30:  Whatever Happened to Preferred Representational Systems?



Back in 1976, when Bandler and Grinder wrote about them in The Structure of Magic II, they were known as Most Highly Valued Representational Systems.  Since then they've had several different names, of which Preferred Representational Systems, or just PRSs, seems to have become the most well-known/frequently used.

BUT - there's a mystery.
Amongst critics of NLP there seems to be a major inability to understand what they are, how they can be identified and how they are used.  Hence comments like:

... the concept of PRS [sic]* is as slippery and elusive as a greased pig at a county fair. ... The preponderance of evidence is negative.  The characteristics of PRS [sic], the variables that affect it, how to assess it, and even if it exists are not known or understood.
(Elich, Thompson & Miller, 1985.  Page 625)

Now this is a fairly strange set of claims, in that context, given that the article in which they appeared was allegedly an "examine[ation of] the relationship between eye movements, spoken predicates, and PRS [sic]" (Elich et al, 1985.  Page 622).  And it seems reasonable to wonder how the authors managed to carry out such a task if they didn't even know whether PRSs existed?

* Note:   One can refer to "a PRS" or "the PRS", or "PRSs", but not just "PRS" without any indication of whether the acronym is being used in the singular or the plural.  It appears that Elich et al borrowed this particular affectation from Sharpley, who frequently, but not consistently, referred to the "PRS" abbreviation in this manner.  For example:

The studies are presented in the following development: (a) examinations of the presence of PRS [sic], (b) the congruence of PRS [sic] as detected via differing measures, (c) the use of matching PRS [sic] for non-counseling intervention, (d) the effectiveness of matching PRS [sic] in counseling interviews.
(Sharpley, 1984.  Page 239)


Perhaps the PRS does exist. ... However the identification of this PRS (if it is a PRS ...
(Sharpley, 1984.  Page 247)

Nevertheless, Elich et al did us a useful service because they demonstrated one of the key reasons for the confusion experienced by so many critics - they showed no sign of having done the research needed to achieve a basic accurate understanding of the subject.

So here is the explanation - in plain and simple English: there are two variations of the PRS concept.  In some ways they are very similar.  But in one respect they are crucially different.

Two For the Price of One

Most Highly Valued

One of the pieces of research Elich et al failed to carry out was reading The Structure of Magic II (Grinder & Bandler, 1976).
According to their list of references, (page 625) they did read, or at least flicked through, The Structure of Magic I (1975), but not the second volume.  Which was a rather important oversight since it is in that second volume that the co-creators of NLP covered the subject of representational systems and "the most highly valued representational system".

The back story to this concept isn't a matter of precise record, so the details given here will necessarily be a little vague, but somewhere along the line Bandler and/or Grinder noticed what might seem rather obvious nowadays - that people make quite extensive use of what these two observers labelled "sensory predicates" in their everyday language.  They realised that if these patterns tell us something about how each person is internally managing their thoughts, this could be useful information in terms of relating directly to their ways of thinking rather than simply replying with whatever approximately relevant choice of words seems like a good idea at the time.

Sensory predicates
In NLP-related terms, a "predicate" is a word or phrase which implies that a particular sensory system is in use - visual (sight), auditory (sound), kinaesthetic (feelings, both emotional and physiological), olfactory (smell) or gustatory (taste).  In other words, the five senses: "That looks odd" (the person may be concentrating on the visual aspects of the situation); or "I like the sound of that!" (the person may be concentrating on the auditory aspects of the situation), and so on.
It is important to understand that the use of a particular sensory predicate does not shut out the use of the other senses.  As Bandler and Grinder told attendees at one of their seminars:
Our claim is that you are using all systems all the time.  In a particular context you will be aware of one system more than another.
(Frogs into Princes, 1979.  Page 36 (UK edition).  Italics as in the original text)

Please note - these are suggestions based on observations.  The co-creators of the FoNLP do not, and never have, claimed that these are absolute facts.

Further observation suggested that sensory predicates do frequently seem to tie in with where people are "putting their attention".
Unfortunately, however, when Bandler and Grinder came to describe how this all worked they seem to have overestimated their readers' inclination to thoroughly investigate what they were reading in an experiential manner.

As a consequence, on the one hand there was talk of "counting predicates" to see which kind were being used most often, and on the other hand there was the instruction to simply "listen" to a person's use of predicates.  How could both instructions be correct?

The answer lies in understanding what each of the two approaches is intended to achieve.


The acronym DPRS stands for default preferred representational system, and just to stir the pot a little, it is worth noting that not everyone has a significant DPRS.
Confused?  All will be explained.

Regardless of whether or not any research has been done on the matter it will be obvious to the meanest intelligence that, if a person uses sensory predicates on a daily basis then at any given moment in time they will almost certainly have used predicates indicating one of the five senses more than they have used any other set of predicates.
The numerical difference may not be very great, and the most used group of predicates may change at any time, but even so it is unlikely (extremely unlikely?) that a person will ever have used the predicates from any two, three, four or five predicate groups exactly the same number of times.

And in any case, if the difference in usage is quite minor, to be blunt, does it really matter?
In a nutshell, not to anyone who understands the subject.  The main requirements for effective use of the representational systems, across all five modalities (as indicated by their use of sensory predicates), is:

  • That a person is able to access all five modalities with more or less equal facility, and
  • That a person is able to select and use (bring into conscious awareness) whichever representational system is most appropriate at a given moment in a given context.

Though it may seem obvious when put like this, a person's DPRS is only of any consequence if they have one.  That is to say, if someone overuses one representational system, without due consideration for whether it is the most useful choice in a given situation, that is the point at which they may need assistance to broaden their range of options so that they can avoid getting "stuck".

Note:   if any predicate counting is needed it is only in regard to a person's DPRS, never to their CPRS.

Representational and Preferred Representational Systems
Some critics argue that NLPers use "scientific" terms, yet consistently fail to produce any convincing evidence to support the claim.
It is true that there is quite a sizeable body of NLP jargon, but this is true of any specialized field of activity.  Golfers use a variety of terms I don't understand - birdie, slice, etc. - but does that make them "scientific"?  I don't think so.
And even if we enter a more technical area, such as car engines, does my failure to understand terms like cam, crankshaft, carburetor, etc. make these terms "scientific"?  Again, the common sense answer is most definitely "no".
Yet those critics who claim that "NLP is a pseudoscience" would have us believe that terms like "representational system" and "preferred representational system" are deliberately "scientific sounding" to give the FoNLP a false appearance of scientific respectability.
But how much mileage is there in this claim?
The five "representational systems" referred to in NLP-related training and literature are roughly the equivalent of the five senses:
Visual - sight
Auditory - hearing
Kinaesthetic - feelings (both emotions and physical)
Olfactory - smell
Gustatory - taste

These are referred to as "representational" systems simply because, so the co-creators of the FoNLP claim, we not only collect information about the outside world, and our own bodies, using these five senses - through our eyes, ears, skin, etc., nose and mouth - we also, they say, represent the information inside our heads using the same five senses.  Thus they serve as "representational systems".
A "system", in this context, is simply the "bits" of you that play any part in receiving, processing and responding to any particular sensory messages - which processes you don't need to understand in any detail at all.

By the same token, as described in this FAQ, it is argued that we whilst we use all of our senses all the time, we are usually more consciously focused on - more aware of - just one or two of the representational systems, and some of us, as described above, tend to favour the use of just one or two representational systems over the others, as a general rule.

So are "representational system" and "preferred representational system" some kind of fake scientific terms - or just jargon for ideas that any person with a reasonable amount of intelligence can easily understand?


The second kind of PRS is what I call the CPRS - the current or "contextual preferred representational system".  A person's CPRS is identified in a different way, and has a different purpose, and far from being confused or unknowable it is very easily determined:

  • A person's CPRSs are always indicated by the sensory predicates they use during an interaction.  That is to say, the latest sensory predicate used (at any given moment) indicates their current preferred representational system.
  • The purpose of identifying someone's PRS in this manner is simply to facilitate the process known as "predicate matching", designed to create and build rapport.

A person's CPRS can be very variable.  John Grinder has suggested it may sometimes change as frequently as every 20 seconds, or less, depending on the circumstances .  This does not, however, negate the possibility that a person might sometimes stay focused on the same representational system for relatively long periods of time, making significantly more use of one particular representational system more often than any other - if the context warrants it.  The important point that representational systems be used appropriately.

Note:   It should be noted that the use of the predicate matching technique using CPRSs has been experimentally supported since as far back as 1983, when Allen Hammer identified the effectiveness of what he called the "track and match" approach.  Hammer's results were later confirmed by Graunke & Roberts (1985).  These results are seldom acknowledge for what they really are, possibly because Hammer, Graunke and Roberts all thought that their findings were incompatible with Bandler and Grinder's claims.

Is there a Contradiction Between Types of PRS?

A passage in Bandler and Grinder's book Frogs into Princes that seems to be problematical for a number of critics highlights the sort of think that can result from mismatching preferred representational systems in the classroom:

A lot of school children have problems learning simply because of a mismatch between the primary representational system of the teacher and that of the child.  If neither one of them has the flexibility to adjust, no learning occurs.  Knowing what you now know about representational systems, you can understand how it is possible for a child to be "educationally handicapped" one year, and to do fine the next year with a different teacher, or how it is possible for a child to do really well in spelling and mathematics, and do badly in literature and history.
(Bandler and Grinder, 1978/1979.  Page 40)

A person's primary representational system, it is effectively a variation on their DPRS.
It is important to realise that a person's PRS, be it their DPRS or their CPRS, can be influenced by external factors.  In the above example it must remembered that whilst the development of our ability to move appropriately and skilfully between representational systems depends on positive experiences, it may also be constrained by negative experiences.

In young children, the relatively extreme sensory flexibility of infants (which seems to border on synesthesia) will often give way to a period during which they show a more narrow range of usage which then re-develops flexibility if there is an accumulation of constructive experiences.
This may sometimes be reversed again in adults if certain constraints are learned/selected in a less than optimum fashion.  Thus a teacher, at whatever level, may be focusing on just one or two senses they believe is/are most appropriate for use when teaching rather than using a variety of sensory words, activities, etc.  Hence the relevance of context.

Although we can and do switch from one CPRS to another at will, in frequently recurring situations - such as entering a classroom/office/etc. - we may tend to take on a "standard" behaviour format (standard for each individual, of course).  And this standard will not necessarily be the one that is most suitable for the situation.  Thus, returning to our previous example, a teacher may regard it as his or her primary responsibility to lecture their students, pausing only to make brief notes on the board.  Another teacher, though in a similar situation, may prefer to have students spend much of their time reading the set textbook(s), only speaking when they need to have something explained.  Under these circumstances, where a teacher's DPRS in the classroom (the one they habitually use, for whatever reason) does not gel with that of any given student, the student may "zone out", thus severely reducing the learning that takes place (for that particular student).

In short, from an FoNLP perspective, effective teaching should, as far as is possible and sensible, foster the skilful use of a mixture of representational systems in all students (from kindergarten onwards) rather than, as is happening in some schools, the thoroughly misconceived programmes involving handing out t-shirts with the letter V, A or K on them so that teachers know which single representational system to use all the time when addressing a particular student.