A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Does NLP work? Is it the basis of Derren Brown's "mind control" act?

November 20, 2007

The Sci-Fi Channel recently began running a show by the UK “mentalist” Derren Brown where he apparently uses sleight-of-hand and psychological tricks to achieve what seems impossible. In one instance a person with a missing arm closes his eyes, yet correctly identifies several objects on a table using his “phantom limb”. The idea behind all of this is that Brown uses a kind of neuro-linguistic programming, or NLP. Supposedly people trained in NLP use incredibly subtle suggestions via particular vocabulary and behaviors to predict or influence what someone will think or do. So what’s the deal with NLP? Is it real? How well does it work?

Let's address the three major questions here one by one:

(1) What is NLP? Well, in their book Frogs Into Princes, the men who bestowed NLP upon on the world, Richard Bander and John Grinder, tell us that NLP is “an explicit and powerful model of human experience and communication." A company claiming to be the world’s largest NLP training outfit suggests it is “a highly effective methodology for modelling excellence and creating change.”

Looking for a definition that doesn't double as a sales pitch, we turn to the Skeptic's Dictionary, which calls NLP “one of many New Age Large Group Awareness Training programs" [that] . . . claims to help people change by teaching them to program their brains." [italics in original] The same source notes the profusion of vague and ambiguous terms used by NLP devotees to ostensibly describe what they do. Some might tactlessly suggest this lack of an agreed-upon definition reminds us there was some dispute about the color of the emperor’s new clothes as well, but practitioners might reply that the lack of a single definition, far from being a flaw, simply reflects the fact that NLP has many facets and can be applied to different ends in different contexts.

Rather than thrashing about in the quicksand of contentions, we can concoct an approximate definition that will suffice for our present purpose: NLP theory presents several ways to model some of the workings of the mind, with particular emphasis on communication and personal development.

It is worth mentioning that the inventors do not claim that their model of the mind’s operation is necessarily accurate, only that it works. That is, that the model seems to aid in understanding behavior and can lead to productive and beneficial results. Some of these claimed benefits are therapeutic (relief from anxiety, stress, phobias or unwanted habits). Others pertain to personal growth and self-development (greater confidence, better focus, improved communication skills, higher achievement).

Whatever else NLP may be, it is certainly a success story. Since NLP was developed in the 1970s it has grown to be an international phenomenon, spawning countless websites, books, study aids and training courses. NLP training and counselling is offered all over the world, and most self-help courses at least refer to NLP, whether or not they endorse it. (Tony Robbins, a walking synonym for self-help training, has a background in NLP.)

(2) Does it work? Unsurprisingly, those with training courses to sell answer with an emphatic yes, while other sources tend to be less evangelical. One might suppose that a good way to get to the facts would be to refer to independent scientific and clinical research. There are two problems

The first problem is that for every source claiming that NLP is scientifically well accredited, there is an equal and opposite source asserting that this is not so. For example, the Inspiritive training company hosts an online database of NLP-related research papers, implying that at least some of these constitute credible scientific support. In contrast, blogger Donald Clark presents his own list of less supportive papers and argues that there is no scientifically respectable reason to believe any of NLP’s claims.

The second problem is that most NLP advocates (perhaps unsurprisingly) take the view that scientific research is simply irrelevant here. Again, they say only that NLP works, and interested parties are invited to try it themselves and make up their own mind. This stance is not necessarily inappropriate, as it is perfectly possible for something to be practical and useful without any peer-reviewed writing in its support. On the other hand, it is well known that self-assessment and subjective evaluation are often unreliable. In addition, NLP theory undeniably makes some assertions that ought to be empirically verifiable. For example, the NLP concept of "visual accessing cues" is based on the notion, stated as fact, that eye movement is a reliably better-than-chance indicator of whether someone is accessing a memory -- i.e., telling the truth -- or fabricating a lie. One very well qualified researcher, Mike Heap, was among the first to test this claim, and published a paper showing that it is not supported by the evidence. (Heap has also investigated other NLP claims, with similar results, and his papers make for interesting reading.) Many others have looked into "visual accessing" (see, e.g., here), and to date there is no empirical support for this concept.

If scientific research provides no consensus, one may be inclined to turn to anecdotal evidence, bearing in mind the well-known caveat that the plural of anecdote is not data. Every NLP trainer seems to have on hand a thick file of testimonials from trainees to support the claim that, for example, NLP techniques can rid people of lifelong phobias in under an hour or help sports professionals achieve improved performance. However, this richness of positive anecdotal testimony does not necessarily tell us anything much about whether NLP works. First of all, it is a simple matter of record that the same kind of personal testimony has historically been used to support beliefs ranging from phrenology to reading entrails to dowsing. Secondly, one does not have to be rabidly cynical to note that major sources of this "evidence" tend to have a vested interest in NLP and might be less than equally fastidious about collecting the testimony of those who took the course and found it useless.

There remains the possibility, too, that NLP is an instance of what social psychologists refer to as "ritual magic." Reduced to its simplest terms, the argument goes as follows: NLP works only to the extent that the coaching recipient believes that it works. The jargon, rituals, and practices of NLP thus serve principally to convince the trainee that something efficacious is taking place. If it does so, this belief in and of itself may enhance the trainee's ability to bring about changes in his own behaviour or performance. The rituals and practices themselves are more or less arbitrary and would be just as effective even if modified so as to bear no resemblance whatsoever to "genuine" NLP theory and technique. So long as the client believes he is receiving authentic NLP treatment, the results will be equally impressive, equally often.

The ritual magic theory does not claim to have all the answers -- i.e., to know by what mechanism this belief in and of itself enhances one’s ability to bring about a desired change, or why so many people clearly have difficulty achieving the desired change without the ritual trigger. Let it be said that ritual magic is a vast subject in itself and impossible to cover adequately in a short (if rapidly lengthening) article such as this.

(3) What does NLP have to do with Derren Brown's feats of "mind control"? Here, at last, we can offer a definitive answer: nothing at all. In his own book, Tricks of the Mind, Brown writes, “I now have a lot of NLPers analysing my TV work in their own terms, as well as people who say that I myself unfairly claim to be using NLP whenever I perform (the truth is I have never mentioned it)." He adds that he does what he does using a mixture of "magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship."

The apparently erroneous belief that Brown achieves some of his effects via NLP, or has ever claimed to do so, seems remarkably persistent among his legions of baffled fans. This may be because it strikes some as a plausible explanation, filling the vacuum left by want of alternative ways to account for his remarkable feats. In truth, Brown is a very skilled exponent of what is known to magicians as mentalism - the branch of magic that involves illusions of mind-reading and related mental powers. Those who attend NLP courses hoping to emulate Brown's feats might just as well study flower arranging for all the good it will do.; they would be better advised to join a magic club and learn about mentalism. Even then, it might take a while. Mentalism is another vast subject, and achieving results like Brown's will require a lot of practice and experience, not to mention talent and charisma.

References:

Bandler and Grinder, Frogs Into Princes, Real People Press, 1979
Brown, Derren, Tricks of the Mind, Channel 4 Books, 2006

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