28.   Cargo Cult Criticism


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.

This FAQ now has links to evaluations of 20 critical articles on whatever the mainly academic authors think of as "NLP".



"Psychology, or at least American psychology, is a second rate discipline.  The main reason is that it does not stand in awe of its subject matter.  Psychologists have too little respect for psychology."
J.J. Gibson, Psychologist.  Author of The Ecological Approach to Vusual Perception, etc.

I would like to start by acknowledging my debt to NLP critic Dr Roderique-Davies who (unintentionally) suggested the title for this FAQ.
In his article on what he thinks of as "NLP" (which will, in due course, be evaluated here), Dr Roderique-Davies related how the renowned physicist Richard Feynman "adapted the idiom 'cargo cult science' to refer to research that follows all the form and pretence of scientific investigation yet is missing something essential" (Roderique-Davies, 2009, page 62).
In the various sub-FAQs listed below we will see that a kind of "cargo cult criticism" is still flourishing amongst academics, mainly but not exclusively psychologists, as evidenced by Roderique-Davies' own article.  In this case the cargo cult activity has consisted of blindly recycling references to, and quotes from, the Sharpley (1984, 1987) and/or Heap (1988, 1989, 2008) papers as though they constituted genuine evidence regarding the FoNLP (field of NLP).

The "missing piece", so to speak, is revealed in Did Bandler and Grinder Really understand NLP?

Indeed, one of the strangest aspects of the whole affair is the way that no one in the academic community has ever questioned the impartiality - or otherwise - of Sharpley and Heap's articles.  Because although critics (especially psychologists) are quick to note the NLP community's lack of interest in carrying out research, no one in the academic community - with the exception of two faculty members at the University of Miami, Eric Einspruch and Bruce Forman (1985) - seems to have thought it worthwhile, over the last 35+ years, to investigate the validity of Sharpley and Heap's claims.  Which, as it happens, are almost universally misinformed and incorrect.
In the FoNLP this is known as "my rules for me, my (different) rules for you".

This becomes a lot more than just an incidental piece of trivia when, on closer inspection, we find that neither the original experimenters nor Sharpley or Heap were actually discussing "NLP" as such.  On the contrary, they were all concerned with, though somewhat confused about, just one concept (preferred representational systems or PRSs) and one technique (predicate matching), as though that was all there was to "NLP".  In fact these are just two elements of the overall FoNLP related to creating and maintaining rapport.


Drawing a Line

Anyone who has visited the Wikipedia page on NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) will know that a long list of references appear at the end of the main article.  What very few people are likely to realize, however, is that many of the these references are of little or no value when it comes to determining whether NLP is practical, useful and/or effective.

To be blunt, most of the self-appointed "experts" on NLP (especially those with Ph.D. after their name), present opinions that are pretty much nonsensical.  It may well be that people like Drenth, Levelt, Heap, Druckmann, Sharpley, etc. deserve the respect that they get in their own specialist fields.  But when it comes to NLP, their reviews and evaluations are distinguished only by the consistency of the sloppy thinking and lack of research* they display.

* Sloppy thinking:  Presenting unsupported claims, arguing that something must be taken seriously because it suits the author(s)'s agenda that it should be so.  And as importantly as anything else, blind adherence to the Transderivational Lock-out. One quartet of academic writers, for example, based much if not all of their evaluation on (a) a twenty-year-old article in Life magazine and (b) the (incorrect) assumption that Tony Robbins was a significant figure in the field of NLP.  Likewise there seems to be a widespread belief - again based, it would seem, on the misconceptions harboured by Sharpley and Heap - that "NLP" is a form of psychotherapy.  As you will discover here, it isn't, and never has been, a form of psychotherapy, though many of the NLP-related techniques can certainly be utilized in a therapeutic context - as well as in business, education, training, parenting, etc., etc.

Many NLPers choose to simply ignore the criticisms, arguing that their experience of successfully using various NLP-related techniques is the only evidence they need.  Whilst accepting that as a perfectly reasonable, pragmatic point of view, on this site we decided take a slightly different line.

Which is why I started to research the various references to critical studies, article's and such like.

Somewhat naively, I started out on this investigation thinking that there wouldn't be so many criticisms by highly qualified people without some kind of justification.  When I began to read the relevant material, however (starting with the NLP entry in the so-called Skeptics Dictionary), I found that I was quite simply wrong.  I discovered that when it comes to NLP, many of the so-called experts really didn't know what they were talking about.  But they wrote and published their criticisms anyway.

This extended FAQ simply provides a more detailed account of a number of these comments and articles so that readers may decide for themselves what the criticisms are really worth.

If you thought that NLP had been "scientifically disproved" you may be surprised by the information compiled here.

The sub-FAQs

The number of evaluations now stands at 21.  The items are arranged in alphabetical order by critic's name.  In each case, where possible, the original author(s) has/have been contacted to give them an opportunity to vet the relevant article to ensure its fairness and accuracy before it went online.  Whether or not an author asks for changes before an article "goes live", the invitation to suggest changes remains open:

You Don't Have to be a Professor ...
David V. Barrett's Sects, 'Cults' & Alternative Religions is "A valuable, substantial and well researched book", according to the Fortean Times (back cover blurb).  But not in the case of the report on NLP - which seems to be based on almost no research at all.
(I have been unable to trace Mr Barrett.)

Small - and Very Badly Made
Professor Barry Beyerstein wrote a 10 page article entitled Brainscams: Neuromythologies of the New Age which appeared in International Journal of Mental Health, Volume 19, Number 3.  Of the ten pages only eight lines deal specifically with the FoNLP.  But even those eight lines demonstrate that Beyerstein had very little accurate knowledge (if any) of the authentic FoNLP.
(Professor Beyerstein died a year or so before work started on this FAQ.)

It's the Hyphen that Counts
A brief description of how yet another respected academic - Professor Emeritus Michael Corballis - came unstuck in his criticism of "NLP" through lack of adequate research.

Making Up the Numbers
Some academics seem to think it necessary to present alternative ideas as some kind of "Invasion from Planet X".  Professor Grant Devilly, for example, has written an article with the sensationalist title Power Therapies and possible threats to the science of psychology and psychiatry (Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 2005).
Only if the comments about "NLP" in this article are anything to go by, a far more pressing threat comes in the form of the establishment's blind acceptance of thoroughly unscientific claims made from within their own ranks.

The Case of the Confused Committee
An evaluation of the section on "Neurolinguistic [sic] Programming" in the report Enhancing Human Performance (1988), edited by Druckman and Swets, carried out for the Army Research Institute under the auspices of the (US) National Academy of Sciences.
Perhaps not surprisingly, responsibility for this part of the report is nowadays attributed to the Chair of the Subcommittee on Influence, the late Professor Jerome Singer.

Two Professors Who Just Couldn't be Bothered
This is another of the criticisms of the FoNLP, this time by Professors Barry Beyerstein and Sergio Della Sala, which are notable for the substantial lack of accuracy at even the most basic level.  This is all the more strange given that it was not Beyerstein's first piece on the field of NLP (see Small - and Very Badly Made, also in this FAQ), yet his knowledge of the subject seems to have advanced not one iota.

Time for an Informed Review?
A response to the four generations of Dr Michael Heap's review of research into NLP.  The original version of this article was published in the 2008 edition of Dr. Heap's yearly magazine, The Skeptical Intelligencer.

The Mystic Sociologist
Reader in Sociology, Dr Stephen Hunt, offers some misinformation and illogical reasoning in a distinctly second-hand, third-rate assessment of NLP.
(I contacted Mr Hunt, via his university e-mail address, but a couple of years later I have still not received an answer.)

The Hoogleraar Who Read a Pile of Books - And Still Couldn't Get it Right
Back in the mid-1990s a Dutch academic, Dr Willem Levelt wrote a scathing, but extensively flawed, article for Intermediair magazine which was subsequently re-published in the sceptics' magazine Skepsis.  Although it purports to be a review of the subject based on reading "a pile of well-thumbed books" on NLP it is in practice a model of the kind of criticism where the author simply creates and then knocks down a series of "straw men".

4 Professors Looking the Wrong Way
A very brief analysis of Professors Lilienfeld, Lynn and Lohr's "evaluation" of NLP in their book Science and Pseudoscience in Counselling Psychology, plus a longer (one paragraph plus an inaccurate definition, in the same book) assessment by Assistant Professor Nona Wilson.

Another Kettle Calling the Pot Black
Dr Carmel Lum has written a book on Scientific Thinking in Speech and Language Therapy.  Unfortunately her assessment of whatever it is she thinks of as "NLP" shows very little sign of the "scientific thinking" she espouses.  In fact one might say it shows none at all.

(Note:   Dr Lum's comment can be seen as an interesting companion to an article by a certain Dr. Willem Levelt which can also be found in this collection.)

The Doctor Who Misread the Map
A sometime theologist, Dr David Major acknowledges that NLP is "neutral" on the subject of religion, but argues for its inclusion in a book on "new religions" anyway, based on his own personal, and fatally flawed, assumption that NLP is all about 'beliefs'.

"Evidence-Based Practice" Polls Ignore Need for Reliable Evidence
This article deals with two quite closely related reports, authored by a professor from the University of Scranton and a variety of colleagues, designed to promote EBP - evidence-based practice - in therapy.  Unfortunately the underlying process in both polls amounts to nothing more than an argumentum ad verecundiam - an appeal to "authority".  Which is a form of logical fallacy.
In this case the pollsters have also failed, on both occasions, to ascertain to what extent the alleged "experts" have a genuinely expert level of knowledge of the various topics they are being asked about, preferring to rely on self-report.  As the rest of this FAQ illustrates, that is all too often the next best thing to housebuilding in an area of outstanding natural quicksand.
These two articles - both from peer-reviewed journals - are no exception.

The Skeptic Turned Whistle Blower
A neuroscientist at the Yale Medical School, who is also founder and President of the New England Skeptical Society, launches a virulent but fairly brief, and substantially under-researched, attack on his version of "NLP".  By way of "balance" he does some equally hard stomping on the conventional field of mental health.

The Biter Bit
Despite a number of authoritative-sounding section headings, such as: "What is NLP?", "What are NLP's central ideas?" and "What is the evidence for NLP's central ideas?", etc. Dr Roderique-Davies' article (2009) offers little more than a "cut and paste" tour through the misconceptions and errors laid down by Sharpley and Heap in the 1980s.
Having said that, Dr Roderique-Davies' own (very critical) article was conceived, written, peer reviewed and published in about 6 months.  This evaluation of Dr Roderique-Davies' article was submitted for publication in the same journal almost two years ago, but as of July 19, 2011 it has still not been accepted or rejected.
I wonder what's holding things up?

My Way, or the Highway
Adjunct Professor Emeritus and clinical psychologist Margaret Thaler Singer evaluated NLP without, it seems, ever knowing what the "plot" was in the first place.
(Professor Singer died several years before this FAQ was created.)

All Roads Lead to Sharpley - Part 1
Sharpley's two reviews (1984, 1987) have cited quite regularly by other academics, from the 1980s right through to the present day.  This first article deals with Sharpley's 1984 review and shows how the entire thing was dead in the water even before it was written.

All Roads Lead to Sharpley - Part 2
After Sharpley's first review was published, Professors Einspruch and Forman criticised it on a number of points, concluding that it trivialised the subject rather than clarifying it.
This second article (1987) was apparently meant to rebut those claims, but in practice it seems even more confused and unresearched than the original review.
(This second article, like the first, has been frequently cited by other academics, from the time of its publication right through to the present day.)

Hoist on their own Petard
Two academics take a Virginia Satir quote from 1972, claim it applies to "NLP" (which didn't begin development until 1974!), and then criticise NLPers for not living up to what the two authors refer to as Satir's "promise" of a conflict-free world.
For a finale they attack "NLP" for (allegedly) encouraging people to approach conflict resolution by "turning inward".  A somewhat ironic twist when in fact it is their own critique which is based on unsupported mental models rather than on a clear understanding of the authentic FoNLP.

'Alternative' Training?
Despite the title of the article by Von Bergen et al (1997), the section on "Neurolinguistic [sic] Programming" turns out to be just another rehash of material from the 1980s, especially Sharpley's articles and the 1988 report by Druckman and Swets (which was itself largely based on Sharpley's work).  Naturally a number of the basic errors that characterise the earlier material have been as carefully preserved as flies in amber.

The Philosophy that Never Was
Polish critic Tomasz Witkowski demonstrates the NLP-related presupposition: "If you go on doing what you've always done, you'll go on getting what you've always got".
Witkowski's article is essentially a rehash of Sharpley and Heaps's articles of the 1980's, with a few more recent studies thrown into the mix.  Both the article and the newer examples reflect the errors and lack of accurate information found in Sharpley and Heap's reviews and the research they reviewed.  Very predictably, Witkowski's results add nothing to the research or to the conclusions drawn by the earlier critics.

Further analyses, of articles/comments by Vrij and Lochun, Eisner, Krugman et al, and others, are in the pipeline.