A SCIENTIFIC ASSESSMENT OF NLP

Dylan Morgan

I am sure that we have all read and learned something about the theory and techniques of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP). But it is possible that some of us have not had the opportunity to study it in enough detail to determine the validity of the ideas which are involved in it.

A few years ago Dr. Heap, Principal Clinical Psychologist for Sheffield Health Authority and lecturer at Sheffield University, did a very careful and thorough study of all the research that has been done into certain claims of NLP, citing 70 papers in all.

Specifically he was looking into the idea of the Primary Representational System (PRS), which is supposed by NLP to be a very important concept. It is claimed that people tend to think in a specific mode: visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory or gustatory, of which the first three are the most common. NLP claims that it is possible to determine the PRS of a person by noticing certain words that she or he uses which will reveal the mode. It is also claimed that the direction of eye movement is an indicator of the PRS.

The reason why it is said to be important for the therapist to determine the PRS of a client is that it is supposed greatly to enhance rapport if one then matches the clients PRS.

These three assertions are capable of being put to controlled tests to determine how far they are true. Dr. Heap, who is also Secretary of the British Society of Experimental and Clinical Hypnosis, ploughed through the literature to summarise the results of many workers and found the following.

Although the results have been mixed, the hypothesis that a person has a PRS which is observed in the choice of words has been found not to hold by the great majority of researchers. The hypothesis that a person has a PRS which can be determined by the direction of eye movements found even less support.

The third hypothesis which was looked at is the practical one of whether or not we can improve our relationship with a client by matching the presumed PRS. Again the answer is a resounding NO. There is no evidence that focusing on the presumed modality adds anything to the widely recognised finding that matching general characteristics of verbal and nonverbal communication may facilitate rapport. It is interesting that one researcher, Cody, found that therapists matching their clients' language were rated as less trustworthy and less effective!

Dr. Heap comes to the following conclusion:

And he ends:

If you would like to read the article in more detail, or follow up the references cited, you will find it in the volume Hypnosis: current clinical. experimental and forensic practices, edited by Michael Heap and published by Croom Helm in 1988. It contains many other articles of great interest by reputable workers.

I know that some members of the NCP are enthusiastic users of NLP techniques and I would be interested to know their response to this article. On the other hand if you are a member who has tried to use the indirect ways of deducing a person's PRS andfailed, or have tried to pace the presumed PRS and not gained noticeably greater rapport than usual, then you may find comfort in the thought that the fault may not lie in you.

In my own experience a simple question such as, "When you say that do you mean that your actually picture .... to yourself?" is answered happily and openly by people, so that there is no need for devious, indirect or doubtful ways of finding out in detail how their minds are working.

This article first appeared in the Journal of the National Council for Psychotherapy & Hypnotherapy Register, Spring 1993.

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