is understood by NLPers who actually know their onions that we all (barring some form of physical impairment) have 5 (five) senses and therefore five "rep systems".  However we tend to use only one or two as our "primary" rep system at any given time.  Having said that, our choice of primary rep system tends to be dictated by context, and can change as fast as every 20-30 seconds, depending on what is going on around us.  Thus, to take this author's example, a therapist would need to be constantly aware of which primary system a client is using in order to create and maintain rapport.  If a therapist makes an initial assessment and then stays in that rep system through the rest of the session they are more likely to destroy rapport than build it.

It would appear that the author has been mislead by research into NLP ideas about PRSs, eye accessing cues and sensory predicates carried out in the US in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and two surveys of those experiments.  Because the author is repeating the error which effectively invalidates both the majority of the experiments, and the surveys.

In fact, a few of the experimenters did carry out their investigations "tracking" the subjects' changing use of representational system, and in at least one case the results positively supported the claims made by Bandler and Grinder in The Structure of Magic 2.

The final sentence in the quote is an error insofar as it assumes that NLP and the NLP-associated techniques, applications, etc. should be supported by "the scientific literature."  In reality, however, as a British academic (Dr Kathy Sikes, a professor at Bristol University) recently discovered when she tried to apply scientific standards of assessment to methods of "alternative therapy", such as hypnosis and meditation, for a series of investigative TV programs, the number of variables involved make it nigh on impossible to produce useful results by using this approach.

32.   Bandler's Institute {section heading]
We are told that Bandler took as his first models Virginia Satir ("The Mother of Family System Therapy"), Milton Erickson ("The Father of Modern Hypnotherapy") and Fritz Perls (early advocate of Gestalt Therapy) ..."

Given the judgment the author is about to pass on Satir, Erickson and Perls it might seem a little strange that he apparently doesn't even know, as an example, that Fritz Perls was both the creator and subsequently a developer of Gestalt therapy* rather than being just an early advocate.  Unless this is another example of his use of vague ambiguities.
Nor does this alleged expert on philosophy seem to recognize that Perls was essentially an existentialist rather than a "New Ager" (or does he lump Sartre, Camus, etc. in with the New Agers?).

Note:   Gestalt therapy is not the same thing as the earlier Gestalt psychology.

33.   The linguistic and behavioral patterns of such people were studied and used as models because they "had amazing results with their clients."


34.   These were therapists who liked such expressions as 'self-esteem', 'validate', 'transformation', 'harmony', 'growth', 'ecology', 'self-realization', 'unconscious mind', 'non-verbal communication', 'achieving one's highest potential' -- expressions which serve as beacons to New Age transformational psychology.

And back to the nonsense - in this case the rather distasteful strategy of "guilt by association".

Despite having moved NLP out of the "New Age" category at the beginning of the book version of the article, this ludicrous accusation (which says a lot more about the author than about his targets), was left in.
I say ludicrous firstly because the comment depends on the utterly false assumption that the words and phrases have just one, "New Age", meaning.  If this were true, then since this author himself uses words like "validate", "unconscious mind" and "non-verbal communication" will he admit to being a "New Ager" himself?  I suspect not.

Bottom line - this looks like nothing more than another smear.  A sad comment on the author's attitude, but nothing to do with NLP.

35.   No neuroscientist or anyone who has studied the brain is mentioned as having had any influence on NLP.

"No neuroscientist ... is mentioned" where?  The work of Sperry and Ornstein on left brain/right brain phenomena, for example, was certainly of interest to Bandler and Grinder.

In addition it appears that this author has lost sight of the state of neuroscience in the early-mid 1970s, which - insofar as it existed at all - was dominated by behaviourism, which (following on from the ideas of Wilhelm Wundt in the 19th century) held that human beings were essentially automata, acting only in response to stimulation from their environment.  This terms like "perception", "consciousness", "meaning", etc. - the very things Bandler and Grinder were interested in - were rejected as being outside the bounds of "science" and therefore, by implication, of no importance.  (The behaviourists liked to represent themselves as being the first truly "scientific" psychologists.)

Comparatively speaking, our knowledge of human neurology in the early 1970s would hardly have filled a shoe box, a situation that only changed as brain-scanning equipment became widely available and then increasingly sophisticated.

Maybe I should emphasise here that Bandler and Grinder weren't dismissing current ideas, they were simply ignoring them in order to pursue pragmatic information - gathered by personal experience - rather than theoretical, laboratory-based studies.  They were indeed "re-inventing the wheel", but by design and, as it turned out, were often way ahead of mainstream psychologists because their thinking wasn't incumbered with previous dogmas and doctrines.

36.   Also, someone who is not mentioned, but who certainly seems like the ideal model for NLP, is Werner Erhard.  He started est a few miles north (in San Francisco) of Bandler and Grinder (in Santa Cruz) just a couple of years before the latter started their training business.

This looks like yet another attempt to smear NLP by association, and is barely on the safe side of the libel law.  The author is only saved from disaster (if at all) by the word "seems".  It is also a profoundly daft statement, even in an article that contains as much nonsense as this one.

To make the point yet again, NLP is a modeling technique, nothing else.  Werner Erhard, on the other hand, was a person (not a technique) and the creator of est - Erhard Seminar Training (which was indeed, by all accounts, a "large group awareness training" product, and the forerunner of the Landmark Forum seminars).

In practice, then, there is NO connection or similarity between NLP and Werner Erhard, or between the work of Bandler and Grinder and the "training" run by Werner Erhard.

37.   "Erhard seems to have set out to do just what Bandler and Grinder set out to do: help people transform themselves and make a good living doing it."

Not true.

Putting Erhard and Bandler and Grinder in the same sentence in this way is quite simply laughable.

In reality Erhard allegedly decamped from Scientology with the specific intention of setting up an organization of his own through which he could grab "a piece of the action", so to speak.

Bandler and Grinder, by contrast, were working with a few students, within the confines of a university course, on exactly what they said they were working on - studying how people judged excellent by their peers were able to achieve their results.

This author's failure to distinguish between the two is yet another reflection on his mentality and the shortcomings of his research.

38.   "NLP and est also have in common the fact that they are built up from a hodgepodge of sources in psychology, philosophy, and other disciplines."

Huh? The author admits he doesn't know what NLP is, he attributes to it influences which have no bearing whatsoever (e.g. Freud), and then repeats his error as though that will somehow make it true?

39.   "Both have been brilliantly marketed as offering the key to success, happiness, and fulfillment to anyone willing to pay the price of admission."

If only!

In reality the rise of NLP and the associated techniques and applications is remarkable for the almost complete lack of marketing until quite recently.  And even then the "marketing" has in most cases been for specific trainers and courses rather than for NLP as such.

In reality the news of NLP was mainly boosted by external sources - an article by Daniel "Emotional Intelligence" Goleman in the magazine Psychology Today, and the interest shown by mainstream psychologists such as Elizabeth Loftus et al, both contributed.  Even the experimenters who claimed to have "disproved NLP" helped to spread the word.  And from inside the NLP community it was not a "marketing campaign" which passed the word so effectively but rather a steady stream of NLP-related books, both by Bandler and/or Grinder and by many others.

40.   "Best of all: no one who pays his fees fails out of these schools!"

Not true.  When I did my practitioner training one person, out of a group of 12, did not get his practitioner's certificate.  I know of several trainers who are equally committed to refusing certification to anyone who does not achieve a certain minimum standard by the end of the course.  (Those I do not know I clearly cannot speak for.)

41. the ever-evolving Bandler [section heading]

I will not reprint the comments here.  They are, in my opinion, nothing but a personal attack on Bandler based on nothing but ignorance and simple bigotry.

Whatever Bandler has or hasn't done, the article is supposed to be about NLP.  And this section has nothing to do with NLP.

42.   "John Grinder, on the other hand, has gone on to try to do for the corporate world what Bandler is doing for the rest of us.  He has joined Carmen Bostic St Clair in an organization in Australia called Quantum Leap ..."

In Australia?  Where the heck does the author get this garbage stuff?
Quantum Leap Inc., established in 1987 has two business addresses, Alamo and Scotts Valley, both in California, USA.
This is surely the ultimate proof of how little the author - who I believe is himself based in Sacramento, California - knows about his subject.  And how little he has done to rectify that ignorance.

43.   "[Grinder] denies that his and Bandler's work is an eclectic hodge podge of philosophy and psychology, or that it builds from the work of others."

This looks, to me, to be an out and out libel.  At the start of the Bibliography in The Structure of Magic 1 the authors state quite clearly:

In each of these sections, we identify a small number of works which we have found particularly useful in developing our own models.  The references given are not exhaustive, nor are they the only places where the ideas they contain can be found."
(page 221)

The bibliography (which dates from 1975) includes, amongst others, N. Chomsky; R. Langaker; G. Lakoff; J. Searle; D.D. Jackson; J. Haley; F. Perls; V. Satir; P. Watzlawick; W.R. Ashby; G. Bateson; H. Herzberger; D. Hume; A. Korzybski; Miller, Galanter and Pilbeam; B. Russell; and R. Schank and K. Colby.

Has this author really never heard of the British philosophers David Hume and Bernard Russell, or the American philosopher John Searle?  Or of psychologists Jay Haley, Fritz Perls or Virginia Satir?  And if he has, why does he claim that Bandler and Grinder deny having taken notice of those people when developing their own ideas?

I have omitted the next block of text firstly because it is primarily a personal attack on Grinder, secondly because it has nothing to do with NLP, and thirdly because in the book version someone has wisely consigned about 50% of that portion of the text to the "circular filing cabinet".

We rejoin the article at the point where the author returns to NLP - well, sort of.

44.   While I do not doubt that many people benefit from NLP training sessions, ...

Notice, first, the ambiguity of the opening phrase.  Whilst it looks harmless enough, I suspect - on the basis of all the other errors in the article - that the author imagines that the training itself is supposed to constitute some kind of therapy or "awareness" training.  If that is the case then even this is yet another blooper.

45.   ... there seem to be several false or questionable assumptions upon which NLP is based.  Their beliefs about the unconscious mind, hypnosis and the ability to influence people by appealing directly to the subconscious mind are unsubstantiated.

Who does "their" refer to - NLPers in general, Bandler and Grinder in particular or someone else entirely?  And what "beliefs", exactly, are "unsubstantiated"?  Considering that this author criticises Grinder's use of the term "personal congruity" as being "not very precise or scientific" it is remarkable how many of these vague allegations appear throughout the article.

Anyway, the comment presumes that something is only valid if it has been scientifically "substantiated".  So presumably this author is unaware that we now know that the "scientists" who put so much effort into researching NLP-related techniques in its early days:

  1. Didn't do enough preparation to enable them to tell the difference between NLP (i.e. the modeling technique) and the various NLP-related techniques
  2. Didn't understand the claims that were being made for the concept of Primary Representation Systems, and worse yet, didn't bother to check whether they had understood the concept before launching into their investigations.

46.   "All the scientific evidence which exists on such things indicates that what NLP claims is not true."

A simple sentence which demonstrates beyond question that this author has based his article on exactly the same mistake.  In fact there is "scientific evidence" which indicates that certain claims are true.

47.   "You cannot learn to 'speak directly to the unconscious mind' as Erickson and NLP claim, except in the most obvious way of using the power of suggestion."

Aha! So you can't do it - unless you do do it.  I suspected as much.

Once again this author gives no indication whatever as to any specific evidence for his claim, which puts the it beyond rational discussion.  Suffice it to say that this author seems to experience only profound confusion when it comes to the "unconscious mind".  In one place he dismisses his erroneous perception of what Freud meant by the term, and then agrees that there is such a thing as the unconscious mind, and then, elsewhere, dismisses it as a "beacon" to "New Agers".  And suffice it to answer, if we "cannot learn to talk directly to the unconscious mind" then how on earth can we ever implement implicit learning?

48.   "NLP claims that its experts have studied the thinking of great minds and the behavior patterns of successful people and have extracted models of how they work."

No, "NLP" doesn't claim anything at all.  And this sentence entirely misrepresents what NLPers do claim.

49.   "From these models, techniques for quickly and effectively changing thoughts, behaviors and beliefs that get in your way have been developed."*  But studying Einstein's or Tolstoy's work might produce a dozen "models" of how those minds worked.  There is no way to know which, if any, of the models is correct.  It is a mystery why anyone would suppose that any given model would imply techniques for quick and effective change in thoughts, actions and beliefs.  I think most of us intuitively grasp that even if we were subjected to the same experiences which Einstein or Tolstoy had, we would not have become either.  Surely, we would be significantly different from whom we've become, but without their brains to begin with, we would have developed quite differently from either of them."
(Quote marks and asterisk as in the original)

Again, the author completely misunderstands the material he is criticising and his criticism is therefore worthless.

50.   "in conclusion [section title]
It seems that NLP develops models which can't be verified ..."

Sorry, "models which can't be verified" ...?

Does the author actually understand the nature of a "model"?

Weather forecasters use vast amounts of computing power to track changing weather conditions in terrific detail.  But that doesn't mean that the models they create are ever 100% correct.  Does this mean that modeling weather patterns is pseudoscientific or invalid?  Absolutely not.  Like all "models" their usefulness is in accordance with their degree of accuracy.  In the UK, the Meteorological Office's huge computing power ensures that their models are normally pretty accurate; but it will be a long time still before they are allowed to forget the forecast of "rather windy" on the evening of October 15, 1987 which was followed later that night by the biggest storm to hit Southern England since the very early 1700s, recognized in most quarters as a veritable hurricane, with winds of up to 100 knots.

51.   "... from which it develops techniques which may have nothing to do with either the models or the sources of the models."

I have no idea what the author means by this.  And I doubt if he does, either.

52.   "NLP makes claims about thinking and perception which do not seem to be supported by neuroscience."

Actually the creators of NLP have in some respects been ahead of "conventional" neuroscience.  It is certainly true that they were assuming neurological plasticity when the received wisdom in conventional neuroscience was that brain plasticity ceased during infancy.

The author might also have taken the trouble to read the book Searching for Memory (1996) by leading memory researcher Professor Daniel Schacter.  In fact I have to wonder why he hasn't read the book, given that he recommends it as further reading at the end of the article (see point 66).  And especially because there are numerous statements in the book which many well-informed NLPers already take for granted.

53.   "This is not to say that the techniques won't work. They may work and work quite well, but there is no way to know whether the claims behind their origin are valid.  Perhaps it doesn't matter.  NLP itself proclaims that it is pragmatic in its approach: what matters is whether it works.  However, how do you measure the claim "NLP works"?  I don't know and I don't think NLPers know, either.  Anecdotes and testimonials seem to be the main measuring devices."

So far, so good, but don't worry - the reasonable approach, predictably, doesn't last long before the authors overweening ignorance reasserts itself.

54.   "Unfortunately, such a measurement may reveal only how well the trainers teach their clients to persuade others to enroll in more training sessions."

Another unpleasant piece of innuendo, in my opinion, apparently based on the author's erroneous belief that NLP is indeed like organizations such as the Landmark Forum.

Not true. Recruiting and lots of repeat training are NOT part of the NLP training model.  Lots of people like to go and see certain films several times over, or buy it on DVD so they can watch it at home.  Does that make what they are doing the equivalent of the Landmark Forum?  I don't think so.  The accusation, like so much else in the article, is pure male bovine intestinal throughput.

55.   "postscript: [section heading]"

This is nothing but yet another personal attack which I will not repeat, followed, on the website, by a number of links, several of them are predictably useless:

56.   "reader comments [section heading]"

Most of these are rants against NLP of a quality matching the article itself.

57.   "The Bandler Method by Frank Clancy & Heidi Yorkshire (A 1989 article from Mother Jones magazine that accuses Bandler of alcohol and drug addiction, and argues he was guilty of the murder he was charged with in 1986."
(Missing bracket as in the original text)

An article nearly 20 years old, and nothing to do with NLP as such.  Like many of these links it's value is indicated by the fact that it does not appear in the book version.

58.   "Bandler Unplugged" An interview with the head honcho himself. Read it.  He reveals it all in this interview."

This is an interview from quite some time ago (the mid-1990s?) in which Bandler seems mainly concerned with other people offering training is the techniques he has developed.  He makes references to DHETM and several of his books.  What it certainly does NOT do, in any sense, is "reveal it all" about anything.

59.   "1996 Interview with Dr John Grinder"

A straightforward interview, again (as the title indicates) from quite some time ago, this time with John Grinder conducted by Chris and Jules Collingwood, the founders of the Australian NLP training company, Inspiritive.  It seems that despite selectively quoting from the interview this author has not actually read the material very carefully, since it includes (in answer 3) a very precise statement that NLP is not the applications which have developed around it.  A point he has totally ignored throughout his own article.

60.   "NLP Mega-Glossary"

A very short glossary which Dale Kirby started but never completed.  If the author had looked around he could have found a number of far more substantial and far more useful glossaries of NLP-related terms.

61.   "Inspiritive's page on NLP"

This is actually a complete website, belonging to the Australian NLP training company.  Was it reading this that gave the author the idea that Quantum Leap Inc. was located in Australia?

62.   "A Scientific Assessment of NLP by Dylan Morgan"

Mr Dylan is himself an alternative therapist in Sheffield.  He is also rather careless with his research, when it comes to NLP, and uncritically accepts the findings he is reporting on as though they were accurate.

63.   "RichardBandler.™com"

Though the URL is incorrect (there is no "TM" next to "com"), this link does take you to Bandler's own web site.

64.   Barry, Dave. "Altered States" in The Miami Herald, April 13, 1997.  (Humorist Dave Barry takes Peter Lowe's SUCCESS 1997 12-hour success seminar featuring Anthony Robbins, Elizabeth Dole, Rabbi Harold Kushner, Brian Tracy, Lou Holtz, Jim Morris, Peter Lowe, Pat Riley, Dr. Ted Broer, George Bush, and Dan Kennedy.)

An hilarious account of a heavy-duty motivational rally in Miami, Florida.  However, it has nothing whatever to do with NLP.

The final four entries seem to have been lifted in their entirety from the online version of the author's article on "unconscious mind":

65.   "Sacks, Oliver W. An anthropologist on Mars : seven paradoxical tales (New York : Knopf, 1995).
"Sacks, Oliver W. The man who mistook his wife for a hat and other clinical tales (New York : Summit Books, 1985).
"Sacks, Oliver W. A leg to stand on (New York : Summit Books, 1984)."

I have absolutely no idea why these books are listed here - do they have anything at all to do with NLP?  The author doesn't offer any explanation.
It certainly seems that they aren't, after all, relevant to the "unconscious mind", at least, since they don't appear in the book version of the "further reading" list for that article.

66.   "Schacter, Daniel L. Searching for Memory - the brain, the mind, and the past (New York: Basic Books, 1996)."

This time the cited book does have some relevance, with both direct and indirect connections.
On page 273 Schacter refers to a description by another long-time memory researcher - Professor Elizabeth Loftus - of "two psychotherapists who implanted entire false histories in people as a way of making them feel better."

This passage, though it takes up just eleven lines out of a book of 308 pages, ends with a couple of direct quotes from these "two psychotherapists", with a reference to an end note (see ref. 50 on page 345) which reveals that the quotes are from Frogs into Princes, "by therapists Bandler and Grinder (1979)".

Bandler and Grinder would have been using various NLP-related techniques, almost certainly including the calibrating of clients' PRSs, when doing this work.  So by citing this book the author of the "Septic", oops! "Skeptic" article has actually provided us with evidence which undermines his own claims about the lack of support for the viability of NLP-associated techniques.