Friday, July 13, 2012

NLP Versus Real Science

It's hard to study magical literature these days without coming across ideas from neuro-linguistic programming, a methodology developed in the 1970's by Richard Bandler and John Grinder that has been picked up by a number of successful contemporary motivational speakers. While these speakers command big money teaching NLP techniques, most of the scientific analysis that I've reviewed of the system has found its claims to be dubious or at best inconclusive. One of the most widely disseminated NLP claims has to do with the supposed relationship between thoughts and eye movements. NLP teaches that when imagining an event, right-handed people tend to look up and to their right, while when remembering an event they tend to look up and to their left. Proponents of the system have taken this idea and run with it, claiming that it can work as a simple form of lie detection - the idea being that a liar is imagining an event, whereas a truth-teller is remembering one. This concept is widely promulgated on the Internet, but scientific studies demonstrating the relationship have never been tracked down. On the contrary, studies undertaken to test NLP claims have pretty consistently failed to support them. This new study, testing the relationship between lying and eye movement, proved to be no exception.

In short, all three studies provided no evidence to support the notion that the patterns of eye-movements promoted by many NLP practitioners aid lie detection. This is in line with findings from a considerable amount of previous work showing that facial clues (including eye movements) are poor indicators of deception [2]. Future research could focus on why the belief has become so widespread. Study 2 assessed the possibility that those who have been told about the claimed relationship between eye-movements and lying feel especially confident in their ability to detect deception, but this hypothesis was not supported by the data. An alternative possibility is that people believe the eye-movement/lying relationship because they are prone to illusory correlations. According to this idea, people will be likely to remember the times that the pattern predicted lying or truth-telling, and forget instances when this was not the case [16], [17]. Future work could examine this hypothesis by examining whether such matches are indeed especially memorable.

This work is the first to experimentally test the claims made by NLP practitioners about lie detection. The results provide considerable grounds to be skeptical of the notion that the proposed patterns of eye-movements provide a reliable indicator of lying. As such, it would seem irresponsible for such practitioners to continue to encourage people to make important decisions on the basis of such claims.

There are many people I have encountered in the magical community who are proponents of NLP. In fact, Bandler and Grinder's original published books describing the foundation of the system were titled The Structure of Magic I and The Structure of Magic II. The idea that NLP represents a sort of scientific approach to the psychological aspects of magick is compelling, but unfortunately most of the "science" I've seen that it claims to be based on is either taken out of context, misinterpreted, or generalized far beyond its original scope. The "neuro" in NLP is essentially meaningless, and while "linguistic programming" might be a reasonable description of the method there is actually little evidence that thought and language are anywhere near as intertwined as NLP claims. Personally, I don't think in words or even symbols unless I make a specific effort to do so, and from that perspective it's ridiculously easy to see the flaws in most linguistic models of cognition. Since the flow of information in society is mediated by language, it seems to me that NLP-like methods would be more applicable to programming interpersonal and especially mass-media communication. Of course, people who do that for a living just call it advertising.

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Donald Michael Kraig said...

Respectfully, your blog starts out great, and then falls apart. Perhaps if you had talked to an actual NLP practitioner such as Phil Farber before making your post you would have had better luck.

You write, "NLP teaches that when imagining an event, right-handed people look up and to their right, while when remembering an event they look up and to the left." In fact, this is completely false. No NLP practitioner would ever say this.

You then write, "Proponents of the system have taken this idea and run with it, claiming that it can work as a simple form of lie detection." Well, that has a grain of truth to it. Actual practitioners who have been trained in NLP would never say this. People who have read a book or watched a video and think they know about NLP might say this, and, indeed, some of these know-nothings have taken the false idea and run with it, saying it is a type of lie detector. It's not.

Therefore, the three studies are nothing but straw man arguments. They've adopted a false premise, disproven the false premise (rather self-evidently, IMO), and then claim they have disproven the fact rather than the false premise. I have no doubt that their tests were accurate. What they prove, however, has nothing to do with NLP, and would be supported by NLP practitioners.

You claim that most of the science NLP is based on is "either taken out of context, misinterpreted, or generalized far beyond its original scope."

Really? Most of it? You've actually investigated more than 50% of the science behind NLP?

I really can't agree with your claim. A major portion of NLP is based on the teachings of Virginia Satir, the "Mother of Family Therapy." She didn't agree with you. More of NLP is based on the teachings of Milton Erickson, the father of modern hypnotherapy. He didn't disagree with it. Some NLP concepts are from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He doesn't disagree with it.

You write that "The 'neuro' in NLP is essentially meaningless." Really? Have you read books such as The Psychobiology of Gene Expression by Dr. Ernest L. Rossi or The Biology of Belief by Dr. Bruce Lipton? They would strongly disagree with you.

I don't think you can back up your claim that "most" of the science behind NLP has been "taken out of context, misinterpreted, or generalized." But of course, I could be quite wrong. Perhaps you could back up your statement with some evidence? I'd like to see it. The hundreds of people I've helped and the tens of thousands of people who have changed their lives for the better because of NLP would appreciate seeing your evidence for this, too.

I do agree that many techniques now called NLP have been part of advertising for a long time. NLP borrows from a wide range of areas and nobody ever said it was new.

I also agree that NLP as a "scientific approach" to the psychological aspects of magick is wanting. On the other hand some aspects of NLP can be used to effectively enhance magick.

I would again suggest that you contact Phil Farber and ask for his opinions and ideas. NLP isn't some sort of panacea or end-all/be-all by any means. However, if you do some research I think you may find there's more to it than you think.

Scott Stenwick said...

Well, I can't say that I'm acquainted with Phil Farber, but I would be happy to discuss this study with you if you're willing. I haven't studied the system very extensively since the early 1990's, so I'll freely admit I may not be up to speed on the most modern developments of it. This study, though, lines up with the research I came across back then.

(1) What does NLP teach about eye movements, then? My understanding was that the diagram that accompanies this article is from actual NLP training, and that's what it shows. Or am I incorrect about this?

(2) The reason I say "proponents of the system" is that I'm aware Bandler and Grinder's original work did not recommend the use of this method for lie detection, but rather that this is a later elaboration that, right or wrong, is commonly ascribed to NLP.

(3) So then your point is that since (2) is not part of the original system, and (2) is what the study explicitly disproved, then the study is meaningless? I'll grant that this may be the case as far as "formal NLP" goes, but I still find it remarkable that they found no significant corellation. I would think that if the effect were real, they would have found something. But am I wrong about that? If so, in what way?

(4) By most I of course mean "most of what I've reviewed." But I'll go ahead and update that in the article to make it clearer.

(5) By "essentially meaningless," I mean that I suppose you could describe NLP as "neuro" if by "neuro" you mean "anything the brain does." Because, of course, the brain handles thinking and conditioning, both of which NLP tries to address. But that meaning is so general I don't find it very useful, and in my opinion the prefix implies some assumptions that modern neuroscientists would be unlikely to support.

Donald Michael Kraig said...

Phil Farber is the author of several books, including Future Magic, and is an expert in hypnosis and NLP.

1) I do not believe the image comes from an NLP book or training, although it may be altered from one. As a result, your interpretation of the technique is off the mark. First, while it is true these are generally accurate for a right-handed person, it is not universally true. People are individuals and before making a judgement you need to calibrate responses. So it's not as straightforward as you state.

So let's say you have spent some time with a person and calibrated his or her responses, and determined that the chart you show is accurate. Let's say you ask a question such as, "Were you at a party last week?" If the person immediately looks up and to their left (your right), it means that they are remembering visual images. If they look up and to their right (your left), it means they are constructing visual images. This construction does not mean they are lying, only that they are drawing on past images to create something. It may be that they had forgotten some of what happened and need to reconstruct it.

Further, some people will look elsewhere first. They may not look up and to the side at all. It takes training and practice to be able to do this and even then you couldn't guarantee accuracy. Is it possible a person is lying if they look up and to their right? Yes, it's possible. But only a NOOB NLPer or a fool would claim it "proves" they are lying.

2) There is a lot of stuff ascribed to NLP that has nothing to do with NLP, or rather, takes some of the ideas and makes wild assumptions about it. A good example is the PUA groups. They think some stupid little trick, which they think is NLP, is going to get them laid. It may get them laid (although more likely they'll just get laughed at), but it's not NLP.

3) No, I think if you had asked any person actually involved in NLP they would have said to the people who paid for the research, "Save your money. Of course you're going to get that result." I think the tests proved what they proved, which had nothing to do with real NLP, just a straw man version of NLP.

I don't have access to the raw data. I have no idea how they tested or the way the questions were asked. People learning how to observe eye motion have to practice for hours to get it. Did these people practice for hours learning to catch tiny movements? I don't know.

4) Originally, Bandler and Grinder thought they were actually affecting the Neurons. That's why they used it. Today, however, it's recognized that although neurotransmitters only transfer data between synapses, neurotransmitter fluid floods every cell of the body. The books I mentioned have raw data on this. This implies, and empirical evidence shows (see Lipton's book, especially), that the way you think can actually change your physiology.

So although I do agree with you that NLP is not a scientific explanation for any aspect of magick (Why do magicians feel they need such an explanation? Are we that insecure?), it is possible to use NLP techniques to make incredible changes in ourselves, and that can lead to results in our futures--a willed change: magick. Rather than looking at NLP as an explanation, I see it as one model among several that can be used as a method for achieving magickal results. That's why I included a section on one aspect of NLP in the latest edition of my Modern Magick.

I hope this gives you some more information. Again, if you'd like more, I'll be glad to try and give you some, but I'm nowhere near as trained in NLP as is Phil Farber, who is intelligent, knowledgeable, and has a great sense of humor.

Scott Stenwick said...

(1) I thought it was obvious that in my explanation I was talking about tendencies as far as eye movement goes, not determinism, but I suppose maybe it isn't. I'll add a "tend to" in there, but I don't think that it changes the meaning much.

(2) Don't get me started on PUA groups. I see that you have the same opinion of them that I do.

(3) It seems to me that if learning to do this takes that amount of practice, an alternative explanation could just be calibration of the motor neuron system in a such a way that it manifests as a sort of intuition - and maybe it doesn't correlate to eye movement at all much of the time.

(3) I don't know their precise methodology either. But here's a question - do you know of a scientific study that supports these claims? I would happy to cover that as well here on the blog as a counterpoint if it is similarly controlled, peer-reviewed, and so forth.

(4) That's pretty much my point, though. They thought they were affecting the neurons and they were wrong. Sure, thinking affects neurotransmitters, but so does everything else the brain does, whether you're composing a novel or watching television.

Also, just as a point, what I'm saying here is not that NLP is useless. I'm saying that it's unscientific - but then, at this point, so is magick. What I find bothersome about many people who are into NLP is that they claim over and over again what they're doing is scientific and therefore more factually based than, say, evocation. Working with your mind is always a good and useful thing when you're a magical practitioner, and if NLP is the system that appeals to a student I wouldn't tell them not to explore it.

Donald Michael Kraig said...

For the second point 3, here are some resources:
Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. Vol. II, Grinder, J., DeLozier, J. and Bandler, R., 1977.

NLP Vol. I, Dilts, R., et al, Meta Publications, Capitola, CA, 1980.

Roots of NLP, Dilts, R., Meta Publications, Capitola, CA, 1983.

Eye and Head Turning Indicates Cerebral Lateralization; Kinsbourne, M., Science, 179, pp. 539_541, 1972.

Lateral Eye Movement and Cognitive Mode; Kocel, K., et al., Psychon Sci. 27: pp. 223_224, 1972.

Individual Differences in Cognitive Style_Reflective Eye Movements; Galin, D. and Ornstein, R., Neuropsychologia, 12, pp. 376_397, 1974.

The Effect of Eye Placement On Orthographic Memorization; Loiselle, Fran_ois, Ph.D. Thesis, Facult_ des Sciences Sociales, Universit_ de Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, 1985.

Eye Movement As An Indicator of Sensory Components in Thought; Buckner, W., Reese, E. and Reese, R., Journal of Counseling Psychology, 1987, Vol. 34, No 3.

Regarding your point 4: You're absolutely correct. I've been writing about this, as part of magickal work, for a long time. I've specifically made the point that if you spend 10 minutes doing a ritual and then spend several hours a day focusing on the opposite goal of the ritual, you're going to be countering the effects of the ritual.

Until recent scientific research, there was no physiological reason to support this idea. With scientific evidence of neurotransmitters everywhere, there is an indication (I wouldn't yet put it at the level of "proof") that in certain applications this is true.

The advantage of NLP and magick, is twofold. First, they both give you an understanding that what your thoughts and behaviors can alter your reality. Second, there are techniques for directing thoughts and behaviors so they are congruent and support your goals, rather than counter them. NLP, IMO, does have more information and practice on this than does most magickal systems, making some aspects NLP very good complements to magickal practice.

Finally, I would have to disagree with your claim that NLP is unscientific. Or more accurately, this is going to depend upon a person's definition of the concept of science. For me, the concept of science is the objective testing of concepts to determine their validity. Using that definition of science, NLP is absolutely scientific. I agree with that definition.

If, as many people do, people take scientific to mean a body of knowledge supported by a large group of people with deep financial links to keeping that body of knowledge constant and unchanging, then, indeed, many concepts of NLP are disruptive and unscientific.

The thing to understand, IMO, is that, well, NLP isn't a "thing." Bandler, one of the founders of NLP, defines it as "an attitude and a methodology which leaves behind a trail of techniques." Grinder, the other founder, defines NLP as "the study of excellence and how to reproduce it."

So even if you discovered that one aspect of NLP wasn't accurate, that would, at worst, invalidate that one aspect. NLP is based on the pioneering works of Sigmund Freud, Gregory Bateson, Noam Chomsky, Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson. The only thing new about NLP is the linking together of numerous established concepts into a complex but coherent whole (sort of like the corpus of the GD knowledge and techniques).

Scott Stenwick said...

Since you don't have links for those articles, it may take me awhile to track them down. I'll see what I can do, though. Data is data, and I'm always happy to review more of it.

I'm well aware that this particular study only addresses one claim out of the many techniques that make up NLP, and I think that I was pretty clear on that. Most of the other research I've seen on it, though, did produce similar results - under controlled conditions, the claims investigated either do not work or do not work nearly as well as claimed.

As far as dealing with conditioning and behavior loops in order to make them congruent with goals, I agree with you that's an important part of magical practice and NLP does have more tools for working with it than many magical systems. In the sources I've read it plays a little fast and loose with the rules of classical and operant conditioning and I generally am a proponent of what I consider more rigorous and experimentally grounded techniques, but the NLP method is certainly much better than not addressing such things in your practice at all.

By scientific I mean "objectively observable and reproducible under controlled, peer-reviewed conditions." I haven't seen any clear evidence of that so far, but I'll grant that perhaps the sources you've listed will contain it.

Donald Michael Kraig said...

Unfortunately, if we accept "objectively observable and reproducible under controlled, peer-reviewed conditions" as the definition of "scientific," then everything from geology to psychology, anthropology to archeology, no longer qualify as sciences. So I would respectfully suggest that you definition may be a bit too limited, no?

Scott Stenwick said...

You're welcome to that opinion, but to my way of thinking any discipline that makes predictions about the nature of reality and claims that those predictions are backed up by solid research and thus "scientific" needs to meet those criteria. Again, to my way of thinking "unscientific" does not mean "worthless." I practice magick quite seriously and I'll be the first to admit that as a discipline it's not there yet - but I hope that someday it will be.

Donald Michael Kraig said...

So I guess you're saying various aspects of geology aren't scientific because, for example, movement of the tectonic plates over centuries isn't objectively observable. And anything to do with the mind isn't objectively observable either. So many things that most people would consider to be scientific you don't think are scientific. Okay....

Scott Stenwick said...

It seems like at this point we'll just have to agree that our definitions are different and leave it at that. Of course there's a difference between predictive and descriptive science, as any geologist or astronomer would tell you. I suppose you could contend that NLP is more a descriptive science than a predictive one, but the thing is that it does make predictions about the behavior of individual people in a manner that is testable. That means we should test it, right? Then, if those predictions turn out to be wrong, the model used to predict them needs to be revised. And so forth.

All I'm really saying is that my definition of "scientific" is "conforms to the scientific method." I guess that's a more controversial notion than I previously assumed.

bedroom-magick said...

Having done some work with Phil Farber doing , basic NLP work would involve something like bringing up a negative feeling and using various 'modelling' techniques to break down how you are representing that negative emotional state. Rather than applying some contrived set to it you'd ideally run through the whole gamut of sensory representations (phil had a chart of about 30 to try out and test).

Apart from learning more about how you construct your own subjective experience you might then try altering the representations (make the image smaller/bigger, mess with the colour) and see if that affects your emotional state.

I don't know how much work has really been done in collating data and trying to make predictive statements about tendencies. I'm not sure it would actually do anything useful- for example we might get a result that 49% of people tend to look to the right and 51% of people tend look to the right. i.e so what...

the important and interesting thing is finding out how YOU represent reality and whether doing this can give you a leverage on your state. Although NLP aims to model more that emotional states but its as far as i've got.

Really, the experience I got of NLP is that its closer to literary criticism. As in you apply the 'modelling' framework to your experiences and see if that brings up anything useful.

I highly recommend you try and make contact with Phil Farber. He's reasonably accessible over at

Scott Stenwick said...

And, as I've mentioned several times in this exchange above, I don't have a problem with anyone who wants to use NLP as a system for that sort of internal work. Anything involving the mind is not directly observable at our current level of technology, so there's no way to subject it to formal experimentation. If you find that it works for you, that's great - keep working with it. My only problem is when its advocates put forth testable claims that don't hold up under rigorous experimentation.

Personally, I studied and worked with the system almost twenty years ago now and didn't find it to be terribly useful in my own magical practice - but YMMV.

Unknown said...

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