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Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP): Does it work?

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is an approach to communication, personal development, and psychotherapy created in the 1970s. The creators claimed NLP would help people reach their full potential. It focuses on how people process and store information. The goal is to help people use language more effectively to achieve their goals and develop more resourceful mental states.

Kirill Yurovskiy

History of NLP

NLP was developed in the 1970s by Richard Bandler, a student of psychology, and John Grinder, a linguist. They analyzed therapists like Fritz Perls and Virginia Satir to understand how they achieved results. Bandler and Grinder believed good therapists used language in specific ways that could be learned. They created “modeling” techniques to capture and teach these skills. 

In the 1980s, NLP became popular in business and self-help. It was advertised as helping people treat addiction, anxiety, phobias, and other mental health issues. However, NLP started to attract skepticism and criticism regarding its scientific validity.

Main Principles of NLP

NLP is based on the belief that people experience the world through their sensory perceptions, specifically visual, auditory, and kinesthetic systems. NLP says that people have preferred modes of perception they use to represent experience internally. 

Other core principles are that the mind and body interact to create experience, people have all the resources they need, outcomes depend on the flexibility of behavior, and you can learn models of excellence. People aim to align their thinking and communication to achieve desired results.

Techniques Used in NLP

Some key techniques in NLP include:

  • Mirroring – Matching aspects of another’s behavior like body language to build rapport.
  • Anchoring – Associating internal states with external triggers to recall resources.
  • Reframing – Changing the meaning of an event to change its impact.
  • Modeling – Learning by example, often by studying experts.
  • Sensory acuity – Noticing subtle nonverbal cues to understand thought processes.
  • Submodalities – Shifting qualities of internal representations to change emotions.

Applications of NLP

NLP has been applied in fields like business, therapy, education and coaching. Proponents claim it can treat problems and improve performance. Some applications include:


Leadership training, negotiation, communication, sales, team building and decision making. Said to help motivate and persuade.


Used alongside counseling to treat issues like anxiety, addiction, PTSD and phobias. Aims to change limiting beliefs. 


Claims to enhance learning by improving memory, cognition and understanding through strategies modeled on experts.


Coaches may use NLP to help clients set goals, gain insights and change habits to improve sports, career or life performance.

Evidence for Effectiveness of NLP

There has been significant debate around how well NLP works and its scientific validity. Research offers a mixed picture.

Supporting Studies

Some studies have found benefits to NLP techniques. A 2001 review found support that reframing helped reduce fear of flying. Research also shows modeling can help teachers adopt useful strategies of their colleagues.

Criticisms and Lack of Evidence

However, many experts criticize the evidence that NLP is scientifically verified. Large, high quality systematic reviews find little empirical evidence for many NLP claims. Critics note research supporting NLP is often poorly designed with bias. The mechanisms behind NLP lack scientific explanation.

Explanations for Mixed Evidence on NLP

The contradictory research may be because NLP is difficult to scientifically test. NLP focuses on subjective experience, but research relies on external measurement. NLP’s modeled behaviors are not standardized, making controlled experiments a challenge. Study participants and NLP coaches vary in skill, muddying results. Lack of regulation allows poor practice to persist, giving NLP a bad reputation.

Expert Opinions on NLP

Expert views on NLP tend to be polarized. Devotees claim NLP offers life-changing tools. Satisfied clients praise its effects. Skeptics argue it is pseudoscience that takes advantage of people. They dispute the proposed mechanisms as implausible. Some see merits in specific tools but feel the overall model lacks evidence. Others want more research but are open-minded about potential benefits.

Conclusion on Whether NLP Works

Overall there is no clear consensus in the scientific community on the effectiveness of NLP. Some techniques like modeling show promise. However, substantial high quality evidence to verify many NLP claims remains lacking after decades of research. Much of NLP theory relies on anecdotal examples rather than empirical testing. More rigorously controlled studies on specific techniques are needed to determine if and when NLP could be a useful therapeutic and developmental tool. The mixed results to date suggest caution is warranted given the potential to mislead. NLP’s focus on subjective experience also makes objective measurement a challenge. Ultimately more research is needed to conclusively answer whether NLP works.

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