Over the years, Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) has been creeping into popular culture. It is used by a lot of self-help gurus, and also in context of the right way to educate and learn (e.g., visual learner, auditory learner, etc.)

At its core the NLP presuppositions seem vague. (e.g., "Choice is better than no choice", "People work perfectly", "All actions have a purpose.")

My question is: Is there any credible proof of NLP being anything more than just placebo?

(In my mind I was comparing The Seven Hermetic Principles [not that I subscribe to them] and NLP — trying to to figure out if NLP can score more points than the 7 principles in being scientific, verifiable and substantial.)

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    I think (but am not sure) that NLP is related to the now-discredited Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language defines what we are capable of thinking about. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity) There's a nice general audience summary of the subject here: nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/…
    – Martha F.
    Commented Mar 27, 2011 at 15:21
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    You should clarify what exactly do you want to find the experiments about, as NLP is not a single theory but a broad field where many resarchers have came with their own book sometimes only loosely based on the origin B&G works, and sometimes having nothing to do with them at all, and still claiming they are about "NLP". Right now the question sounds like "Is psychology really scientific?" Btw, the presuppositions are not in any way a legit "content" of nlp theories, they are just introductory thoughts to start people thinking in the nlp way.
    – Cray
    Commented Apr 4, 2011 at 16:38
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    @Martha F It's not based on Sapir-Whorf. Its based on Bandler & Grinder, Alfred Korzybski, and Milton Erickson.
    – iterationx
    Commented May 11, 2011 at 17:02
  • Some elements of NLP are the things that any good salesman or evangelist will do well: identify slight shifts in body language or facial movement that indicate better or worse feelings; identifying which phrases are getting a positive response; building rapport etc. That bit we know works - it just is a bit of human nature. I'd be really interested to see if the esoteric clever stuff is provable.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented May 19, 2011 at 23:44
  • I agree with @Cray: the question is too open to be answered at the moment. Select one particular claim of NLP, and ask whether that claim has been validated.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Nov 17, 2011 at 1:56

5 Answers 5


It seems that there is no scientific basis for NLP. Reading Neuro-linguistic programming: Cargo cult psychology? (2009)

From the abstract:

It concludes that after three decades, there is still no credible theoretical basis for NLP, researchers having failed to establish any evidence for its efficacy that is not anecdotal.

And from the conclusion: (link not in original quote)

To adapt this [Cargo Cult] term one more time, NLP masquerades as a legitimate form of psychotherapy, makes unsubstantiated claims about how humans think and behave, purports to encourage research in a vain attempt to gain credibility, yet fails to provide evidence that it actually works. Neuro-linguistic programming is cargo cult psychology.

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    The article looks good but is not really reliable, since it 1) only uses the term "NLP" not dividing it into any subgroups and that is like adressing the "whole psychology" without talking about specific theories or divisions, and 2) is obviously using false data about NLP, quote "A core principle proposed in NLP is the notion of a preferred representational system". That core principle was abandoned in NLP for like 25 years ago. This, along with other assumptions suggests that the author did not do enough research to make the claims he is making.
    – Cray
    Commented Apr 4, 2011 at 16:57
  • link to paper is broken
    – Casebash
    Commented Mar 30, 2013 at 1:39
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    You can find the article via web.archive.org: web.archive.org/web/20111101120216/http://… .. I have downloaded it , if the archive.org link breaks I'll find some hosting to place it...
    – Nanne
    Commented Aug 7, 2013 at 7:42

A similar question was answered here previously.

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a somewhat controversial area of research, often relegated to journals like The Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management.1

The NLP paradigm as a whole is generally discredited in the more mainstream scientific literature. A widely cited text on the topic concludes to say that:

We found little if any evidence to support NLP’s assumptions or to indicate that it is effective as a strategy for social influence. It assumes that by tracking another’s eye movements and language, an NLP trainer can shape the person’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions (Dilts, 1983). There is no scientific support for these assumptions.2

Tomasz Witkowski of the Polish Skeptics Club published an article in Polish Psychological Bulletin, reviewing the literature on this subject.3 His conclusions although mixed, are also unambiguous:

The qualitative analysis indicates the greater weight of the non-supportive studies and their greater methodological worth against the ones supporting the tenets. Results contradict the claim of an empirical basis of NLP.

Among many reputable sources, Witkowski cites an article in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, which concludes:

They were unable to find any support for the NLP-derived hypothesis that subjects showing differential ability across sensory modes would choose word phrases reflecting their preferred sensory mode.4

  1. See for example, "Rapport Building for Salespeople: A Neuro-Linguistic Approach" by William G. Nickels, Robert F. Everett and Ronald Klein, The Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management , Vol. 3, No. 2 (Nov., 1983), pp. 1-7.
  2. "Be All That You Can Be: Enhancing Human Performance" by D. Druckman in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology Vol 34, No 11 (2004), pp. 2234-2266
  3. http://web.archive.org/web/20150525143628/http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/ppb.2010.41.issue-2/v10059-010-0008-0/v10059-010-0008-0.xml
  4. Fromme, D. K., & Daniell, J. (1984). "Neurolinguistic Programming examined: imagery, sensory mode, and communication." Journal of Counseling Psychology, 31.

Ap Dijksterhuis has done experiments on effects of new code games on the problem solving skills. The results showed that such games greately increase the performance in problem solving and finding a right choice- tasks.

Dijksterhuis A., Bos M., Nordgren L., Baaren R. van. On making the right choice: the deliberation-without-attention effect. 2006. Science. Vol. 311. P. 1005-1007. ** Dijksterhuis A., Olden Z. van. On the benefits of thinking unconsciously: Unconscious thought can increase post-choice satisfaction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2006. In press.

(I think I found a working link here http://www.unconsciouslab.com/publications/Dijksterhuis%20Meurs%20-%20The%20generative%20power%20of%20Unconscious%20Thought.pdf )

In fact, that website has a number of publications on this theme: http://www.unconsciouslab.com/index.php?page=Publications&subpage=By%20year

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman experiment about how framing may affect perception and decision making: http://www.jstor.org/pss/1685855

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    Can you please explain how their research relates to NLP and/or the new code of NLP? I don’t see the connection. Commented Nov 17, 2011 at 16:43
  • New Code games are an important and integral part of the new code, which is by most definitions a part of NLP. Very briefly, they are a way to reach High Performance States. Framing/reframing was a big thing before the new code, and I believe still is, but is in the domain of "old" or classic code. It was used both in "self-help" strategies as well as in "persuasion" strategies.
    – Cray
    Commented Nov 17, 2011 at 22:30
  • Still, I don’t see how the research relates to new code games (the paper you linked to is entitled “Where creativity resides: The generative power of unconscious thought”) … Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 8:37
  • The "distractor task" in the first experiment which was the controlled variable is a type of new code game: an activity specifically designed to take all the conscious attention by utilizing as many senses as possible, or simply overflowing the conscious mind. While the new code does present some standard games such as the "alphabet" or "NASA", the main focus is on the structure of such games, so that anyone can construct their own games, which the researchers did.
    – Cray
    Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 11:29
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    I realise I am quite a latecomer to this answer, but could @Cray or someone else elucidate the connection between the Tversky-Kahneman paper and NLP?
    – DaG
    Commented Dec 25, 2015 at 0:03

There's quite a few techniques/approaches that are combined under the umbrella of 'NLP' and I suppose efficiency and effectiveness of those can vary from one to another, but there are certainly some interesting studies that show noticeable effect sizes:

  1. "Neurolinguistic programming used to reduce the need for anaesthesia in claustrophobic patients undergoing MRI."

The main outcome measures were the ability to tolerate a successful MR examination after neurolinguistic programming, the reduction of median anxiety scores produced by neurolinguistic programming, and models of costs for various imaging pathways. Neurolinguistic programming allowed 38/50 people (76%) to complete the MR examination successfully. Overall, the median anxiety score was significantly reduced following the session of neurolinguistic programming.

  1. "Neurolinguistic programming training, trait anxiety, and locus of control."

This study reports on within-person and between-group changes in trait anxiety and locus of control as measured on the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory and Wallston, Wallston, and DeVallis' Multiple Health Locus of Control immediately following a 21-day residential training in neurolinguistic programming. Significant with-in-person decreases in trait-anxiety scores and increases in internal locus of control scores were observed as predicted. Chance and powerful other locus of control scores were unchanged. Significant differences were noted on trait anxiety and locus of control scores between European and U.S. participants, although change scores were similar for the two groups. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that this training may lower trait-anxiety scores and increase internal locus of control scores. A matched control group was not available, and follow-up was unfortunately not possible.

  1. Effect of neurolinguistic programming training on self-actualization as measured by the Personal Orientation Inventory.

This study reports within-person changes on self-actualization measures of the Personal Orientation Inventory following a 24-day residential training in neurolinguistic programming. Significant positive mean changes were found for 18 master practitioners on nine of the 12 scales and for 36 practitioners on 10 of the 12 scales. Findings are consistent with the hypothesis that training increases individual self-actualization scores.

That is form just a cursory look at PubMed search results.

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    I looked at the first abstract: it was a prospective study with no placebo control. It may have had nothing to do with NLP techniques, but just some reassuring attention, time to prepare, contemplative thought or more info about the procedure that made the difference.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented May 7, 2015 at 1:26

Gareth Roderique-Davies who wrote the "NEURO-LINGUISTIC PROGRAMMING: CARGO CULT PSYCHOLOGY?" article fails to understand what Feynman meant with Cargo cults. NLP doesn't engage in the kind of irrelevant research that Feynman criticized when he criticized research of rat psychology as cargo cult research. The charge about being a cargo cult is about incorperating some practices of productive scientists like doing experiments but getting no useful results. Claiming that NLP integrates the research practices of academia is a failure to understand what NLP is about.

A psychologists named Kevin Hogan who's no member of the NLP community did a study of his understanding of NLP Eye Accessing Cues "NLP Eye Accessing Cues: Uncovering the Myth". The NLP community thinks that he misunderstood their ideas and therefore his experiment didn't work.

Evaluating NLP based on the soundness of it's presuppositions isn't what empiric research is about. Empiricism is about testing whether a technique works in the real world.

You wouldn't test whether a technique of surgery works by letting a researcher read a text about surgery and then perform surgery based on his understanding of surgery. Any serious study that wanted to establish whether NLP works would have to test interventions that are performed by skilled NLP practitioners instead of testing some part of NLP theory.

There are no published studies that tested whether NLP based interventions such as the NLP phobia cure work.

On a similar token asking is NLP different from placebo misses the point. A placebo is a purely psychological intervention. Everyone agrees that NLP is about purely psychological evaluations. If you want to evaluate the usefulness of a psychological evaluations than one should compare it to the conventional treatment.

But are their cases where there's scientific evidence that NLP works? The Fast Phobia Cure is an example. In his literature review paper "Neuro-linguistic programming and application in treatment of phobias" Mahishika Karunaratne writes:

This paper reviews evidence available in literature produced in the UK and US and reveals that NLP is a successful treatment for phobias as well as being particularly efficient due to the relatively brief time period it takes to effect an improvement.

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    I can agree on part 1 of your answer, but I don't understand your claim about placebo. Do you say, that NLP and placebo work equal well, and that placebo is a psychological treatment, and NLP should be compared with doing nothing? Commented Mar 26, 2011 at 10:21
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    There is a lot wrong, if money is spent in useless practice, if people are told, that they get a healing, while you don't know, whether it will have an effect, because you know it hasn't, it's only placebo. It doesn't work always, but classical medicine doesn't work always too. But healing by hope opens the door for all kind of mockery, and the society has to carefully prove, how risky it wants to be. Commented Mar 27, 2011 at 17:49
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    Richard Feynman adapted an existing term "Cargo Cult" to talk about "Cargo Cult Science". Gareth Roderique-Davies explicitly "adapt[s] this term one more time" to talk about NLP. It seems to me the claim is that NLP is designed to look like a real psychotherapy, without any of the science behind it.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented May 10, 2011 at 13:10
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    @Christian, I must admit I am having trouble understanding (a) and how it addresses my comments. (b) The question should not be "does it work?", but "does it work better than placebo?" Indeed, that was what the OP asked, and that is what I am discussing. If placebo works just as well, let's debate the ethics of placebo-treatment, without the need for training therapists in any form of mumbo-jumbo. If it is better than placebo, then let's prove it and bring it into mainstream science.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented May 11, 2011 at 14:06
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    @Christian, the first step in making it look less like a wannabe/cargo-cult psychotherapy would be to remove "neuro" and "linguistic" from the name, when it apparently has zero to do with the first term, and little to do with the second... The fact that those terms sounds "sciency" but aren't being used in a scientific way makes the whole field look a pseudo-science.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented May 11, 2011 at 14:11

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