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I'm sometimes asked about NLP, or "Neurolinguistic Programming," since it also makes statements about how persuasion occurs. I've met some people who believe that NLP is very effective, and others who think that NLP doesn't live up to its claims.

Although social psychology and NLP ask similar questions in a few areas, social psychology is not at all like NLP in its approach to answering them, so comparing the two is like comparing apples to shoes.

Social Psychology is a science; it relies in empiricism, research, the scientific method, data collection, and statistical analysis in the pursuit of verifiable facts about basic human nature. It is a recognized subdiscipline within psychology that is taught at most universities; its practitioners are largely Ph.D.s who publish in peer-reviewed journals. There is intense competition among researchers for journal space, so the quality of research in the top journals is high--even though few people have the training to follow what the research elite are publishing. (If you're a college student and you've been assigned journal articles to read, you know what I'm talking about!) The best estimates I've found indicate there are about 4000 social psychologists performing research in the U.S.

NLP, on the other hand, is intuitive and philosophical in its approach. NLP borrows heavily from certain psychotherapies, and its origins are associated with the study of magic and trance inducement. It is now disseminated by a network of NLP practitioners who have their own certification process.

Social psychology does not have NLP's philosophical structure, which makes NLP interesting and appealing. NLP offers a breadth and structure in its approach which its practitioners find attractive.

Even though social psychology doesn't offer broad theories that are flexible enough to do extended duty as a philosophy, a psychotherapy, and a method of persuading people, I think that social psychology offers a more rigorous approach to understanding the persuasive process. Social psychology attempts to verify its findings by forever trying to disprove them through testing, keeping only those findings that stand the test of time.

Despite these differences, a few researchers have tested NLP predictions to see if they hold up. I've been told by a number of NLP practitioners that "NLP theory was never meant to be tested in a laboratory." (I don't understand that statement. But then, I'm a scientist, and I think theories should be tested.) Nonetheless, some people have tested NLP predictions under controlled conditions. When I reviewed this literature in 1997, here's what I found:

  • "Though it claims neuroscience in its pedigree, NLP's outmoded view of the relationship between cognitive style and brain function ultimately boils down to crude analogies. NLP basks in effusive testimonials, but the National Research Council could unearth no hard evidence in its favor, or even a succinct statement of its underlying theory."

    -- Beyerstein, BL. (1990). Brainscams: Neuromythologies of the New Age. International Journal of Mental health, 19 (3), 27-36.

  • ". . . N.L.P. Theory is not well articulated, its terminology, premises and assumptions are ambiguous or poorly specified. As the analysis in this article has shown, a basic reason for the theory's inadequacies are due to its borrowings from theories that are theoretically antagonistic to each other. . . . The conclusions from reviewing the literature are that as a theory, it is undeveloped and incoherent and that its techniques offer nothing new."

    -- Baddeley, M. (1989). Neurolinguistic programming: The academic verdict so far. Australian Journal of Clinical Hypnotherapy and Hypnosis, 10 (2), 73-81.

  • This study compared NLP techniques such as pacing, metaphor, and phonemic devices to two much simpler non-NLP control conditions: a direct-information condition and a placebic information-only condition. No differences in attitudes were found among the conditions, but the non-NLP direct-information control condition demonstrated significantly more persuasion in behavioral measures, resulting in the opposite of what NLP practitioners would predict.

    -- Dixon, PN; Parr GD; Yarbrough D; and Rathael M. (1986). Neurolinguistic Programming as a Persuasive Communication Technique. The Journal of Social Psychology, 126(4), 545-550.

  • Huge intercorrelations (hovering around r=.7) between subject performance in different sensory modes resulted, which is the only possible outcome that wasn't predicted by NLP.

    -- Fromme DK & Daniel J (1984). Neurolinguistic Programming Examined. Journal of Counseling Psychology 31 (3) 387-390.

  • "The basic tenents of NLP have failed to be reliably verified in almost 86% of the controlled studies . . . the inquirer in this field may be forgiven for accepting the conclusion of Elich et al, (1985), 'NLP has achieved something akin to a cult status when it may be nothing more than another psychological fad' (p.625)."

    -- Sharpley, C. F. (1987). Research findings on neurolingusitic programming: Nonsupportive data or an untestable theory? Journal of Counseling Psychology, 34 (1), 103-107.

Of course, you'll have to do your own research and make up your own mind about this topic, but perhaps these leads can get you started.

Let's move on to our next topic, the Structure of Influence . . .

Copyright © 1997 by Kelton Rhoads, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.

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