Psychotherapy Lite

Neurolinguistic programming has become a favored pop psychology technique because it is easy to follow. But does it work?
Seeing Is Believing

Using simple exercises, NLP coaches try to help clients change their thinking, feelings or actions. Therapists also use NLP to treat psychological problems. For example, a patient who cannot shake the visions of a severe car accident, which causes him to feel that another crash is an ongoing threat, can consciously imagine the scene as blurry, less significant and more distant. As the image loses definition over time, the emotional sting subsides as well. NLP therapists tend not to ask, “What do you see?” but rather, “How do you see what you are seeing?” These techniques derive from several ideas: the assumption that all behavior derives from neurobiological processes, the belief in language as an instrument to order thoughts and behaviors, and the notion that thoughts and actions can be organized, or programmed, in a way that optimizes results. Hence, neurolinguistic programming.

Perhaps the greatest strength of NLP is that the techniques are easily grasped. The subject is given training exercises that can be practiced on his or her own. For someone like Tom, who wants to achieve greater self-confidence during public speaking, this is not much of a problem. But in other cases, such as someone who wants to drastically change careers because of dissatisfaction, useful therapies can be much more complex. Some critics question whether the simple steps can help at all in such cases.

The methods on which NLP draws are not new [see box above]. For example, the “anchoring” Tom did comes from hypnotherapy. Some practitioners are accused of overestimating both the effects and the utility of these exercises. Purveyors who have a superficial outlook tout NLP as a panacea for all kinds of problems. NLP's respected proponents are more selective, of course, but even they have little scientific explanation for why the techniques supposedly work. In contrast to long-standing, proved approaches, such as behavioral or talk therapy, just a few isolated peer-reviewed studies have explored NLP's effectiveness, and these have found evidence only of very limited effects.

It is not as though Grinder and Bandler hadn't tried to give their invention scientific underpinnings 30 years ago. They used then current brain research to explain how their techniques worked. But they started from a number of presuppositions that had not been scientifically validated. For example, the researchers postulated that each individual preferentially uses a certain sensory channel such as vision or hearing. If that were so, each of us would perceive information in a different way, a mechanism for which there is no evidence. But NLP's proponents say the proof is in the pudding. This is usually followed by an invitation to attend an NLP seminar and try the techniques directly.

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