'Alternative' Training?


'This article discusses four ... alternative techniques - subliminal self-help, mental imagery and practice, meditation, and Neurolinguistic [sic] Programming (NLP)'
(Von Bergen et al, 1997, page 281)

Having spent most of my career in training and education, researching, designing and delivering training courses and 6th Form College courses, in a range of subjects from "soft" skills, such as management team-building through academic subjects such as Sociology and History, to technical subjects such as IBM Mainframe Memory Allocation, I think I can reasonably claim to have a little knowledge of this subject.  Yet I have no idea what it is that the authors of Selected Alternative Training Techniques in HRD are comparing and contrasting the so-called "alternatives" to.
(I know one isn't supposed to end a sentence with a preposition, but it's a lovely day outside and I just don't care!)

Interestingly enough, the authors don't offer much clarification on this point, and what they do offer seems to be self-contradictory - for example, I'm still not sure whether they thought that T-groups were "mainstream" or not?

In fact the analysis of "Neurolinguistic Programming" - incorrectly spelt (it should be Neuro-Linguistic Programming, because the term Neurolinguistics has, since the 1980s, referred to a completely separate area of study) - gets just a few lines less than two full pages of the 14 page article.  And for most of those nearly two pages the overwhelming impression is that the authors have:

  1. Uncritically paraphrased much of what they wrote from other sources, because
  2. having read both of Sharpley's articles (1984, 1987) and the section of the Druckman and Swets report that deals with "NLP", a lot of the material here seems very familiar (NOT to the point of plagiarism, I hasten to add), though
  3. these authors seem to have had very little firsthand knowledge of the FoNLP (field of NLP, the modelling technique, the related techniques and training in the authentic information and techniques).

*** The Short Version ***

(at the time of publication)
Von Bergen:   Associate professor, Department of Management and Marketing, Southeastern Oklahoma State University, Durant.
Barlow Soper:   Professor, Department of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences, Louisiana Tech University, Ruston.
Gary T. Rosenthal:   Associate professor, Department of Psychology and Counselor Education, Nicolls State University, Thibodaux, Louisiana.
Lamar V. Wilkinson:   Associate professor, Department of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences, Louisiana Tech University, Ruston.

Critical Material:
Selective Alternative Training Techniques in HRD, C. W. Von Bergen, Barlow Soper, Gary T. Rosenthal and Lamar V. Wilkinson.  Human Resource Development Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 4, Winter 1997.  Jossey Bass.

Nature of criticism:
The authors do little more than recycle previous, significantly ill-informed criticisms of one small part of the FoNLP (field of NLP).  Whilst purporting to discuss the inability of whatever they think "NLP" is, to stand up to "scientific scrutiny" (page 291), they fail to consider the question of whether that is a sensible demand to make of the FoNLP in the first place (given that psychology itself cannot meet that requirement).

Derivative (based on seemingly totally unquestioning acceptance of claims and comments made by Sharpley (1984, 1987), and by Druckman and Swets (1988) - bearing in mind that the Druckman and Swets report contains a number of elements which indicate that it was itself based on an equally unquestioning acceptance of Sharpley's earlier criticisms.


First and foremost, these authors seem to be hopelessly confused about the nature of NLP.  At one point, with a hint of accuracy, they report that:

NLP is a system of procedures that purports [sic] to enable people to increase their effectiveness in communicating with and influencing others.
(Von Bergen et al, 1997. page 289)

Just how a "system of procedures" can purport to be or do anything at all is something of a puzzle.  And iny case, "NLP" is not a system of anything.  It is a specific modelling technique which has been used by every able-bodied person on the planet (I know that's anecdotal, but the statistics tend to support Bandler and Grinder rather than their critics).  Anyway, these authors then complain that:

Instead of being grounded in contemporary, scientifically derived neurological theory, NLP is based on outdated metaphors of brain functioning and is laced with numerous factual errors (Druckman and Swets, 1988).
(Von Bergen et al, 1997. page 290)

Given that Druckman and Swets (1988) themselves depended heavily on a totally unquestioning acceptance of Sharpley's earlier criticisms - including errors such as his confusion over what is known in NLP circles as the "eye accessing cues" - the attempt to criticise the FoNLP for being "laced with numerous factual errors" looks rather like losing a game of football by deliberately scoring an own goal in the final minute.

In fairness it must be said that some of the material authored by Robert Dilts is indeed highly questionable, such as his claim that a synaptic gap is the point where two dendrites interface.  (Dilts was author or co-author of the two books submitted to the committee in 1986).
But Robert Dilts certainly isn't "the voice of the FoNLP", and the overall flaw in the comments by Von Bergen et al is that, like their selected guides (Sharpley, Druckman and Swets, Bliemeister, and so on), these authors seem to have made far too little effort to base their own evaluation on a solid understanding of the authoritative claims made by Bandler and Grinder, the co-creators of the FoNLP.


It would be interesting to know what value academics think there is in writing critiques that are so poorly researched.  For example, I have commented on the way these authors have uncritically followed the trail of misinformation laid down by Sharpley, and here is a very simple and straightforward example:

At one point in their article Von Bergen et al state (categorically, though without providing any reference) that:.

One can cue off the words and match the other's system with one's replies or monitor the direction of eye movement, which is the most noteworthy nonverbal indication of an individual's preferred representational system.
(Von Bergen et al, 1997.  Page 290)

One sentence, and two fundamental errors:

  • Von Bergen and co. resolutely adhered to Sharpley's erroneous assertion that the concept of preferrred representational systems (PRSs) was "one of the basic tenets of NLP" (Sharpley, 1984.  Page 238).
  • Likewise, Sharpley (and many of the researchers whose work he reviewed), held unswervably to the belief that NLPers thought that a person's PRS could be determined in any of three ways: "by eye movements, verbalisations, and self-report" (Sharpley, 1984.  Page 239).
    Yet this was flatly contradicted by Bandler and Grinder, in both The Structure of Magic II (1976) and in Frogs into Princes (1979)) where they clearly indicated that we only to "pay attention to the predicates the client uses to describe his experience.'

    These statements predate Sharpley's first review by at least 6 years, the Druckman and Swets report by at least 10 years, and the paper from Von Bergen et al by around 20 years

Remember, this article includes the criticism that "NLP ... is laced with numerous factual errors".

*** End of Short Version ***

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

It's them danged 'Proponents' - Again!

Perhaps inevitably, the section of the article which deals with "Neurolinguistic [sic] Programming" begins with three quotes - only one of which comes from anything like a genuinely authoritative source:

'"Cure phobias and other unpleasant feeling responses in less than an hour ... cure many physical problems - not only those recognized as 'psychosomatic'" (Stevens, 1979, p. ii)'
(Von Bergen et al, page 289).

All three quotes are characterized as "Extraordinary claims, to be sure, but these are but a few of those being espoused for Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP)" (Von Bergen et al, page 289).  Which is, in the case of the passage I've just quoted, a flawed criticism on at least two counts:

  1. In the first place Steve Andreas, who wrote those words in his Foreword to the book, was actually speaking of his own direct experience, not merely passing on "claims".  The training company NLP Comprehensive offer a DVD based on a session in the 1980s in which Andreas successfully demonstrates the efficacy of the Fast Phobia technique as applied to a woman with a fear of bees (before the session she couldn't even stand to have a single bee in the same house as herself) in a session lasting a little less than 10 minutes, together with a follow up interview conducted several years later.
    Likewise NLP co-creator Richard Bandler used somewhat different techniques to successfully resolve three different phobias, under laboratory conditions, recorded by faculty at Marshall University, West Virginia.  Transcripts of the three sessions are available in Bandler's book Magic in Action (1992), and a videotape of the three sessions is also available.
  2. To put it mildly, the quote has been selectively doctored in the Von Bergen article in places where no editing is indicated.  What Andreas actually wrote was:

    A few specific examples of things you can learn to accomplish are: (1) cure phobias and other unpleasant feeling responses in less than an hour, ... (5) cure many physical problems - not only most of those recognized as "psychosomatic" but also some that are not - in a few sessions.
    (Andreas in Bandler and Grinder, 1978/1979, page ii)

'Misrepresentational' Systems

The article then goes into 'accurate mode' for several sentences until we come to this:

'NLP is founded on the idea that people communicate from a limited number of sensory-oriented representational systems.  A representational system is a person's typical, usual and preferred way of interacting with the world.'
(Von Bergen et al, 1997, page 289)

A number of critics make that same first point, though I've no idea why.  NLPers do indeed take note of the five basic sensory systems - visual (sight), auditory (hearing), kinesthetic (feelings), olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste).  So what point are von Bergen and his colleagues seeking to make - and in what way is the list "limited"?  Its elements certainly aren't unique to NLP, either in name or number.  But after all, what other generally agreed upon sensory systems do we have?
As to the fact that "kinesthetic" is used to cover both tactile and emotional feelings, is it not common experience that a reaction in one is usually echoed by a reaction in the other (e.g. a "knotted" stomach" in response to a situation perceived as being stressful)?

More importantly, the authors are seriously mistaken in their definition of a "representational system".

They appear to have taken the definition of a "preferred representational system" (which was crucially revised in the late 1970s), and tried to apply it to representational systems in general.  In practice, as Bandler and Grinder explained quite clearly in Frogs into Princes, a book based on the transcript of a training seminar held in March 1978:

'Our claim is that you are using all [representational] systems all the time.  In a particular context you will be aware of one system more than another.'
(Bandler and Grinder, 1978/1979, page 36.  Italics as in the original)

Thus "a representational system" is basically synonymous with "a sensory system".  Frequency of usage does not determine whether any particular sensory system is or isn't a representational system.  All sensory systems are representational systems and all representational systems are sensory systems.

Recycled Errors

The next few lines continue this confusion, and then dive into what might be described, in NLP-related shorthand, as the 'Eye Accessing Cues = Predicate Usage' Error:

'One can cue off the words and match the other's system with one's replies, or monitor the direction of eye movement, which is the most noteworthy nonverbal indication of an individuals's preferred representational system.'
(Von Bergen et al, 1997, page 290)

In fact, as we saw earlier, this is one of Sharpley's errors, recycled here with no apparent attempt to evaluate the accuracy of Sharpley's research.  The correct way to identify which representational system someone was currently focusing on was to listen to the verbal predicates they used.  In NLP usage, the eye accessing cues have a different purpose and should be noted in clusters or strategies, not one at a time.

'Bandler and Grinder said that these eye movements are remarkably fixed and that certain directions consistently correspond to the three representational orientations"
(Von Bergen et al, 1997, page 290.)

This is true, as long as one understands in what sense the eye movements are "fixed".  Many critics mistakenly assume that the "standard" eye accessing cues diagram is supposed to apply to everyone.  Though having said that, Sharpley (1987, page 104), based on a totally unsubstantiated statement by Gumm, Walker and Day, claimed that eye accessing cues only applied to right-handed people (all right-handed people?)

What Bandler and Grinder actually said was:

You will find people who are organized in odd ways.  But even somebody who is organized in a totally different way will be systematic; their eye movements will be systematic for them.  Even the person who looks straight up each time they have a feeling and straight down each time they have a picture, will remain consistent within themselves.'
(Bandler and Grinder, 1978/1979, page 27)

Von Bergen et al continue with the claim that:

'more importantly, applying this information via specific techniques like "anchoring" and "reframing," it is said that a person also can readily and to a significant degree influence or direct another person's thoughts, feeling and opinions.'
(Von Bergen et al, 1997, page 290.)

Since the authors give no reference here, and their description is so vague (using what information?  Eye accessing cues?  Matching predicates?  Who knows?), it is impossible to make a sensible response to these claims.

Neurology - must try harder

At this point, though they had said nothing of any consequence thus far, Von Bergen et al suddenly switched direction, picking up on an article by Druckman and Swets (1988) - which will be considered in full in another sub-FAQ in this set.

'In relating NLP to current understandings of neurology and perception, Druckman and Swets (1988) and others (Bertelsen, 1987) believe NLP to be in error.  Instead of being grounded in contemporary, scientifically derived neurological theory, NLP is based on outdated metaphors of brain functioning and is laced with numerous factual errors (Druckman and Swets, 1988).'
(Von Bergen et al, 1997, page 290)

Here, at least, Von Bergen et al are partially on the ball, though they are still reporting someone else's words without adding anything of their own.

As can be seen in the evaluation of the Druckman and Swets report, Richard Bandler was interviewed by committee members in 1986 and supplied them with two books - Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Volume 1 (written in 1978, published in 1980), and Roots of NLP (1983).  Remembering that Bandler and Grinder, in Frogs into Princes (transcript of a training that took place in 1978, published in 1979), had specifically rejected the idea that they were "psychologists" or "theoreticians" (page 7), or that they were interested in "whether what we offer you is true or not, whether it's 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), it may seem strange that the kind of pseudo-neurological material that Dilts was writing was ever accepted for publication.

It certainly did the FoNLP no favours when Dilts claimed - and not just once - that a synaptic gap was the "Connection of two dendrites"* (Dilts, 1983, Part 1, page 45 and Part 2, page 7).  One can only say that Dilts has had a less than productive relationship with neurophysiology (some of his claims in his so-called "neuro-logical levels" model, for example, are equally divorced from reality).  So given Bandler and Grinder's own lack of interest in neurology it appears that no one on the early development team paid much attention to what Dilts was writing and his occasional excursions into fantasy land went undetected and hence unchecked.
What goes around, comes around, so to speak.

(* For those not familiar with brain anatomy, neurons (of which there are several kinds) have dendrites and one or two axons.  Broadly speaking, dendrites, which grow directly from the cell body, collect information from the axons of other cells, whereas axons pass information on to the dendrites of other cells.  If, then, a synaptic gap were the point at which two dendrites interfaced, you would have two connectors trying to get input, but nothing providing output!  On close inspection of the diagram used to illustrate this claim it turns out that the misunderstanding may owe something to the fact that the dendrites all appear to be growing out of the axons!)

This one paragraph at least ("Three questions should be asked ... (Druckman and Swets, 1988), Von Bergen et al, 1997, page 290), must be accepted as containing a justified criticism, no matter how things were allowed to get that way.

More Inherited Errors

Unfortunately, after their moment in the sun, Von Bergen et al then fall back into a nest of Sharpley's errors.

No theology here!

'Bandler and Grinder stated that they were not interested in establishing scientific validation of NLP ... Hence, the authors only present anecdotal and testimonial data to support their suppositions and the relationships among NLP variables and concepts.  Even an elementary text on scientific method ... details the myriad pitfalls of such s methodology and describes its irrelevance to legitimate theory building.'
(Von Bergen et al, 1997, page 290)

Is this some kind of "Spot the deliberate mistake"?
The authors clearly understand that Bandler and Grinder have no interest in establishing "scientific" credibility for NLP, yet they still go ahead and complain that Bandler and Grinder aren't doing what is needed to establish scientific credibility for NLP.  Were Von Bergen et al under the illusion that every idea must earn itself some kind of "Good scientific Housekeeping" seal of approval, whether it's wanted or not?
Is there a scientifically validated form of psychotherapy, or presenting, or teaching, or playing golf, etc., etc., etc.  Absolutely not.  In reality there are far more things that have no scientifically validated basis than those that do.  And yet we somehow muddle along, getting things done and blithely ignoring the "myriad pitfalls" just waiting to swallow us up for having adopted such negligent behaviour!

By the way, I think the scientific method is entirely valid, and valuable, but only in relation to genuinely scientific activities.  It is entirely appropriate, for example, where results are expected to be consistent.  To give a very simple example, a genuine magnet will always act like a magnet unless some external influence interferes.  Magnets don't throw hissy fits, or take a "sicky", or go on strike, etc., etc.  A magnet in Forth Worth, Texas, USA will show all of the qualities of a similar magnet in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia.  Thus genuinely scientific findings are by definition applicable in both specific and generalized contexts.

Human beings, on the other hand, are affected by so many variables that their behaviour not only can, but frequently does, vary in significant ways within quite short periods of time.  Thus we can sensibly talk about the behaviour of groups of human beings.  If we try to particularize these generalizations, however - as in "most people in group A did xyz, therefore Tom, a member of group A will do xyz" we have stopped talking about "what will be" in favour of "what might be".

Which is why psychology itself (as distinct from neuropsychology, etc.) is not a science as such.

In short, trying to put everything in the box marked SCIENCE is neither useful nor rational.  And it turns out that Von Bergen et al aren't entirely on the ball either, when it comes to the question of "science".

'Where controlled studies have been performed attempting to test NLP hypotheses - like the proposed relationship between eye movement direction and representational system - they consistently have failed to do so (for example, Bliemeister, 1988).'
(Von Bergen et al, 1997, page 290)

This claim ignores one small but crucial fact.
No matter how well the control element of an experiment is dealt with - if the experiment itself fails to address the matter it is allegedly addressing then it will still be invalid:

Von Bergen et al apparently believed that all the studies referred to, including Bliemeister's, were genuinely testing authentic "NLP hypotheses - like the proposed relationship between eye movement and representational system".  But they didn't.
Bliemeister, for example, devised a totally irrelevant experiment (that is, it bore no relation to any claim made by Bandler and Grinder) which involved timing people's eye movements.  In other words he had completely misunderstood the nature and role of eye movements in relation to the representational systems.  So the fact that these experiments failed to support any claim by the co-creators of NLP was hardly front page news.

The Blind Reporting on the Blind Leading the Blind

Having spent almost two complete pages not discussing NLP-related techniques in relation to training, Von Bergen et al finally draw their pot pourri of misunderstandings and misinformation to a close with the following claims:

'... in a meta-analysis and a follow-up investigation of controlled [sic] studies examining the effectiveness of NLP [sic] in influencing others, Sharpley (1984, 1987) stated that matching representational systems to eye movements has no effect.'
(Von Bergen et al, 1997, page 290)

Yes, he did indeed say that, as did several of the experimenters whose work he reviewed.
But this is of no consequence whatsoever since no one of any authority had ever claimed that "matching representational systems to eye movements" would have an effect.

'Similarly, Druckman and Swets (1988), in their evaluation of NLP [sic] for the National Research Council, concluded 'there is little or no evidence to date to support either NLP [sic] assumptions or NLP [sic] effectiveness" (page 143)'
(Von Bergen et al, 1997, page 290)

Which again is true, in that Druckman and Swets did indeed make that comment.

Firstly, the comment implies that the research in question was indeed designed to investigate genuine claims made by Bandler and Grinder.  But it wasn't.
And secondly, Druckman and Swets were simply passing on Sharpley's observations.  There was little or no independent investigation by the team members, so again what the investigators said is of no consequence whatsoever as far as providing a useful evaluation is concerned.  Indeed, the NRC report is so flawed that the authors provide a diagram of the 'Visual accessing cues for a "normally organized" right-handed person".' (see, for example, Bandler and Grinder 1978/1979, page 25) which they locate in a lengthy and ludicrously inaccurate paragraph which begins with the claim that:

'NLP [sic] postulates six representational systems: constructing of visual images, remembering of visual images etc.]'
(Druckman and Swets, 1988, page 139)

And this after they had been given a copy of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Volume 1, which deals with the representational systems at considerable length.  Based on correspondence with the surviving members of the subcommittee, it seems that whilst they were alll involved in the investigation, only the Chairman was responsible for the actual writing of the report.  Unfortunately it also seems that the report writer either didn't understand the material submitted to the subcommittee - or he just didn't bother to read it very carefully.  This would give some further indication of the many errors in the report.

And Finally

It seems Von Bergen et al felt unable to leave the section on Neurolinguistic [sic] Programming without delivering themselves of one last bon mot which they presumably felt put the finishing touch to their critique:

'The most telling commentary on NLP [sic] may be that in the latest revision of his text on enhancing human performance, Druckman (Druckman and Bjork, 1991) omitted all references to Neurolinguistic Programming.'
(Von Bergen et al, 1997, pages 290-291)

I'd have said that ignoring something they apparently never understood in the first place was pretty much par for the course as far as academic evaluations of the FoNLP are concerned.


Bandler, R. Magic in Action (1992).  Meta Publications, Capitola, California.

Bandler and Grinder (1978/1979) Frogs into Princes.  Real People Press, Moab, Utah.

Bertelsen, P.,(1987) The client's model of the worldPsyke und Logos, 8, pages 375-408

Bliemeister, J (1988) Empirical verification of the central theoretical constructs of neurolinguistic Programming (NLP).   Zeitschrift fur Klinische Psychologie.  Forschung und Praxis, Vol. 17, No. 1.  Pages 21-30.

Dilts, R., Grinder, J., Bandler, R., Cameron-Bandler, L., DeLozier, J. (1978/1980) Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Volume 1.  Meta Publications, Capitola, California.

Druckman and Swets (1988) Enhancing Performance: Issues, Theories and Techniques.  National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.  Pages 138-148.

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

Sharpley, C. (1987) Research Findings on Neurolinguistic [sic] Programming: Nonsupportive Data or an Untestable Theory?  Journal of Counseling Psychology, Vol. 34, No. 1, pages 103-107.

Von Bergen, C., Soper, B., Rosenthal, G. and Wilkinson, L. (1997) Selected Alternative Training Techniques in HRD.  In Human Resource Development Quarterly, Vol 8, No 4, Winter 1997.  Pages 281-294

More references to follow