Why is business so in love with NLP?

24 10 2009

On a recent trip through Stansted airport, I paused, as usual, to check out the airport bookshop in case I was struck by reading famine in-flight. The business and management section presented a familiar sight; increasingly, the top-selling books in this section feature the letters “NLP” in their titles. NLP for sales, NLP for coaching, NLP for work-life balance. Pop into the science or psychology section of a bookshop, however, and you won’t see those letters anywhere. Given that NLP has been consistently considered “pseudoscience” and thoroughly discredited by psychologists, why does it have such a stranglehold on the “business and management” section?

NLP stands for “Neuro-Linguistic Programming” – a system of techniques for changing and shaping human behaviour, which uses language, hypnosis, and behavioural techniques. Most sales training now draws on principles of NLP, such as building rapport through “pacing”, or consciously matching body language and rhythms (a technique found to have some success, but prone to coming across as too obvious and backfiring), or “eye accessing cues” – the idea that by tracking the direction of a person’s eye movements, an insight can be gained into their thoughts; unfortunately, also discredited in scientific studies. For further information, Wikipedia provides an excellent rundown of both NLP and the scientific studies conducted into its validity

When an idea proves strangely resilient despite being contradicted by the evidence, something interesting is going on. Why does the idea appeal so much? NLP offers a lot of things – a scientific-seeming framework and vocabulary, the promise of “quick and easy” change of control or behaviour. As Stuart Sutherland observes in his excellent book Irrationality, we are prone to accept science and neuroscience-sounding explanations and rate them as better than others, even if the “explanations” offered are irrelevant or nonsensical, so NLP taps into our general lack of understanding of the factors affecting our own and others’ behaviour, and offers an explanation that seems both plausible and excitingly full of potential. It’s worth noting, also, that most of the money made through NLP is made by charging for training in the techniques – top salespeople, on the whole, are not those who use NLP techniques the most.

Yet clearly it’s onto something. As we learn more about the brain through neuroscience, increasingly, it seems, we are what we do and think on a regular basis – we’re creatures of neural habit, and if we change the way we consistently think about things, we can change not only our behaviour but the structure of our brains. Cognitive behavioural therapy, which has been demonstrated to work in a clinical setting, works on a very similar base idea of changing unhelpful patterns of thought and replacing them with more useful ones. The genius of NLP seems to be that it combines a plausible, easy-to-learn framework with the germs of a truly exciting and effective idea. The problem is that its execution doesn’t, in fact, come through on this promise.




One response

13 12 2009
Dan Roland

I don’t think business is that into NLP

NLP is marketed as a communication technology and some people fall for it, just like they did with dianetics back in the 60s and 70s.

Here’s another great source:

Neurolinguistic programing is as pseudoscientific as it sounds, and if you look at the latest research it has been identified as one of a top ten most discredited interventions.

That figures!

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