# The Usual Suspects


All the Usual Suspects



This example of academic criticism comes from Dr Gareth Roderique-Davies, the Principal Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Glamorgan.
When I contacted him with a view to critiquing the article, Dr Roderique-Davies explained that it was intended as what might be called a "provocation piece", so to speak: "The purpose was to stimulate debate and seek clarity".

The "Stack 'em High" Ploy

On this basis, the author has skimmed through an impressive array of criticisms - which pretty accurately reflect previous academic forays against what the authors thought of as "NLP".  In fact even the presentation of numerous arguments, claims, etc. - which I call the "Stack 'em High" ploy - is a popular gambit used when an author is claiming to seek explanations but is actually out to minimise useful debate.  In brief, it usually takes far less space to make an allegation than it does to answer it.  Thus unless the readers already have a sound knowledge of the issues being discussed, piling up allegations, claims and plain inaccuracies takes far less space than is required to answer them.  Moreover in many cases, the less accuracy there is in an allegation, the more space it takes to provide an adequate response.  At a rough estimate, in an article about the same length as Dr Roderique-Davies', I'd be lucky to manage an adequate response to as many as one-third of the claims in that earlier article.
Which is why this article is substantially longer than the original.

How It All Started

As to the writing of the original article, Dr Roderique-Davies tells me he made a few critiical comments about "NLP" to a colleague at the university where he works, which led to him being asked to write up his ideas for the journal in which they appeared (which is based at the same university).  On this basis I have no idea just how seriously Roderique-Davies himself takes any of the criticisms he features in his article - if at all.

1.   In October 2010 the full text of Roderique-Davies' article could be accessed online here: http://jarhe.research.glam.ac.uk/media/files/documents/2009-07-17/JARHE_V1.2_Jul09_Web_pp57-63.pdf

Rather than quote large portions of that article I have divided my comments under Roderique-Davies' headings, in the order that the headings appear in that article, often with only minimal quotations to indicate precisely which paragraph(s) my responses apply to.
The main exception is the section on the Princeton Janitor Ploy, which is "all my own work", as they say.

2.   The term "Neuro-Linguistic Programming" and it's acronym "NLP" actually relate to a specific modelling process, and nothing else.  The entire field of NLP (FoNLP), which is often what people mean when they refer to "NLP", includes the NLP modelling process, the various authentic NLP-related concepts and techniques, and training in NLP and/or any of the various authentic techniques.
Having said that, many of the early researchers, along with Drs Heap and Sharpley - who between them reviewed much of that research - wrote about "NLP" in such a way as to suggest that they thought that the PRS concept, and the Predicate Matching technique, were pretty much all there was to whatever it was each of them thought of as "NLP".  After reading the various articles several times, however, I am not sure if this was really what they thought, or if each reviewer simply decided that it made his job easier to treat that the rest of the FoNLP as though it didn't exist.

*** The Short Version ***

Critic(s):   Gareth Roderique-Davies
(Status, at time of publication)
:   Principal Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Glamorgan.

Critical Material:
Neuro-Linguistic Programming: Cargo Cult Psychology (2009).  Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education, University of Glamorgan.  Vol. 1, No. 2.  July 2009.

Note:   At the time of writing (July 2010), the entire paper could be accessed online here:

Nature of criticism:
In brief, Roderique-Davies does little more than recycle a number of deprecatory allegations concerning what he refers to as "Neuro-Linguistic Programming/NLP".

Almost completely derivative, mainly in borrowing claims made by Sharpley and Heap, with quotes from a number of non-authoritative "proponents" of "NLP", some named, some not.


What the article illustrates most clearly is the way in which criticisms of NLP and the FoNLP so often display a lack of accurate knowledge, stemming, it seems, from an absence of adequate/accurate research.  For example, at one point we are told that:

NLP ... is a recognised form of psychotherapy according to the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy.
(Roderique-Davies, 2009.  Page 58)

I have now had an opportunity to discuss the "NLP is psychotherapy" allegation with two of the three people who lead the creation of the field of NLP - John Grinder and Frank Pucelik - and can confirm that it is simply and unequivocally untrue.  In practise, I'd guess that:

  1. The author is actually talking about the association of "Neuro-Linguistic Psychotherapists and Counsellors" ...
  2. Which uses the abbreviations NLPt (for Neuro-Linguistic Psychotherapy) and NLPtCA (for the association as a whole), to distinguish them from the genuine "NLP"-related community.

The second flaw is a case of self-inflicted discreditation:

In the final section of the article Dr Roderique-Davies tries to depict whatever it is he thinks of as "NLP" as "cargo cult psychology - based on a comment made in a Commencement speech by physicist Richard Feynman at Caltech in 1974.  Yet in practice it is Roderique-Davies' own article that fits Feynman's description of a "cargo cult" operation.

Roderique-Davies claims that NLP presents itself [sic] as scientific but provides no supporting evidence.  What Feymnman was actually referring to, however, was academics, etc. who write papers in which they only quote evidence that supports their own point of view and ignore anything that might throw doubt on their views, or even provide supporting evidence for a contrary point of view.  Which is precisely what Roderique-Davies has done.  The only time he cites any evidence by people who support the FoNLP it is in order to (allegedly) show that it fails to do what it purports to do.

Thus although Roderique-Davies cites an article by Heap, published in 2008, he completely ignores a second article, which appeared in the same publication, which addressed many of Heap's criticisms.  I know because I wrote that response.

Yet even here Roderique-Davies is presenting an authentic academic psychologist's attitude towards "NLP" since, as can be seen in almost all of the articles linked to the FAQ #28 project, from Sharpley onwards, a balanced view of the authentic FoNLP is certainly not what most academic authors have sought to provide.


This article follows a well-beaten path, as far as academic criticism is concerned, by primarily recycling errors made by Sharpley and others regarding the FoNLP, though in a manner the author describes as designed to stir up debate and promote clarification.  And where it is not using direct or paraphrased quotes it uses gambits such as exaggerated versions of Sharpley's criticisms, again a genuine feature of some previous articles.

Even in the section where the author offers some relatively original observations (Roderique-Davies, 2009.  Page 60), for the most part the criticism falls upon the (admittedly rather "precious") tone in which the information is couched, with no apparent attempt to understand or rationally critique the actual claims being made.  (See section headed "At the end of the day ...", pages 61-62.)

To summarize, I would describe this article as a very clever montage of the kinds of sloppy critiquing that can be found in many of the other articles investigated in FAQ #28 on this web site.

*** End of Short Version ***

*** 'Director's Cut' ***


NEURO-LINGUISTIC programming (NLP) is a popular form of inter-personal skill and communication training.
(Page 58)

Note:   All quotes are from Roderique-Davies (2009), unless otherwise indicated.

OK, got it?  You think?
This is the first "definition" of "NLP" in Roderique-Davies' article.  And it isn't correct.  Possibly under the influence of the reviews by Sharpley (1984, 1987) and/or Heap (1988, 1989, 2008), academic critics have consistently ignored all but a very small portion of the field of NLP (FoNLP).
To repeat a previous comment: NLP itself is a specific modelling technique, and nothing else.

Anyway, in the next sentence we get a change of definition:

"[NLP] quickly established itself, not only as an aid to communication, but as a form of psychotherapy ..."
(Roderique-Davies, 2009, page 58)

And literally as soon as we get into the main body of the text we find an (equally incorrect) expansion on that second allegation:


NEURO-LINGUISTIC programming (NLP) is a school of thought founded on the psycho-therapeutic ideas of Richard Bandler and John Grinder.
(Page 58)

Incorrect on two counts:

  1. Being a modelling process, NLP clearly cannot be a "school of thought", and
  2. It isn't based on the "psycho-therapeutic ideas of Richard Bandler and John Grinder".

To be fair, one of the few things academic critics usually get right is the fact that the FoNLP (excluding the NLP modelling process) originated in the modelling of exemplars such as Virginia Satir, Fritz Perls, Dr Milton Erickson and (though he is often overlooked) Frank Farrelly, and therefore is not "founded on" the ideas of Bandler and Grinder, though they certainly fed into the subsequent development.

Have you got it NOW?
Bad luck, we are now asked to take a step back:

NLP has been described by Tosey and Mathison (2003) as: "…one of the world's most popular forms of interpersonal skill and communication training" ...
(Page 58)

So we're back to the communication training.  OK?
Well, not quite:

... and is a recognised form of psychotherapy according to the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy.
(Page 58)

This is an excellent demonstration of the way critics have tended to make snap judgements about the genuine FoNLP on the basis of what are, in practise, relatively superficial similarities.
As we saw in the Short Version (above), the United Kingdom Council of Psychotherapy recognizes "Neuro Linguistic Psychotherapy" (no hyphen) as a form of psychotherapy.  The full name of the organization in question, according to their website, is the "Neuro Linguistic Psychotherapy & Counselling Association", abbreviated to NLPtCA.
Its members, as far as I know, use NLP-related, Ericksonian, and similar techniques in therapeutic/counselling contexts.  However, despite the similarity in the names Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is definitely not a therapeutic technique and is not officially recognised as such (see above).

Anyway, the article continues:

To the casual observer, NLP appears to be a widely accepted set of techniques.
(Page 58)

Which is a strange claim indeed since it directly contradicts at least two assertions, on the same page, that "NLP" is a single technique:

Originating in the 1970s, the technique [i.e. Neuro-Linguistic programming/NLP] made specific claims [sic] ...
(page 58.  Abstract, 2nd sentence.  Italics added for emphasis)


In short, NLP presents as a technique that we should all be aware of.
(Page 58.  Introduction, 2nd paragraph.  Italics added for emphasis)

Secondly, it is so vague that it borders on the meaningless:

  • Who says so?
  • Who is this "casual observer"?
  • How does the author know what "NLP" appears to be to this unidentified (hypothetical?) person?
  • If this is meant to refer to "casual observer"s in general what evidence has been obtained to support the claim?
  • Isn't this a logical error known as an "argumentum ad populum" or "appeal to the majority" - the fallacious idea that if enough people think a certain thing is true then it must be true?
  • Etc.

Indeed, NLP has found its way into a number of academic institutions, appearing in peer-reviewed journals from an array of disciplines including counselling, business, marketing and education.
(Page 58)


This gives the impression that is not only widely used but is academically credible with a sound research base to support it.  In short, NLP presents as a technique that we should all be aware of.  It presents as though its central ideas should be universally available since it represents a model of human behaviour that can dramatically improve communication skills, empathy, and indeed, troublesome thought processes.
(Page 58)

This is straight back to the popular but fantastical version of the situation.

Firstly, as we've already seen, NLP is a modelling process and nothing else.  It does not, indeed cannot, "present [itself]" as anything at all.
This, then, is an example reification (yet another logical error), sometimes known as "thingification".  It involves treating something like a thought or a theory as though it were something of substance, and usually as a sentient being, such as a human or a beagle.  It is another piece of misdirection frequently used by critics in an attempt to substantiate their own notion of what "an NLP" really is.

There is, moreover, what looks very much like an attempt to turn what would be praiseworthy in other circumstances (e.g. where the subject isn't "NLP") - into an apparent fault.  In fact it is a reversal of the earlier logical error, meaning nothing more than, "If I don't like NLP [sic] then it is wrong, no matter how many other people disagree with me".
Notice also that Roderique-Davies rightly presents this argument without the least hint of any evidence that any of the genuine authorities on the subject have made any claims that there is "a technique" (just the one?) that "should be universally available" or that "[NLP] represents a model [again, just the one?] that can dramatically improve communication skills, [etc.]" (italics added for emphasis).

It is definitely time to investigate a central plank of many academic criticisms of whatever it is that the authors think of as "NLP".  I call it:

The "Princeton Janitor" Ploy

The various 'wanna be' descriptions of NLP listed above all look like examples of the "Princeton Janitor" or "Proponents Claim" ploy.
This is basically a manouevre in which the author(s) ignore(s) relevant comments made by the obvious authorities on a given subject in favour of "quoting" often unspecified, always non-authoritative sources.  One common motive for this activity seems to be a wish to insert a non-authoritative claim, possibly from a real source; possibly to give the author(s) an excuse to express their own opinion without openly acknowledging it as such.

An example of the "Princeton Janitor" ploy might look like this:

"A source at Princeton University reported that Einstein had considerable difficulty in getting started on his report on his General Theory of Relativity".

Though an accurate account would read something like:

"I spoke to a man who thinks he remembers his grandfather - who was a janitor at Princeton University in the early part of the 20th century - saying that whenever he cleaned Einstein's office (sometime around 1914 or 1915), and saw Einstein at work, he always looked as though he was thinking about something that 'really puzzled him'".
(Reality check: Einstein didn't move to Princeton until the 1930s.)

The truth of the matter is that Pucelik, and Bandler and Grinder - jointly and individually - have written enough books, and are sufficiently well represented on YouTube, that quoting third parties on the subject of NLP and FoNLP is seldom if ever necessary.  Indeed, in my experience of critical articles/reviews/etc., a quote from a third party, especially from an unidentified third party, is, almost by default, a guarantee that misinformation is being offered.

What is NLP?

In this next section Roderique-Davies presents a telling demonstration of how academics - when it suits them - avoid crucial research when he offers us a definition of "NLP" based on an analysis of "the words on the label" rather than looking "inside the tin".

THE TERM neuro-linguistic programming conjures up an air of scientific respectability, ...
(Page 58)

Yet again we have an allegation which blatantly flouts the "theory of mind".

For whom does the term neuro-linguistic programming [sic] "conjure up an air of scientific respectability"?
How does the critic know this is happening?
How does the critic know how often this happens?

In practise, as with the claim about some notional "casual observer", authors using this approach present their arguments as though whatever they think must be what everyone else thinks.  Nevertheless, although the absence of the "theory of mind" in an individual is usually associated with autism, Roderique-Davies is doing nothing more than echoing a claim that has featured many times in criticisms of "NLP".

... yet its very name is wholly inappropriate.  O'Connor and Seymour (cited in Skinner and Croft, 2009) explain why this particular nomenclature was used:

  • 'neuro': refers to our neurology, our thinking patterns.
  • 'linguistic': language, how we use it, and how we are influenced by it.
  • 'programming': refers to the patterns of our behaviour and the goals we set.
    (Page 58)

Which allegedly tells us what the individual elements of the name meant.

Bandler is reported to have stated that "neuro-linguistic processing" was a term that he made up to avoid having to be specialised in one field (Skinner and Stephens, 2003).
(Page 58)

He may quite possibly have said that, at some time or other, though it is worth asking what, exactly, is "neuro-linguistic processing"?  A typo?  Or a demonstration of just how unfamiliar the author is with the material he is allegedly evaluating? (see sidebar).
Secondly, the three brief definitions don't tell us what the complete title means.  In fact it doesn't even tell us why the first two elements are hyphenated rather than being presented as all one word, or as two separate words.

According to John Grinder, the label "Neuro-Linguistic Programming was arrived at as follows: When Bandler and Grinder were looking for a label for what they were doing, Grinder drew up a list of relevant words and showed it to Bandler.  Bandler particularly liked the word "neurolinguistic", but as Grinder pointed out, it was already becoming popular to denote an area of study which arose out of the study of aphasia (the effect of brain damage on linguistics).

In order to use the word whilst making it clear that there was a difference, Bandler added a hyphen (thus invoking Korzybski's term "neuro-linguistics" which referred to something closely related to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis), and tacked "Programming" on to the end.
(According to Alfred Korzybski, creator of General Semantics, the difference really does make a difference.)

As to the use the word "programming", in the early 1970's the idea of the brain as a highly sophisticated computer was still a very popular metaphor, even in academic circles.  In fact, looking around the internet it seems like in some quarters it still is (and I'm not talking about NLP-related sites.

And whilst we're on the subject, it is by no means unequivocally true to say that "our thinking patterns should be defined as 'cognition' not 'neuro'" (page 59), because in this particular case the term refers to the idea that our brains may actually 're-wire' in response to the ways in which we use language, and the ways that we deal with external stimuli.  As far as I know, the reality of "brain plasticity" is now well-established, especially in the way that the brain deals with external stimuli as received through the five senses, or representational systems as they are often called in NLP-related terms.  Which clearly puts quite a lot of the FoNLP in a rather simplified version of the domain of neurology and cognition.

Ad Hominen Comments

It has been suggested that my evaluations in the FAQ #28 Project sometimes give more attention to the subject of an evaluation than to the arguments they put forward.  This, it is argued, constitutes an ad hominem approach.
This ignores the fact that an ad hominem approach can be entirely valid.  In the FAQ #28 Project I have used what I believe to be a valid ad hominem approach.  For the following reason:

It is my belief that people who aren't familiar with the workings of academia may assume that someone with "Dr" (as in PhD) or "Professor" in front of their name is a good deal smarter and more knowledgeable (at least in their specialist subject), than the rest of us.  Working on this project for the last 18-20 months, however, has convinced me that this is a highly idealistic view - though undoubtedly one that numerous Drs and Professors would like to perpetuate.

Take, for example, the two polls carried out by Norcross et al.  In both cases, the recruitment of participants didn't rest on what they actually knew, but on the totally untested assumption that because they were well-acquainted with one particular area of psychology they would also know enough about more than 50 non-conventional forms of therapy to be able to rate them as "not at all discredited", "unlikely discredited" through to "certainly discredited".
Indeed, at one point the authors bemoaned the fact that:

... a large percentage of [the[ experts [were] unfamiliar with the listed practices.  For example ... 37% were not familiar with Erhard Seminar Training.
(Norcross et al, 2006.  Page 521)

But wait a moment.
Why would a psychologist/psychotherapist in 2006 be "familiar" with the proceedings of an organization like est (as it was known), which it had gone out of business in the mid-1980s?  And why did the pollsters include the defunct est organization, but make no mention of the Landmark Forum, which took over from est?
Who, we might ask, was displaying the greater lack of reliable knowledge?

In short, the academic critics of whatever it is they think of as "NLP" are all too frequently basing their views not on genuine expertise but on a substantial lack of knowledge of the subject on which they claim to be able to pass a valid judgement.

Insofar as I make comments to this effect from time to time, whilst they do indeed refer to particular authors, the comments are only included to make the situation clear for readers who have no other background information that would support an informed appraisal of the academic criticisms or my replies.
They are, as one writer put it "justifiable ad hominems", the only intent behind this action being to provide relevant information.

This would constitute a forgivable admission were it not for the persistence of its use today, and the pseudo-scientific, yet totally misleading, connotations of the term.
(Page )

Well this certainly strikes the right arrogant pose for an academic criticism of "NLP".
But who, and by what authority, says that this is an admission at all?
Who, and by what authority, would grant forgiveness, if forgiveness were in fact required?
And who, and by what qualification/authority, says the term is "pseudo scientific"?

This, as is true of so many academic criticisms, is so much posturing with nothing to back it but hot air.
To turn the tables, condemning something as pseudo-science might be forgivable if the critic were him or herself both a genuine scientist and knowledgeable about the subject they were criticising.  But to condemn "NLP" when:

  1. One's own academic community is in the same position (non-physiologically-based psychology is not a science);
  2. The members of that community - whilst posing as scientists - seldom bother to do even the most basic research into the subject of NLP before they condemn it (see, for example, the study by Von Bergen et al;
  3. Attempts to produce credible research are more likely to show that the researchers cannot tell the difference between a "basic tenet" and a useful but by no means key technique (see Sharpley - Part 1, and the the NRC report edited by Druckman and Swets, etc.)

all make it hard to understand why the parties responsible imagine that their criticisms will be taken seriously by anyone outside their own community.

By the way, the origins of the term "neuro-linguistics" lie in the work of Alfred "General Semantics" Korzybski, some thirty years earlier than the term became associated with NLP.
(Alfred Korzybski's magnum opus Science and Sanity (1933) is included in the bibliography of Bandler and Grinder's first book, The Structure of Magic I (1975, page 224).  The use of term "neurolinguistics" as the label for the scientific study of neurology and linguistics, on the other hand, does not seem to have been formalised until the 1980s, when Harry Whitaker founded the Journal of Neurolinguistics, in 1985.

This attempt to condemn the genuine FoNLP on the basis of a superficially common label reminds me of an illustration I've used in one of my books'
You can fly in a plane, and you can take shavings off a piece of wood with a plane.  But how many people are dense enough to try to fly to Australia on a wood plane, or smooth a plank with a Boeing 747?

To be blunt, from where I'm standing, the plea that "Neuro-Linguistic Programming" might confuse people into thinking that NLP is about studying how neurological damage affects the language faculties within the brain looks more like a self-denigrating red herring than a rational argument.

Firstly, our thinking patterns should be defined as 'cognition' not 'neuro'.
(Page 59)

Yet again the argument is a false dichotomy, and takes no account of what the co-creators of the FoNLP were actually describing.

It was not that Bandler and Grinder had a clear understanding of neuro-plasticity, and it must be admitted that the person who wrote the description that O'Connor and Seymour were using is quite well known for his gaffes when trying to describe the workings of the human brain.  Nevertheless, Bandler and Grinder were effectively predicting the neurological discovery that the brain actually alters its structure in response to what we think.  So they were indeed, albeit from a strictly lay perspective, talking about 'neurology' rather than simply 'cognition'.

Use of [neuro] is effectively fraudulent since NLP offers no explanation at a neuronal level and it could be argued that its use fallaciously feeds into the notion of scientific credibility.

Well, you could if the allegation were true.  But since it isn't, no cigar.

'Linguistic' again makes associations with the academically credible field of linguistics.
(Page 59)

Yes it does.  And having co-authored a college-level book on Transformational Grammar, Assistant Professor of linguistics (at the UCSC) John Grinder was an academically credible exponent of linguistics.  Moreover he had previously worked with both Noam Chomsky and George Miller.  That academic critics, whose knowledge of linguistics seems to be dubious at best, should try to make points like this seems to be "effectively fraudulent" - to borrow a phrase - and might even be said to border on the libelous.  More specifically, it demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of what is actually covered within the FoNLP - a great deal of which is indeed about the use of language.  Including the PRS concept and the Predicate Matching technique - the only aspects of the entire FoNLP that many academic critics seem to be aware of.

And how does 'programming' equate to the patterns of our behaviour and the goals we set - aren't these 'behaviours' and 'thought processes'?  Indeed, 'programming' actually implies a lack of conscious thought processes.
(Page 59)

This kind of criticism is particularly strange when made by professional psychologists - though yet again it does reflect a common gripe.  Even now the computer metaphor is still being used in psychology.  Bandler and Grinder used it simply as a metaphor for the way that human beings follow what might be called "programs" or "scripts" laid down in some earlier part of their life just as thoughtlessly and, yes, with as little conscious thought as a computer gives to the programs running on it, and the data it processes.
If Roderique-Davies and his peers find this problematical perhaps they should be looking at recent research which reveals just how much mental processing occurs at the unconscious level before we ever become consciously aware of it.
See, for example: "Unconscious Decisions" and "Our Unconscious Brain Makes The Best Decisions Possible," online at:
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081224215542.htm and

The links with scientific credibility persist in NLP books: "NLP is the art and science of excellence" (O'Connor and Seymour, 1994, cited in Heap, 2008).  Yet despite this, and despite its very name suggesting strong links with accepted science, NLP has no credible basis in neuroscience and has been largely disowned by the very academic fields within which it claims to lie, namely psychology and linguistics.
(Page 59)

As the reference suggests, the quote is genuine - but on closer inspection we find that it is merely another example of the Princeton Janitor at work.  O'Connor and Seymour were two British NLP trainers, and whilst their book Introduction to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (1990) has deservedly enjoyed substantial sales for the best part of 20 years, they were not co-creators or even co-developers of NLP and/or the FoNLP.  With all due respect, except where they were expressing views that coincided with those of the genuine co-creators then their views carry no authority whatsoever.

As to having been "largely disowned by the very academic fields within which it claims to lie", this is a typical yet double misrepresentation of the true situation.:

  1. NLP is not a person or thing and therefore cannot make claims about itself.  Still this allegation, known as reification - or "thingyfying" - still persists in academic criticisms.  Whenever I come across this kind of false logic I find myself wondering what reason lies behind attributing the claim to "NLP", given that the authors in question obviously have no evidence of any claim to this effect by Bandler and Grinder.  Is it just too easy to fall back on the Princeton Janitor!
  2. Bringing the discussion back to the real world, rather than the "ivory towers" of academe, NLP and the FoNLP cannot be "disowned" by any part of academia.  On the contrary, Bandler and Grinder have commented on the shortcomings of both academic and practising psychologists and psychotherapists from the mid-1970s onwards.  It may be hurtful to academics to find that their views are thus disregarded, but that is the way of things even now.

Note:   Despite the unambiguous wording of the heading for this section, it seems that the question that remains unanswered is the one in that heading: "What is NLP?".  Despite the equally unequivocal title of the next section, we will fare no better there, either.
There is, moreover, a second question that also doesn't get answered:
"Why have so many academics wasted so much time and effort criticising something they so obviously know little or nothing about - other than what they have rehashed from previous ill-informed articles?"

New Blood or Old Guard?

It is interesting that even such supposedly radical figures as the late Carl Sagan argue that new discoveries must follow from established principles and findings.  Yet this is not something that necessarily holds true in real life, where outstanding progress is more likely to come from the work of amateur researchers, than from inside "the Establishment".  (One textbook example of breaking the mould would be the ideas propounded in what is generally known as Darwin's theory of evolution).

Perhaps the inevitable "tunnel vision" that this creates helps to explain why academic psychologists so often seem to find it nigh on impossible to understand that the FoNLP was deliberately developed on a pragmatic basis, depending on observations of what actually happens rather than on stilted theories of what "ought" to be happening.  Or that the co-creators of the FoNLP could be happy to exist outside the academic community, not trying or wanting to be "scientists" and with a maverick disregard for the pseudo scientific pretensions of academic psychologists.

In short, as well as the overt criticisms, Roderique-Davies' article also seems to embody an underlying attitude that:

  • NLPers ought to want academic credibility,
  • Which will be withheld until NLPers start to play by the academics' rules.

To put it bluntly, a resolution does not seem close at hand.

What are NLP's central ideas?

The kind of thinking indicated in the sidebar can certainly be seen in the kind of argument Roderique-Davies rehearses in this next section where the co-creators, in yet another version of the "origins of NLP", allegedly built "NLP" on a whole series of "philosophies":

NLP WAS founded on central philosophies born out of Bandler and Grinder's observation of transcripts and films of psychotherapy sessions.
(page 59)

But what were these "philosophies", central or otherwise?  Surely this is nothing more than a reflection of Sharpley's insistence that the PRS concept and the Predicate Matching technique were some kind of "central tenet of NLP [sic]" (e.g. Sharpley, 1984.  Page 238).  And since Sharpley was entirely mistaken, so is this allegation.

In particular, Bandler and Grinder were influenced by the hypnotherapist, Milton Erickson; the family therapist, Virginia Satir; and the founder of Gestalt Therapy, Fritz Perls.  They considered these therapists to have a reputation for success and sensibly wanted to attempt to learn from their techniques.
(Page 59)

Oh so nearly.  But still no cigar.
If we were to change the words "their techniques" to "from them", we would at last have something that rings true.  The difference is simply that Bandler and Grinder were intent on modelling anything that might be relevant to their own goals.  It wasn't just a "technique-gathering" process.

However, as Heap (2008) points out, what resulted was not a set of techniques based on good practice, but rather a number of suggestions of the ways in which we behave, think and communicate.
(Page 59)

Again, just one small change - change "suggestions" to "observations" and the statement would also be accurate.

A core principle proposed in NLP is the notion of a preferred representational system (PRS).  It is suggested that individuals construct internal maps of the world by processing external information through five sensory systems: visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory and gustatory.
(Page 59)

Now Roderique-Davies starts to roll out some of the "hard core" errors shared by critics of "NLP" [sic].
It is true that the five representational systems merely reflect the five senses, sight (Visual), hearing (Auditory), feelings, emotional and tactile (Kinaesthetic), Smell (Olfactory) and Taste (Gustatory), often abbreviated to V, A, K, O and G.  And why this should arose any is frankly beyond me.  Is anyone aware of some other basic sensory channel(s)? Or is one of these five channels in doubt?

As to whether the input via these channels is used to construct internal/mental 'maps' - internal/mental representations of the world likewise seems pretty straight forward.  As neuroscientist Professor Walter J. Freeman put it:

"... the brain responds to the world by destabilizing the primary sensory cortices of the brain. The result is the construction of neural activity patterns, which provide elements of which meaning is made.  When the freshly made patterns are transmitted to other parts of the brain, the raw sense data that triggered them are washed away.  What remains is what has been made within the brain." (Walter J. Freeman, 2000. Page 12)

Where the allegation really comes unstuck, however, is in the Sharpleyesque claim that this is a "core principle".  This is simply not correct - it is, as we've just seen - an observation which, despite the tone of the allegation, is unlikely to be seriously disputed by any mentally competent person.

It should be noted that in the context of NLP 'kinaesthetic' inexplicably refers to feelings in general.

This, too, seems rather strange.  Especially coming from a psychologist.  Is it not open to immediate testing that kinaesthetic emotions - anger, sadness, happiness, etc. are invariably accompanied by physiological feelings?  A combination of anger and tension; fear and a "knot" in the stomach; and sadness and lethargy being amongst the common experiences.

It is suggested within NLP that a person's conscious activity predominantly uses one of these systems (particularly visual, auditory and kinaesthetic) and, according to Grinder and Bandler (1976), the particular system being used at any given time is reflected in that individual's style of speaking.
(Page 59)

Ignoring, for the sake of argument, the fact that the phrase "It is suggested within NLP" doesn't actually make sense (unless Roderique-Davies is now proposing that "NLP" is some kind of container), at first glance this statement may otherwise seem correct, even to someone genuinely familiar with NLP-related concepts.  Yet in practice it is seriously incorrect.

As Bandler and Grinder actually said:

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.
(Bandler and Grinder, 1979. Page 36)

It is the representational system that a person is paying attention to that is their current PRS and the one which will be reflected in their use of verbal predicates.

An individual thinking in the visual mode, for example, will tend to predicate sentences with visually-related words such as: "I can see that…" or: "It looks to me as if…".
(Page 59)

Again, this misses the point, as academic critics so frequently do.  A person's predicate usage is, according to Bandler and Grinder, context-related. Moreover some people, in some contexts, may utilise two or even three modes at the same time.

Bandler and Grinder (1979) also claimed that the representational system an individual uses at any given time can be revealed in their eye-movements.
(Page 59)

Which brings us right back to Sharpley's chain of misunderstandings.

Yes, eye movements are said to generally reflect which representational system a person is using, only in this case it means exactly that - NOT what representational system they are focused on, but simply which one they are using at a given moment in time.  In order to utilise this information the observer must follow the whole sequence of eye movements that accompany a single train of thought - not just note the first eye movement they see.

For example, it is proposed that the kinaesthetic mode is associated with a downward gaze to the right.
(Page 59)

Sorry to be repetitious, but this too is wrong.  And again it is a common error made by academic critics, apparently based, again, on a common failure to carry out adequate research.

Given that Grinder and Bandler (1976) proposed that each individual has a preferred idiosyncratic representational system, it follows that two individuals perceiving the world through different systems will be having differing experiences of that world.  In order to achieve maximally effective communication, NLP proposes the notion of matching, whereby one individual matching the verbal and non-verbal behaviours of another individual can tune into their representational system and hence, to their view of the world.
(Page 59)

Guess what - wrong again.  But this is an excellent illustration of how many critics have simply assumed that they knew what they were talking about - and then treated their misinterpretation as unequivocal fact.

In the first place, everyone does have "differing experiences".  Unless we suppose that two or more people can have exactly the same set of experiences up to any given point in their lives, this is a given.

On the second count, the point of "matching the verbal and non-verbal behaviours of another individual" has nothing to do with "tun[ing] into their representational system and hence, to their view of the world".  Just because I "[match] the verbal and non-verbal behaviours of another individual", this does not mean that I will automatically share their world view.  It means what it says: I will be matching some aspects of your behaviour.

What critics apparently do not grasp - possibly as a consequence of Sharpley's gross overestimate of the importance of the PRS concept and the Predicate Matching technique, is that these are merely two parts of a technique for creating and maintaining rapport.  Critics who find this less than credible are recommended to read the information on what is called 'mimicry' in the first section of this article in the New Scientist, accessible online at: http://www.newscientist.com/mg19826551.400-eight-ways-to-get-exactly-what-you-want.html

What is the evidence for NLP's central ideas?

IF THE claims of Bandler and Grinder were substantiated, then it would be true to say that they had uncovered a corner stone of human cognition.  They are claims that easily lend themselves to empirical investigation. ...
(Page 59)

Not necessarily.  In fact, according to Harris and Rosenthal (1987) it is effectively impossible to scientifically test the predicate matching technique (this is discussed in http://www.bradburyac.mistral.co.uk/nlpfax32.htm, and the FAQ includes a link to the original paper).

Since the PRS (which we will come to later) and Predicate Matching are the subjects of virtually all of the research reviewed by Sharpley (1984, 1987) and Heap (1986, 1989 and 2008), it would be most interesting if Dr Roderique-Davies can come up with a way round the difficulties Harris and Rosenthal have identified.

... and, in the 30 years since the claims were first made, volumes of supportive research evidence should be available to underpin these theories being taught in university psychology departments across the world.  Three decades on, however, the most striking observation about the perpetuation of NLP is that it exists almost entirely in isolation from published evidence to substantiate it.  The core ideas of NLP from the mid 1970s were mostly discredited in the 1980s.  Sharpley (1984) reviewed the research to date concerning NLP's assertion of a PRS and concluded that there was little evidence for the use of a PRS in NLP, with much data to the contrary.
(Page 59)

This is a good example of the confusion technique used (on purpose or through habit) by many critics.  What we have here are four allegations:

  1. If NLP [sic] is valid it would be supported by a wealth of experimental evidence;
  2. Despite being around for some 30 years, there is no such body of evidence supporting NLP [sic];
  3. On the contrary, "the core ideas of NLP" from the mid-1970s were mostly discredited in the 1980s;
  4. In fact Sharpley, reviewing the [sic] research up to 1984 concluded that the balance of experimental evidence was substantially against the value of "the use of a PRS in NLP [sic]";

All of which are untrue.

  1. There is indeed plenty of evidence to support various NLP-related concepts and techniques.  Though it is not necessarily labelled using NLP-related terms. A variation on Pavlov's stimulus-response mechanism is known as anchoring.  The NLP-related matching and mirroring technique is known by some academic researchers as "mimicry".  And so on.
  2. In addition to the research carried out separately from the NLP community, there is a considerable body of research which relates directly to the FoNLP.  See, in the field of education alone, the list of references at the end of FAQ #22.
  3. In fact, what Sharpley, Heap and Roderique-Davies characterised as "core ideas" or "basic tenets" are nothing of the kind.  (Since Roderique-Davies does not specifically identify these "core ideas" one assumes he is recycling Sharpley and Heap's misconceptions on this point.)
  4. Furthermore, since very little of the research reviewed by Sharpley and Heap addressed genuine NLP-related claims it cannot have "discredited" any of the genuine claims.
  5. In fact, regardless of what the researchers/Sharpley/Heap thought they had done, the research actually confirmed several features of the authentic NLP-related techniques and rebutted numerous false assumptions made by the researchers/Sharpley/Heap.

Indeed, finding that the critics claims are actually diametrically opposed to the facts is all to common in articles which claim to rebut NLP [sic] claims.

And in his next allegation, Roderique-Davies usefully highlights an NLP-related topic which has baffled NLP [sic] critics from the 1970s onwards.

Even prior to NLP, mainstream psychology had been investigating the link between hemispheric asymmetry (reviewed by Ehrlichman and Weinberger, 1978) and eye movements, so it was not unreasonable for Bandler and Grinder to propose a link.  However, in terms of the specific claims made by NLP, the supportive evidence is scant and at best offers only partial support.  Wertheim et al (1986), for example, examined the hypothesis that eye-movements reflect sensory processing.
(Page 59)

This research, by Wertheim et al (1986) is typical of those that allegedly examined Bandler and Grinder's claim but in practise completely missed the point.

A brief piece of background information is needed here, regarding representational systems and the two techniques with which they are, within the FoNLP, most commonly associated:

  1. By watching someone's sequence of eye movements you can track their sensory access - their 'train of thought'.  The person themself may be only partially aware of the sequence.
  2. By tracking a person's sensory/verbal predicates you can understand which sensory mode they are currently focusing on - their "currently preferred representational system".
  3. Eye accessing cues must be considered in complete clusters, referred to in the FoNLP as strategies.  Use of sensory predicates must be matched on an instance-by- instance basis.
  4. The authentic FoNLP concepts suggest that one cannot determine a person's PRS by watching their eye movements, and one cannot track someone's sequence of sensory accesses by listening to their use of sensory predicates.

Wertheim et al (1986) were mistaken in at least three crucial respects:

  1. They confused the eye accessing cues with PRSs and apparently had no idea how to determine a person's current PRS: "Such an approach allows for a preferred representational system but will show any sensory specific movements over and above that system" (page 524);
  2. They assumed that the "standard eye accessing positions for right handed people" model had been presented as an inflexible set of positions - see their three hypotheses (p. 524);
  3. They watched for multiple accesses during a single operation, e.g. visualising something the subjects had been shown earlier, failing to recognise Bandler and Grinder's genuine claims for the significance of varying eye movements (p. 526).

In response to criticisms, Sharpley (1987) updated his earlier review with further evidence reporting that of 44 studies evaluating NLP, only six could be categorised as accepting the principles of NLP, PRS, eye movements, and predicate-matching without criticism.

In fact Sharpley totally failed to recognise the validity of Einspruch and Forman's criticisms, including the significance of the "observer effect" which, as Harris and Rosenthal later (1987) pointed out, made it virtually impossible to perform a single- or double-blind investigation of the predicate matching technique.

Sharpley quantified the credibility gap further by pointing out that the majority of studies were not published in peer-reviewed journals but appeared to be abstracts from postgraduate theses.  The ratio of non-supportive to supportive studies was 4.5:1, and Sharpley concluded:
(a) the PRS cannot be reliably assessed;
(b) when it is assessed, the PRS is inconsistent over time; therefore,
(c) it is not even certain that PRS exists; and
(d) matching clients' or other persons' PRS does not appear to assist counsellors reliably in any clearly demonstrated manner.

Sharpley (1987, p. 105)
(Page 60)

In this summary Roderique-Davies exposes the true extent of the invalidity of most of the research covered by the "reviews" conducted by Sharpley (1984, 1987)and Heap (1988, 1989, 2008).  Here are the details that Sharpley overlooked:

  1. a person's current PRS can always be reliably assessed, whilst they are talking, since it is the sensory mode indicated by their latest use of a sensory predicate;
  2. the PRS frequently changes over time since it is context-based, not fixed over time; therefore,
  3. a person's use of sensory predicates is itself the evidence for the existence of PRSs, and
  4. matching clients' or other persons' PRS does not appear to assist counsellors reliably - except when the predicate matching technique is used as Bandler and Grinder indicated - see, for example, Hammer, A. (1983).

In brief, the research reviewed by Sharpley and Heap, despite it's incredibly limited scope, nevertheless managed to confirm all of the relevant claims made for the PRS concept and Predicate Matching that the researchers touched on.

The lack of a credible research base is not unknown by the NLP community.  Consider the following quote from the University of Surrey's NLP research project website:
The academic research into NLP is thin.  The empirical studies to date have various limitations (we review this research in a forthcoming journal article).
We believe there is an urgent need for more research, of a variety of methodological types. ... etc.
Neuro-linguistic Programming and Research (2006)
Centre for Management Learning and Development
University of Surrey.
(Page 60)

To put it bluntly, whilst respecting Tosey and Mathison's good intentions, and whilst it is quite probable that some other NLPers agree with them, they are, as their wording makes plain, speaking for themselves, not for the co-creators of NLP and the FoNLP and not for the NLP community as a whole.
In other words, this paragraph and the next are nothing but another example of the Princeton Janitor ploy.

Can NLP be though of as an umbrella term?

This section of the article is probably the least useful.  The very first sentence features an allegation that is diametrically opposed to the facts, and goes downhill from there:

CRITICISMS of the primary ideas of NLP have more latterly been addressed with the argument that NLP has evolved to encompass the modelling of effective strategies in top performers and the adoption of strategies in others towards achieving a desired outcome.
(Page 60)

In the real world, far from "evolv[ing] to encompass the modelling of effective strategies in top performers", this is where the whole development began, several years before the name "Neuro-Linguistic Programming" came into being.  Richard Bandler modelled both Fritz Perls and Virginia Satir before he ever met John Grinder.  Indeed, Bandler and Frank Pucelik (the all-too-often unsung third co-creator of the FoNLP) recruited John Grinder to help them to formalise and codify their model of Fritz Perls so that they could pass it on to other students.  Thus by the time they came to the 1978 seminar which became the basis for the book Frogs into Princes (1979), they were telling their seminar delegates:

We call ourselves modelers.  What we essentially do is to pay very little attention to what people say they do and a great deal of attention to what they do.  And then we build ourselves a model of what they do.  We are not psychologists, and we're also not theologians or theoreticians.  We have no idea about the "real" nature of things, and we're not particularly interested in what's "true."  The function of modeling is to arrive at descriptions which are useful.
(Page 7.  Italics as in the original text)


As modelers, we're not interested in whether what we offer you is true or not, whether its accurate or whether it can be neurologically proven to be accurate, an actual representation of the world.  We're only interested in what works.
(Page 18.  Italics as in the original text)M/p>

This is the reason that the term NLP actually refers to a specific modelling technique and not to all the concepts and techniques that grew up around the original modelling work.  Perhaps critics would do well to note that, as far as I know, no critic has yet described what came before the modelling.  An incredibly dense ball of string, perhaps?

Roderique-Davies then puts on display a typical piece of academic "mind reading":

Craft (2001) argues that NLP [sic] draws on the theoretical framework of social constructivism ...
(Page 60)

Well, this may well be how Professor Craft interprets the material she is referring to, but from whence does she derive her conclusion?  In practice, Craft's "knowledge" of "NLP" seems to include the completely erroneous belief that Robert Dilts' so-called "logical levels" model is an authentic element of the FoNLP.  From which one cannot help but concluded that Craft is, in fact, very poorly acquainted with this subject, and it is hardly surprising that her argument doesn't hold enough water for a gnat to bathe in.  The co-creators of NLP and the FoNLP had no such intention, and Professor Craft's claim is nothing but another example of the "Princeton Janitor" ploy.

In fact this whole section is little more than a series of "Princeton Janitors", replete with red herrings, but offering not a single authoritative quote to support the various allegations.

"At the end of the day none of this matters because NLP really works" - or does it?

IF NLP encourages people to learn ways of communicating more effectively then that is a noble endeavour and not particularly problematic.  However the problem arises with the perpetuation of claims.  It has been suggested that NLP is: "being applied widely, if often informally, in UK education" (Tosey and Mathison, 2003, p. 371).  Such informal application makes it difficult to assess, but the claims of one NLP website are fairly typical ...

That last sentence alone begs a multitude of questions of a kind that critics usually prefer to ignore:

  1. What does "fairly typical" mean?
  2. Is this website authoritative, or does it express the website owner's views?
  3. How many websites did Roderique-Davies view before coming to his conclusion that "the claims on [this] website are fairly typical"?
  4. Does he claim that he has visited and evaluated a "representative sample"??
  5. How many of the websites had genuinely comparable contents?
  6. How many of them contained authoritative claims?
  7. etc., etc., etc.

(Again, Roderique-Davies' approach accurately reflects the kind of unsupported and inaccurate claims to be found in numerous other academic criticisms of whatever their authors imagine "NLP" is about.)

It ends: "... claiming that NLP can help you:

  1. Discover the children's preferred learning styles and allow for them to be different.
  2. Use circle time to share their values and identity.
  3. Celebrate their sunbeams and reframe their raindrops.
  4. Allow children to share how they do things so that they can model each other.
  5. Use brain gym to calm, energise or reconnect right and left brain for improved concentration.
  6. Help the children to access an appropriate state to learn easily.
  7. Increase motivation by recognising success and putting it in the future.
    New Oceans (2005)

Brain Gym® (referred to in claim 5) is a commercial learning efficiency programme that appears to have been taken up by some schools, despite a complete lack of evidence for its efficacy (Hyatt, 2007) and is beyond the considerations of this paper.  Of the remaining claims: 2, 3 and 7 are simply shallow statements with 1, 4 and 6 based on NLP's discredited claims about learning styles.  In short, these claims are simply nonsense.
(Page 61)

Or maybe not.
In the first place, since the website is not authoritative, the claims merely illustrate the way that website owner often latch on to authentic NLP-related concepts and techniques but then mold them, to a greater or lesser extent, to fit the individual's own opinions and beliefs:

  1. There are no "preferred learning styles", a concept which seems to be based on the misconception that PRSs are static.  (See comments following this list.)
  2. This is not related to authentic NLP.  It may be a variation on the so-called "Neurological Levels" models dreamed up by Robert Dilts.
  3. This whole list reads as though it relates to primary school education, which is presumably the reason for the rather twee language.  Which is surely not, of itself, a cause for criticism?
  4. It is not clear why Roderique-Davies feels this is problematical.  As we've already seen, the idea of "preferred learning styles" is not part of the authentic FoNLP, so point 4 cannot be wrong because it relates to these hypothetical learning styles.
  5. As Roderique-Davies rightly points out, Brain Gym is a commercial product.  It has nothing to do with the authentic FoNLP.
  6. Again, the idea that this is somehow problematical is neither clear nor explained.  See answer to point 4.
  7. One wonders if academic critics so often quote things like this rather than authoritative comments simply because they don't know what it means, but it looks like something that will readily be sneered at by like-minded people.

It is interesting that Roderique-Davies gives no indication of what he thinks "NLP's discredited claims about learning styles are" - or when and where these hypothetical styles have been discredited.  In fact it is not at all clear where the VAK learning styles concept came from.

A few months ago (at the time of writing) the magazine Scientific American MIND published a "taster" article for a book on popular psychological myths (Busting Big Myths in Popular Psychology, Sciam MIND, Volume 21, Number 1, March/April 2010) which included: "Myth #2 Different Strokes for Different Pupils".

After reading the article I e-mailed one of the authors, Professor Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University in the US, to say that it was nice to see someone supporting a key NLP-related idea - that modal preference is related to context, and that rather than let children (people) get into a rut with their thinking they would be far better served if they were encouraged to build up an all round approach to learning, thinking, etc.

Despite the specific reference in the article to VAK learning styles - visual, auditory and kinaesthetic - Professor Lilienfeld wrote back expressing what seemed to be entirely genuine surprise that I might think that the item was referring to NLP and that no such link had been intended.

In addition to the potential for informal application in education, 'NLP-certified practitioners' make claims about its efficacy in the treatment of a whole range of quite serious disorders such as addictions, eating disorders, anxiety problems and pain management to name but a few (Brain-train, 2007, for example), yet the medical literature is devoid of any published evidence to substantiate these claims.

This creates a serious ethical problem in both the educational and the paramedical fields. As Heap (2008) points out, knowledge is power ...
(Page 61)

But Heap is wrong.  Knowledge is simply knowledge.  Contrary to Francis Bacon's oft-quoted claim, only knowledge plus the ability to use it effectively is power.

... and anybody making claims about being able to help with serious disorders or improve learning efficiency is making a claim for some kind of power.  However, with that power, there must be accountability through public scrutiny.  The lack of evidence for such claims means that the most rudimentary test of accountability cannot be addressed.  In addition to this, if NLP is just a communication model, what special abilities does obtaining a certification in it bestow upon an individual which allows them to meddle in education issues and serious medical conditions?

Education yes, because that is primarily about effective communication.  Medical conditions, no.  But then again there are, as we've seen very few therapeutic techniques and they relate to psychologically-based situations, not to the treatment of any physiological medical conditions.

In relation to dealing with vulnerable (indeed perhaps desperate) people, the claims of unqualified practitioners are extremely worrying.  The precise nature of a 'qualification' in NLP is difficult to ascertain with many organizations offering impressive sounding training from 'Diplomas' up to 'Master Practitioner'.  Precisely who accredits these 'qualifications' though?  Etc.
(Page 61)

These sentences are followed by what would quite likely be called, if it appeared in an online discussion group "a rant".
Roderique-Davies gives us a fine example of the kind of blinkered world view of many academics, that they are the nearest thing on earth to perfection, and any potential rivals have neither reason nor right to exist.

What Roderique-Davies fails to mention (in addition to the fact that NLP is not a form of therapy), is that all of the complaints, and some a lot worse, have also applied to a significant number of formally "qualified" members of the various mental health professions.  Some truly chilling evidence of this state of affairs can be found in sources such as the book Crazy Therapies (Singer and Lalich, 1996), which a number of critics have chosen to cite as evidence against "NLP".
(Note:   At the time of writing Crazy Therapies, Margaret Singer was a clinical psychologist and emeritus adjunct professor at the University of California, at Berkeley.)

Rather ironically, only 7 pages of the 216 page book (pages 168-176) are given over to a rather mild swipe at "NLP".
The vast majority of the book consists of examples of theoretically conventional members of the medical/mental health professions whose methods have resulted in anything up to and including the death of one or more patients.  It might do academics good to read for themselves Singer's account (pages 28-32) of the "therapeutic" activities of physician-turned-psychoanalyst John Rosen, and how the "establishment" applauded his aggressive and abusive "direct analysis" methods even after he had lost a court case in which he was accused of beating a female patient.

Nor can we easily accept the old excuse that "at least scientists [sic] eventually get round to cleaning out the rubbish" when Rosen's activities were accepted by the "establishment" for some 36 years (1947-1983) - climaxing with Rosen receiving the American Academy of Psychotherapy's "Man of the Year Award" (1971).  Firstly because Rosen was only forced to surrender his medical license when a group of Rosen's ex-patients came forward and brought his behaviour to public notice.
And secondly because, according to Singer:

To this day, some still uphold Rosen's work, when in fact Rosen and his direct analysis led to some serious abuses of patients and legal suits.
(Singer and Lalich, 1966.  Page 32)

The key issue here is not training as such, but the quality of the trainees.  No amount of training will make someone an able exponent of this skill or that.  It is simply not true that, as Roderique-Davies and others try to imply, a 'formal' qualification in some aspect of mental health is a guarantee of competence.  As Neuroscientist Steven Novella wrote on his blog:

I think this [the continuing popularity of "NLP") reflects an endemic problem within the mental health field.  Part of the problem is that the field is very broad, with multiple parallel professions, including psychiatry, clinical psychology, social work, and counseling.  Also, within each profession there are multiple theories and traditions, many mutually exclusive.  The degree of dedication to science and evidence-based practice is also highly variable.  The bottom line is that, although there is a great deal of legitimate science within the mental health field, in practice it is rife with pseudo science and nonsense.
(Novella, 2007)

Man Hits Thumb!

(My heading)

The next criticism, which comes towards the end of the rant described above, is not one I have personally come across before - probably because, whilst it is a valid criticism it is not a criticism of either NLP or the FoNLP.  According to Roderique-Davies:

A code of conduct has been set out by the Association for Neuro-linguistic Processing, yet worryingly it contains the following disclaimer:

The Code does not assume that individual Members possess particular levels of skill in any specific area; it is important, therefore, that users of Members' services do satisfy themselves that the person they are working with is appropriately skilled
Association for Neuro-linguistic Processing, 2007

To put the onus of responsibility onto the individual seeking the service is scandalous.  What basis do they have to satisfy themselves that an individual is qualified in the face of impressive sounding claims and 'qualifications'?
(Page 61)

First of all, I would agree that this kind of disclaimer, especially from a body that claims the right to accredit training companies (and individuals?) seems amateurish and wholly unsatisfactory.  It reads to me like whoever is running the ANLP is saying "here's a guarantee - but you can never claim on it".  But let's put it in perspective.

  1. Yet again - neither NLP nor the FoNLP are forms of therapy, though a handful of NLP-related techniques have a therapeutic function, such as the "Fast Phobia" technique.  Anyone going to see someone who claims to be a "Neuro-Linguistic Programming therapist" is being "sold a pup".  The first thing to ask is whether the person has full liability insurance (typically in the region of £2m last time I looked.)
  2. The ANLP has no genuine authority.  As the quote offered by Roderique-Davies indicates, it doesn't even have an adequate vetting procedure to determine members' actual level of proficiency - as compared to certificates of attendance on various courses (see FAQ #20).
  3. Over and above any other considerations, this whole line of argument is completely irrelevant.  The article is claiming to examine the credibility of "NLP".  But the efficacy, or otherwise, of any particular NLP-related technique or concept, or of the FoNLP as a whole, resides in the techniques and concepts themselves.  Thus the criticisms Roderique-Davies offers here are not of NLP or the FoNLP but of organizations and individuals who claim to be practising NLP and/or NLP-related techniques.

(Note:   It has been argued that this is a "no true Scotsman" argument, but this is not the case.
The standard has been set by Bandler and Grinder.  Descriptions of NLP, any NLP-related concept or technique, or the FoNLP can be matched, or not, against the contents of the relevant books and other informational material.  These are the "goalposts".  And despite vague claims to the contrary (see Devilly, 2005.  Page 437, for example), they have not been "moved".)

At this point, Roderique-Davies more openly begins to echo the kind of ad hominem accusations found in serious academic criticisms.  Such as:

Personal testimonies are not difficult to come by in relation to the efficacy of NLP.  A Google search will again yield a wealth of personal testimonies and endorsements of the powers of NLP.  Given that a similar search will equally yield personal testimony in favour of many other dubious techniques such as homeopathy, astrology or even trepanning, such testimonies are of little worth.

  • What guarantee accompanies any other certification?
  • In whose opinion are these therapies "dubious"?  I'm not arguing pro or con any of the three techniques, only highlighting the mindset that assumes that "anything my colleagues and I disagree is by definition dubious.
  • Is there something inherently wrong with anecdotal evidence?  This is quite possibly the impression readers might get.

Carl Sagan (Sagan and Druyan, 1996) suggested a number of ways of detecting a fallacious argument (now known as 'Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit'), the most pertinent being wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.  Such independent confirmation of the claims of NLP does not exist.

An arrogant and most unwise attitude, but so typical of academic criticisms of "NLP".
Sagan's "kit" has been cited by a number of academic, and other, critics - apparently in total ignorance of the fact that in the case of the genuine FoNLP there is a steadily growing body of supporting evidence.

The simple fact is that Sagan's claim is a clear example of the logical error which assumes that a lack of evidence is proof that the evidence does not exist.  In practice, however, for those willing to learn rather than pontificate, supporting evidence for certain NLP-related techniques has been available from as far back as the research reported by Sharpley and Heap in the 1980s.  And some of it goes back a lot further than that.


ONE COULD argue that to refute NLP is to engage in argumentum ad ignorantiam.  However, NLP singularly fails to stand up to scrutiny concerning its face validity and its construct validity.
(Page 62)

In this case the wording is extremely appropriate.  Academic criticisms of NLP and/or the FoNLP are indeed most commonly "arguments based on ignorance.  And as we've just seen, the claim that there is no supporting evidence for authentic NLP-related claims is based on ignorance of the genuine claims and of the numerous and absolutely basic errors embedded in most of the research.

NLP's predictive validity is more difficult to ascertain as proponents of the 'discipline' engage in academic goal-post shifting and arguments about its 'constructivist' nature.

Here comes that Princeton Janitor again!  Of course Roderique-Davies supplies absolutely no supporting evidence to back his claims.  In my experience to date (September 2010) academics seldom if ever do.

Claims about what NLP can do persist though and as such it is analogous to Bertrand Russell's celestial teapot with the burden of proof to support its theoretical foundations and efficacy as an intervention lying with its proponents.

The FoNLP has no theoretical foundations.  Nor do NLPers in general much care about seeking academic credibility.  Especially in the face of the kind of arrogance, poor or non-existent research, baseless assumptions, etc. that Roderique-Davies has so capably exposed in his article.

The physicist Richard Feynman coined the term 'cargo cult science' (Feynman, 1985).  In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people who, during war-time, observed lots of airplanes carrying goods.  They wanted the planes to continue to land after the war ended and so set about reconstructing airports with fires alongside the runway, a wooden hut for the air traffic controller to sit in and antennas made of bamboo. Despite the form of the airport being right, the planes didn't land!  Feynman adapted the idiom of 'cargo cult science' to refer to research that follows all the form and pretence of scientific investigation yet is missing something essential.

After reading Roderique-Davies' article I came across Dr Feynman's original comments (Cargo Cult Science, Caltech commencement address, 1974) and found something very interesting.  Feynman didn't mean what Roderique-Davies' comments may seem to imply that he meant.
I shall deal with this point in more detail in just a moment.

To adapt this term one more time, NLP masquerades as a legitimate form of psychotherapy, makes unsubstantiated claims about how humans think and behave, purports to encourage research in a vain attempt to gain credibility, yet fails to provide evidence that it actually works.  Neuro-linguistic programming is cargo cult psychology.

Once again, any claim that suggests that authentic NLP "masquerades as a legitimate form of psychotherapy" is simply untrue.  It does not make "unsubstantiated claims about how humans think and behave", Bandler and Grinder have always been clear that they were reporting their observations about how humans think and behave.

How can we take seriously the claim that NLP [sic] "purports to encourage research in a vain attempt to gain credibility" at the same as Roderique-Davies and other academic critics complain - as we see here - that NLPers don't even try to provide research evidence that would create credibility in the eyes of the academic community.  This is totally self-contradictory.

But here's the final payoff.  Feynman was not simply criticising a lack of evidence, he was referring to a serious lack of integrity in many allegedly scientific articles.  To quote from his address:

In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another.

And on this score, the totally blinkered, inaccurate, biased academic reporting on anything to do with NLP and/or the FoNLP is Feynman's "cargo cult science" in it's most blatant form.


Bandler, R. and Grinder, J. (1978/1979) Frogs into Princes: Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Real People Press, Moab, Utah.

Bandura, A

Bradbury, A. (2008) Neuro-Linguistic Programming: Time for an Informed Review, in Skeptical Intelligencer, Vol. 11. pages 14-27.

Craft, A. (2001) Neuro-Linguistic Programming and learning theory.  The Curriculum Journal, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 125-136.

Roderique-Davies, G (2009) Neuro-Linguistic Programming - Cargo Cult Psychology? in Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education, Vol. 1, No. 2, July 2009. pages 57-63.

Sharpley, C (1984) Predicate matching in NLP: a review of research on the preferred representational system in Journal of Counseling Psychology Vol 31, No 2, pages 238-248.

Sharpley, C (1987) Research findings on neurolinguistic programming: non-supportive data or an untestable theory? in Journal of Counseling Psychology Vol 14, No 1, pages 103-107.

Skinner, H and Croft, R (2009) Neuro-Linguistic Programming techniques to improve the self-efficacy of undergraduate dissertation students in Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education, Vol. 1, No. 1, January 2009. pages 29-38.

Tosey, P and Mathison, J (2009) Neuro-Linguistic Programming.  Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, Hampshire.

United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy, online at http:www.psychotherapy.org.uk (accessed 5 October 2009)

Wertheim, E., Habib, C., and Cumming, G. (1986) Test of the neurolinguistic programming hypothesis that eye movements relate to processing imagery.  In Perceptual and Motor Skills 62, pages 523-529.