Is NLP all it is cracked up to be?

Neuro Linguistic Programming or NLP a form of talking therapy that is supposed to help with everything from common mental health problems, to succeeding at life, to selling more stuff. NLP claims a connection between brain processes ("neuro"), language ("linguistic") and ways of behaving learned through experience ("programming"). It supposedly reprograms your brain using specific language, which in turn changes your behaviour to make you feel better or make you more successful. A quick search will finds numerous practitioners offering NLP as a method to achieve just about everything you can dream of.

The lure of a quick, easy, quasi-magical fix with some impressive sounding words (after all it has the word 'neuro' in it) is too compelling to resist. It also borrows heavily for the modern metaphor of the brain as a computer. The logic here is that specific code (special language) can be used to program our central supercomputer, the brain.

Sound too good to be true? It probably is. Prof Jackie Sturt, Professor of Behavioural Medicine at King’s College London, conducted a review of existing research  published in the British Journal of General Practice. After trawling through all the papers she could find on NLP she could not find any justification for the amount of money spent on NLP by the NHS. Her paper reveals that the NHS spent over £800,000 on NLP from 2006-9, and a further estimated £105,000 on training staff.  Prof Sturt said: ‘Neurolinguistic Programming is currently used to help with certain health conditions such as anxiety disorders, weight management, morning sickness, substance misuse, and claustrophobia during MRI scans. However, the very fact that there is no agreed definition of NLP indicates how little evidence we have of its benefits'.  That's right, we cannot even agree what it is, how it works or how to deliver it consistently.

A recent BBC report claims that there is no way of telling whether someone is qualified to do NLP or not and that there are no clear agreed way to measure how it may help people. NLP is wide spread as an approach and it has a basic popular appeal based on its quick and easy 'wave a magic wand' appeal, which borrows some scientific credibility from the use of the words 'neuro' and 'programming'.

'OK, but it surely is harmless' I hear you say. We have two problems with it:

  • First, its a con; there is no evidence that it helps any specific situation in any way. If you are being charged money for a solution to a problem you have with a promise of some wondrous remedy you are being sold the modern equivalent of snake oil. Don't feel bad, though, it seems that even the NHS falls for it in spite of the Prof's recommendations.
  • Second it may stop people from getting the real help they need and, as a result, the problem may get worse.

Any approach that has a 'dummies guide' should be viewed with some degree of caution.  Buyer beware!