I am often asked whether there is any “hard science” academic research that supports NLP. There is some good news, and some bad news.
First the bad news…
(If you don’t like bad news, feel free to skip or skim this section.)
Most of the research directly on NLP concepts was done in the 1980s and 1990s; little or no research has been done directly on NLP in the last decade or so. The vast majority of studies that were done earlier addressed the concept of a primary representational system (PRS) — that people are primarily visual, auditory, or kinesthetic — or the impact of matching sensory predicates on rapport.
There’s a problem with this. Bandler and Grinder had introduced the idea of a PRS primarily as a teaching tool in the 1970s, to direct students’ attention to people’s sensory predicates and eye accessing. Soon after that, they pointed out that the idea of a PRS was a deliberate and gross oversimplification, only somewhat true in a particular problem context. Despite this, the bulk of research, supposedly “on NLP” at that time was done in an attempt to verify or disconfirm this concept.
As those of you with significant NLP Training will already know, whether or not people have a PRS is not in any way central to the field of NLP. We didn’t even mention it in our book Heart of the Mind (1989)...
...introducing people to the field, because we didn’t consider it important or useful. PRS doesn’t really have anything to do with the effectiveness of the many methods that we have come to rely on in NLP to get results for people wanting change in their lives. When I sit down with someone to do a session, I can’t recall ever asking myself, “What is this person’s PRS?” It’s just not a useful question to ask.
At the same time, it is often useful to notice what sensory channel the client is using at the moment, or what sensory channel underlies the “problem.” For example it can be useful to notice that someone’s unpleasant feelings result from a critical inner voice, or to notice that many large and close movies of things to do leads to feeling overwhelmed.
Investigating Primary Representation System is a bit like Nasrudin looking for his lost car keys under the street lamp “because the light is better here,” even though he lost them somewhere else. PRS was perceived to be an “easy” thing to study, but the results of those studies don’t tell us anything about the field of NLP.
It’s also worth noting that the studies themselves were often full of research errors. The questionnaires used in an attempt to assess PRS often had confusing self-report questions like, “Do you see yourself as a feeling person,” or “Do you feel you are an auditory person?” As that kind of question clearly reveals, most experimenters were not trained in NLP, did not understand what they were researching, and did not use anyone trained in NLP as a consultant to review their experimental protocols. As a result, there was no control of the language used in the studies, nor control of nonverbal confounding variables such as gestures or voice tone.
For instance, when matching a subject’s visual predicate with a sentence like, “I see what you mean,” a higher-pitched voice, looking up, or a pointing gesture in the upper visual field will be congruent with visual processing, and be more likely to result in rapport. However, a lower-pitched voice, looking down, or a palm-up gesture in the lower visual field will be incongruent, and be less likely to lead to rapport. (Visual processing is typically accompanied by a high voice tone, looking up, and pointing gestures, while kinesthetic processing is often accompanied by a lower voice tone, looking down, and palm-up gesturing.)
As a result of these kinds of mistakes, most of the research was very poor quality. Not surprisingly, there is very little direct academic experimental support for NLP. A research committee working for the United States National Research Council in 1988 found little if any evidence to support NLP’s assumptions or to indicate that it was effective as a strategy for social influence. “It [NLP] assumes that by tracking another’s eye movements and language, an NLP trainer can shape the person’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions. There is no scientific support for these assumptions.”
To summarize, the research that has been done was on the wrong questions, by people who did not understand what they were trying to measure, ignoring linguistic and behavioral confounding variables, so of course the results were negative or inconclusive.
Although researching NLP is definitely doable, effective research in the field of NLP is a challenge for a number of reasons:
Psychological research costs quite a lot of money, which most NLPers do not have. Furthermore, if research is not done in a recognized academic institution, it is usually ignored, even if the double-blind controls and protocols are impeccable.
NLP’s focus on sensory process parameters makes it extremely hard to communicate with academics and mental health professionals, because it is so different from the typical psychiatric focus on content. For instance, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a recognized therapy that is most similar to NLP (and which has the strongest experimental support) focuses entirely on the content of internal auditory dialogue — the words that people say to themselves. CBT ignores the volume of the internal voice, its location in personal space, its direction, its tonality, and tempo, etc. Usually changing these process parameters has a much greater impact on experience than changing the content, and it is much easier. This is something that I have explored in great detail in my e-book Help With Negative Self-talk.
Advocating rigorous research has not been easy or without resistance from within the field itself. The original developers, and a number of others in the field — some of them widely respected — have explicitly said that NLP is inherently unverifiable by scientific research. One widely regarded leader in the field has even said that since NLP is about subjective experience, it is inherently untestable.
This ignores the fact that dreams — the most subjective experiences that most of us will ever have — have been researched scientifically for decades. A variety of new methods of brain scanning make it possible to do all sorts of experimental work on internal mental events, some of which are not even subjective experiences! For instance, brain scans have been used to detect when a decision is about to be made by a subject seven seconds before the subject becomes aware that they have made a decision.
The lack of unified support for securing research grants within the field of NLP has made it awkward to approach potential researchers. Even more of a problem in my view, many who “do NLP” have combined NLP with reflexology, remote viewing, crystal healing, aromatherapy, aura reading, and a host of other such new age methods. Most of these do not make specific claims that would be testable by the scientific method; associating NLP with them makes NLP appear to be only another get-rich-quick scam or even a cult.
Now for the good news…
All NLP processes include specific testable outcomes, detailed systematic protocols for different kinds of problems, and clear operational tests in sensory-based experience to determine when a client has reached their outcomes. In addition, many NLP processes can be completed in a single session of an hour or less. Because of this, NLP would be much easier to research than most therapies which are much less structured and usually take place during many sessions over a period of weeks or months. Scientific research needs to be done in order to confirm (or disconfirm) the various processes and understandings that are typically included in the term “NLP.”
A diverse group of dedicated NLP-trained people have joined together in establishing the NLP Research and Recognition Project...
... in an effort to propose, develop, and support relevant research by academic institutions, with the goal of doing high-quality research that actually tests NLP principles and methods. This could do a great deal to establish the legitimacy of NLP methods, as well as advance the practice of psychotherapy generally. The director of the project, Frank Bourke, a clinical psychologist with a strong research background, has been a tireless advocate, working with those of us in the NLP community plus those in government organizations and universities, in efforts to establish studies. So far these efforts have come quite close to having funding for large scale studies several times. This is really quite a testament to Frank’s diligence and persistence, because it is not an easy thing to get through all the levels of “hoops” to gain this approval.
Although little or no research is currently being done directly on NLP processes, there is quite a lot of academic research that supports NLP indirectly. NLP methods and principles are being “rediscovered” in bits and pieces in a wide variety of research studies. Following are a few examples.
Treating PTSD and trauma using dissociation
Sufferers who were asked to write about their traumatic memories in “third person” as if they were happening to someone else (“He was hit by a car and thrown 60 feet into a roadside ditch.”) recovered more quickly than a control group. Writing in third person requires viewing these events at a distance, as if they were happening to someone else, a way of creating dissociation.
In parallel research
Ayduk and Kross contrast two alternative ways of working through highly emotional experiences. A self-immersed perspective is one in which we try to remember the experience at the same time that we try to analyze it — for example, when we say to ourselves, ‘Why did that prejudiced comment get to me so much?’ By contrast, a self-distanced perspective analyzes the same experience as if you yourself were a third-party observer, a kind of fly on the wall — ‘Why did that prejudiced comment get to him so much?’ In both cases, you are trying to understand the emotions, but when you do this in the first person, the pull of the emotion can overwhelm understanding.
It seems amazing that a small change in the way one analyzes a painful experience (using s/he as opposed to I) can lead to such dramatic results, but the research on this is solid and clear. In one study, people who were prompted to recall a negative experience from a self-distanced perspective (why did s/he feel this way?) in the lab felt less distressed about the experience one week later compared to those who recalled a similarly negative experience from a self-immersed perspective (why did I feel this way?). In other studies, people who spontaneously self-distance have been shown to ruminate less about negative experiences and are less likely to be hostile when disagreements come up.
In research by Prof. Dov Shmotkin of Tel Aviv University Department of Psychology in Israel, ...
...“We discovered that overcoming trauma was related to how people organized the memory of their trauma on the larger time continuum of their life course.” In a study of Holocaust survivors, Prof. Shmotkin separated these survivors into those who considered the “Holocaust as past” and those who conceived of the “Holocaust as present.” Those in the ‘Holocaust as past” category were able to draw an effective line between the present day and the past trauma, thus allowing themselves to move forward. Those in the “Holocaust as present” category considered their traumatic experience as still existing, which indicated a difficulty in containing the trauma within a specific time limit.
Motivation, specific outcomes and behavioral change
Recently the BPS Research Digest (well worth a free subscription)...
... summarized a couple of recent studies done on changing behavior:
In rich countries, temptation is never far and many of us struggle to achieve our long-term aims of moderation, dedication and fidelity. An increasingly popular strategy for regaining control is to form so-called implementation intentions. Rather than having the vague goal to eat less or exercise more, you spell out when, where and how you will perform a given activity. For example, ‘When in the cafeteria at lunch I will buy orange juice rather than cola.’ A more specific variant is to form an ‘if-then’ plan, as in ‘If it is a Tuesday morning, then I will go for a run.’
Past research has found these plans to be successful, helping people to live more healthily. There’s even evidence that they are particularly beneficial to those who have had their willpower compromised by brain damage or by taxing laboratory tasks. Two new studies add to this literature, one of them cautionary, the other more hopeful.
Sue Churchill and Donna Jessop studied 323 students tasked with eating more fruit and vegetables. They found that implementation intentions helped students achieve this task over a 7-day period, but only if they scored low on a measure of ‘urgency,’ as revealed by their agreement or not with statements like, ‘When I am upset, I often act without thinking.’ The researchers said this suggests implementation intentions may not be a panacea: ‘Ironically, people who possess poor self-regulatory skills insofar as they tend to act on impulse when distressed, who are arguably most in need of assistance in achieving their goals, may benefit least from behavior change interventions based on implementation intention formation.’ . . .
“Urgency” appears to be identical to “Impulsivity,” so it is not surprising that those people will have difficulty following through on a plan, even if the “when, where and how you will perform a given activity” is specified. Impulsivity can often be reduced by changing the timeline, or other interventions that expand the scope of what is attended to in the present when responding to temptation — for instance by including a representation of consequences in a client’s images of alternative choices.
. . . That’s the cautionary news. The good news comes from a study by Barbel Knauper and her colleagues who found that using mental imagery boosted the benefit of implementation intentions for students attempting to increase their fruit consumption over seven days. Rather than merely forming an if-then plan, such as ‘If I see orange juice at lunch, then I will buy it,’ they also imagined themselves performing this act, with as much sensory detail as possible. A promising result, and the researchers expressed their surprise that no-one had thought to investigate the combination of these two strategies before.
This result comes as no surprise to anyone with even basic training in NLP. Imagining “themselves performing this act, with as much sensory detail as possible” has been a standard and essential part of rehearsing or “future-pacing” any behavioral change. And if done well, an “impulsive” person will often “impulsively” choose what has been rehearsed. (See my blog post, Programming yourself now to remember later.)
This study does not report any checking for objecting parts and satisfying them before a final future-pace, so presumably their results would have been even stronger if they had done that.
Nonverbal rapport and empathy
Research on “mirror neurons” has established a neurological basis for nonverbal mirroring of gestures and movements, ...
...the foundation for the nonverbal rapport that has been a key feature of NLP trainings since the 1970s, as well as for compassion, and “stepping into someone else’s shoes.” Recent research in this area distinguishes between neurons that only fire when someone moves accidentally, or with deliberate intent, showing that the perception of intent (which has also been a major intervention in NLP for over 30 years) has an inherent neurological basis.
Susan Clancy’s research on people who had experienced childhood sexual abuse...
... finds that surprisingly, the vast majority of them were not traumatized by it, and that of those who were, some were not traumatized at the time, but only years later when it was reframed as a horrible experience as a result of listening to the opinions of others who presupposed that it would have life-long harmful effects. So some of what is called PTSD is not an echo of the experience itself, but a result of evaluating the experience after the fact — sometimes years later.
John Bargh’s research...
... focuses on “unconscious mechanisms that underlie social perception, evaluation and preferences, and motivation and goal pursuit in realistic and complex social environments.” In one example, interviewers asked interviewees to hold a cup while they asked them questions. The only difference between the experimental and control groups was that the cup held either warm coffee or a cold drink. Those holding the warm coffee expressed more positive responses than those holding the cold drink. These experiments involve synesthesias — crossover effects between different sensory modalities — in this case transforming the perception of physical warmth into interpersonal warmth. Attention to synesthesias has long been a staple of NLP training — and it is also strong support for nonverbal unconscious factors in rapport, responsiveness, and change.
Self-control and submodalities (the smaller parameters in each of the five sensory modalities).
The ability of small children to exert self-control when presented with marshmallows (If they were successful in delaying, they got two marshmallows instead of one) correlated with success later in life (age 32). When the children were asked how they were able to delay, they said that either they deliberately distracted their attention from temptation by looking somewhere else, or doing something else. Some pretended that the real marshmallow was only a flat picture of a marshmallow — an explicit submodality shift that is used in a number of NLP patterns.
This is only a very small sampling of current research studies that support various aspects of NLP practice and methodology, and more appear each week. There is a lot of research that supports NLP principles, but it is not identified as such. If all these studies were collected into a review article, it would provide quite impressive support. Meanwhile, a few of us continue to explore the boundaries of what we already know and can do.