Scientific Support for Aspects of NLP

There's been a rash of recent studies and publications that directly support NLP, accidentally!

Since NLP's early days in the mid-1970's, its development has been haunted by a lack of properly funded or carried-out research.

This is not because (as some academics have suggested) NLP is just a pseudo-science. 

It's partly because NLP has never claimed to be a science.  Ideally, the use of NLP is a methodology or skill-set that blends assumptions, facts, artistic style, and a sense of experimentation.  The assumptions and facts come from a wide range of fields.  The artistic style comes from an attraction to elegance and commitment to excellence.  The sense of experimentation and exploration come from an assumption that the definition of insanity is the act of repeating an unsuccessful activity over and over again, hoping to get a different result. 

All of these factors have led to hordes of NLP-trained Practitioners and Master Practitioners in every major country in the world, who anecdotally believe NLP has helped them become more successful.  People have achieved extensive success using NLP across a wide array of fields -- initially just therapy, but increasingly into coaching, business, sales, politics, teaching, marketing, medicine, law, and more.

Nearly all scientific funding goes to grant writers.  Most grant writers work for universities and research facilities, in established, traditional fields.  NLP is not a traditional and academically established field, at least, not yet.  The fault of that belongs to the field of NLP.   We have failed to make it more traditional, by running training businesses instead of heavily lobbying to have it taught in schools.  The problem with teaching it in schools has to do with classification.  NLP is best taught as an art, with a partial basis in science.  Lectures are a dry and dead way to learn NLP -- yet NLP is a full body active sport requiring mentorship and feedback loops to help tune behavior and language and style.

It would be more accurate to say that great NLP Practitioners were taught NLP much like someone is taught a martial art -- through practice and refinement.  Poor NLP Practitioners were taught NLP through the delivery of dry information.  You cannot become good at NLP through the transfer of information; you have to get it into the muscle memory, and practice practice practice until you find flexibility and creativity in the activity.

Most scientific grants do not go towards studying an art.  But... we can find ways to do better.

All that said... while direct scientific proof validating specific NLP techniques has not been easily found or funded, we have in recent years seen research that now directly supports many of the early central tenets of NLP.  Here's just a small sampling.

Mirroring... Works.

NLP has suggested for many years that mirroring another person's behavior causes mirroring, and that rapport can be strengthened by mirroring other people. This was laughed at initially. Yet thanks to the scientific discovery of mirror neurons, we now have a scientific basis for understanding how and why most people are more comfortable when mirroring occurs. Mirroring creates a sense of recognition, and recognition creates increased comfort in most people.  According to the following article, published at,

Mirror Neurons Allow Us to Understand Each Other

As per the above article, "Mirroring is believed to be the way in which the brain automatically interprets the actions, intentions and emotions of other people. Mirror neurons, the cells in the brain that activate when we perform a particular action or watch someone else perform that same action, were up until recently only a theory. Scientists knew that they existed deep in our minds and were responsible for making us empathize with others, but had no hard proof to show for it – until now."

Telling you mirroring works, and having you become great at it, are two entirely different things.  You might read this and other sources on mirroring, put it into practice, and think you're doing it well.  You might also not know that you're off in your rhythms, or may only be mirroring above your neck, or mirroring in one way and mismatching in many others.  In short, you don't know what you're not noticing.  To do this elegantly, you need training and honest, positive feedback loops from people who have spent years training themselves to see, hear, and feel more of what most people have learned to ignore.  And then you need a lot of practice.

Also, mirroring directly is now well known in many business circles.  And ridiculously, direct mirroring is now often made fun of or 'toyed with' by those who know it.   What is far more elegant than direct mirroring, and very difficult to catch -- is cross-mirroring or cross-matching.  That's the next level of excellence with creating rapport without being "caught."  And to get good at that, you also need training and honest, positive feedback loops, and a lot of practice.

And to draw your attention to a massively important nuance:  We don't just mirror postures or expressions.  We mirror EMOTIONAL STATES.  This next linked article from the DNA Learning Center, states:

Terms of Empathy: Your Pain is My Pain – If You Play a Fair Game

The most important point in this article, from our perspective, is that mirror neurons aren't only about posture and physiological mirroring. We mirror STATES.  This has enormous implications for how we teach people to lead via state, first.  NLP has a presupposition called “You Go First” and it's never more important than with respect to this lesson, right here.  You need to be able to choose an emotional state, and start feeling it right now, at will -- and feeling it powerfully enough to radiate it.  This is EASY, after you'll have finished taking powerfully effective, and sufficient-duration NLP training.  Not hard, not challenging, but EASY.

Science Backs NLP for “Act As If” and for “You Go First”:

NLP includes another presupposition that if you “Act As If” something is true, it becomes true.  We use this in multiple ways, including in managing our emotional states. If you put a smile on your face, it causes a physiological shift that makes you happier.  We now know and have scientific proof that it also causes a neurological shift – it changes the active blend of neurotransmitters swimming around in your brain.

Saying the above most simply... state doesn't just cause a shift in posture... posture also causes a shift in state.  These two factors are linked, in both directions.  State begets physiology, and physiology begets state.

Amy Cuddy, of Harvard Business School, studied and confirmed that “posing in high-power nonverbal displays (as opposed to low-power nonverbal displays) would cause neuroendocrine and behavioral changes for both male and female participants”.

Power Posing:  Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance

In this case, we believe Harvard Business School is getting press for something that's been observed and taught through NLP, since the late 1970's and early 1980's.  Just don't get blinded by their limited focus on Power Poses.  Here's how to apply the above MYOPIC study, more widely in business: 

  • If you spend 2-3 minutes physically adopting a more conciliatory posture, you will inevitably close negotiations more quickly.
  • If you put a curious expression on your face and lean forward, you will color ANY environment or subject as suddenly becoming more interesting for yourself.
  • If you physically shift an aggressive posture to a more relaxed posture, you will become less oppositional or aggressive, which in turn will put others more at ease.
  • ... and so on.

Remember, State begets physiology, and physiology begets state.  And you have NLP to thank for that, though you can thank Amy Cuddy's research for helping us to demonstrate that we weren't just spouting nonsense.  We were observing, and sharing, human behavior patterns we (as a field) noticed -- decades ago.

Psychology Today published what we would say is a new version of NLP's "Visual-Kinesthetic Dissociation" technique from 1980, without any attribution. (Updated* 1/9/2014, see bottom of section)

Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem.  In that book, there's a passage which is published at the Psychology Today website, entitled "A Simple Mind Trick that Reduces Emotional Pain; How to reduce the pain associated with distressing experiences"

It seems to be increasingly common to read articles in the field of psychology recommending a technique or approach that's been a truly basic part of NLP for decades (after the field has actively resisted NLP as not-Psychology for those same decades).

Here's our approach to the referenced technique for reducing emotional pain:   NLP considers aspects of this mind trick to include one of several elements: (1) simple dissociation, seeing oneself in the picture dealing with the original emotional trigger, instead of seeing the whole experience from our own eyes. Or, (2) using multiple perspectives.  Seeing an event from our own eyes (1st perceptual position), seeing an event from another person's eyes (2nd perceptual position), or seeing an event involving multiple parties from a fly-on-the-wall perspective (3rd perceptual position)

Thanks to the brilliant Eric Robbie for sharing this with me through Facebook:

  • The first mention *in print* of the Visual-Kinesthetic Dissociation technique is on pp117-124 of 'They Lived Happily Ever After' by Leslie Cameron-Bandler, published by Meta Publicatons, Cupertino, CA. in July, 1978. Library of Congress card number LC 78-71281. Near the start of that passage, Cameron-Bandler gives credit to her "colleagues" - by which she meant primarily: Richard Bandler, Judith DeLozier, David Gordon, and John Grinder.   Pay special attention to pp118-119 where there is a detailed discussion of two-place dissociation - or "distancing" - and then three-place dissociation, before the transcript of the treatment of a rape victim begins.

UPDATE, 1/9/2014:  A wide array of NLP Practitioners and trainers contacted Guy Winch, and as a result, he has just published another follow-up article on the Psychology Today website, acknowledging a similar technique from NLP coming decades earlier.  And in the interests of 'equal time', so to speak, he published a handful of techniques submitted by NLP contributors.  The follow-up article can be found here:  NLP Experts Speak Out.  Very kind of you, Dr. Winch!

Don't Blame the Traditional Worlds of Psychology and Business for what we might describe as Myopia.

They can't help it.  They're entrenched.  They have a way of doing things.  They have established channels of vetting information and knowledge, and NLP has flown above those channels, expanding and exploring in its own less traditional way.  Yet there are now millions of NLP students and enthusiasts out there still learning it (not all of which are learning it well, of course, which isn't helping matters).

If someone wants to pursue "business as usual..." if they're not willing to look outside the established rules of their field to discover advances already made elsewhere... then that's their prerogative.  Metaphorical myopia is an unfortunate and unnecessary 'condition'... and its easily treated with a little open-mindedness and a sense of exploration.

If you're in Business and Are Considering Learning or Using NLP in Some Way

Decide on your desired outcomes, interview a few consultants or trainers, and just jump in with a small pilot program or sign up for short seminars with several trainers.  The only way to find out for yourself, is to find out for yourself.

If the reason for your hesitation was because there aren't a lot of scientific studies to rely on yet, hopefully this blog entry has provided you a new and more empowered perspective about the field of NLP.  There are scientific studies that are relevant and valuable and supportive;  they're simply often distorted and misinterpreted, because of who paid for the studies and why. 

We don't claim to be a science; we claim to pursue the art of reproducing achievement and excellence, in accelerated ways.

Would you like to discuss our NLP Business/Consulting services?

Would you like to look at our upcoming Business-oriented NLP Workshops?

Would you like to Help the Field?

There is now a new initiative that is worth investing in:  "The NLP Research and Recognition Project."  At the time of publishing this entry, the main site page for that isn't working, but the project is definitely active.  For now, visit here.


author: Jonathan Altfeld