Preferred Representational Systems

Much of the research done in the 1980s on NLP as concerned with a concept developed by Bandler & Grinder (1976); the highly valued representational system, an adjunct to the representational systems model whose basic premise is that people represent and organise the external world using internal systems based on the five senses.

Bandler and Grinder proposed that “the predicates, the words a person chooses to describe their situation – when they are specified by representational system, let us know what their consciousness is.,  The predicates indicate what portion [of internal representations] they bring into awareness.” These “predicates are used to describe the portions of a person’s experience which correspond to the processes and relationships in that experience;” (pp 9).

The most important implication of this model was that “by consciously selecting your predicates to match those of the person with whom you want to communicate, you will succeed in accomplishing clearer and more direct communications” (pp. 15)

Sample Predicates (pp. 15, 1976)

Kinesthetic ,Visual , Auditory

Feel ,                See ,           Hear

Touch ,            Show ,       Listen

Feels ,              Looks ,      Sounds

The Original Interpretation

Bandler and Grinder (1976) originally specified a “highly valued representational system:”

  • “We, as humans, usually have a most highly valued representational system, and very often we will neglect to use the additional representational systems available to us.” (pp. 25)
  • “We tend to use one or more of these representational systems as a map more often than the others,” (pp. 8)
  • “Comments such as ‘I see what you’re saying’ are most often communicated by people who organize their world primarily with pictures. These are people whose most highly valued representational system is visual.”
  • “People limit themselves by deleting a portion of their experience [and] leaving out an entire representational system, [reducing] his model and his experience.” (pp. 12)
  • “If we communicate with predicates that are kinaesthetic, it will be easier for [a ‘kinaesthetic person’] both to understand our communication and to know that we understand him. This process of shifting predicates to allow our clients to understand our communication with greater ease is the basis and the beginning of trust.” (pp. 14)
  • “This particular client’s model of the world was primarily visual” (pp 17)

Conceptions of PRS In The Research Literature

Much of the research based upon the concept of a PRS adopted a fairly constrained interpretation of Bandler & Grinder’s model. For example:

  • “People perceive events in the world and subsequently represent their subjective experience of these events primarily through one of the visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic sensory systems, even though stimuli impinge on all sensory channels.” (Ellickson, 1983)
  • “People have a primary or preferred representational system (PRS) for representing the world. Information is processed as visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic images,” (Elich, Thompson and Miller, 1985)
  • “If the therapist can ascertain the client’s PRS and interact with the client in the client’s PRS, enhanced communication, trust, and therapeutic progress will result,” (Elich et. al.)
  • “Bandler and Grinder argue that communication between a therapist and a client with different PRSs is difficult because each communicates through different modes of experience and internal representations of the world.” (Elich et. al.)
  • “When the counsellor identifies the client’s representational system and then communicates in the same sensory system, understanding between client and counsellor is increased and rapport is enhanced.” (Ellickson, 1983)
  • “Communication between individuals with differing PRSs can be difficult” (Falzett, 1981)

An Alternative Interpretation

Conceptions of the representational systems model within the research literature tended to ignore Bandler & Grinder’s indications of flexibility and context-specificity:

  • “By most highly valued representational system we mean the representational system the person typically uses to bring information into consciousness, to represent the world and his experience to himself.,  A person may have more than one most highly valued representational system, alternating them.” (pp. 26, 1976)
  • “When you play athletics or make love, you have a lot of kinaesthetic sensitivity.,  When you are reading or watching a movie, you have a lot of visual consciousness.,  You can shift from one to the other.,  There are contextual markers that allow you to shift from one strategy to another.” (p36, 1979)
  • “You are using all systems all the time.,  In a particular context you will be aware of one system more than another” (p 36, 1979)
  • “Some representational systems may be more efficient for certain tasks.” (pp. 26, 1976)
  • “After allowing yourself to hear and to identify the person’s representational system, ask him directly how he is organising his experience at this point in time.” (pp. 11, 1976)
  • “[One variable to determine, is] the client’s most highly valued representational system for this problem.” (pp. 174)
  • “Most people use the same kind of strategy to do everything”, but “rather than thinking of yourself as being visually oriented, kinaesthetically oriented, or auditorily oriented, take what you do best as a statement about which system you already have well-developed and refined.” (pp. 36, 1979)

Einspruch & Forman (1985) seem to be the only researchers who took note of the rather implicit suggestions made by Bandler & Grinder, criticising numerous research studies for apparently not considering or providing adequate controls for the fact that

“…the representational system in which information will be stored or from which it will be retrieved is highly contextualized (i.e. varies with the situation), and this context will directly influence the system used.”

Inaccurate Perceptions

In addition, some academic authors made theoretical and practical extensions to the model which were not necessarily in line with the original specifications. These additions have resulted in detrimental consequences to the research, given that their implications result in testing models other than those defined by NLP.

  • “Most cognitive events associated with day-to-day experiences are principally encoded in one of the three major modalities.” (Gumm, Walker and Day, 1982). An “individual’s experience will then be stored in a primary representational system (PRS); that is, the sensory system most frequently used.” (Falzett, 1981) Note that the original specifications of representational systems did not refer to encoding or storage processes at all. It was not necessary to propose storage strategies, because they cannot be determined through – nor are they relevant to – verbal or non-verbal communication.
  • “The counsellor can monitor the client’s eye movements during the counselling session,” or “simply seek the client’s own opinion regarding the client’s preferred modality,” to “identify the client’s PRS” (Gumm, Walker and Day, 1982). Dorn (1983) also explores the latter technique, despite acknowledging in the same paper that “people unconsciously choose specific words that best represent an experience. Note that Bandler & Grinder originally proposed tracking predicates as the only appropriate behaviour to determine the “highly valued representational system.”
  • Dorn (1983) attempted to determine participants PRS through asking participants to select their preferred predicate from each of 18 sets of three predicates; one visual, one auditory and one kinaesthetic. The study thus assumed that choosing a word presented visually reflects upon a similar system or strategy involved in making word choices in verbal descriptive action, which is an unwarranted assumption.
  • Dorn (1983) lists “blast” as an auditory predicate which appeared in one of the triads (taken from Bandler & Grinder, 1976). Although the source is one of the original NLP source-books, “blast” is in fact, non-specific, potentially referring to visual (image of a dynamite blast), auditory (trumpet blast) or kinaesthetic (a blast of hot air) representations. It is a simple task to check whether predicates are “clean,” i.e. specific to one and only one representational system, and as such should not be overlooked in serious research.

Two important issues are inherent in these illustrations:

  1. Definitions and presuppositions of NLP models must be agreed upon and adequately defined to avoid misinterpretation.
  2. Models tested in experimental studies must be in line with the presuppositions contained in the model being investigated.

We recommend comprehensive and professionally-accredited NLP training, to provide the distinctions necessary to perform useful and beneficial experimental studies into the area of NLP.

The Current Specification

Clearly many researchers were not able to wholly interpret and apply the full PRS specification in their research, and this calls attention to the importantance of having clearly and concretely specified models within NLP.

Whether or not the subsequent research on the preferred representational system influenced the conceptions of the model within the NLP community, it is clear that Bostic St. Clair & Grinder’s (2001) New Code emphasis on individual calibration and sensory acuity, precludes such a rigidly specified model. Responding directly to sensory experience requires an immediacy which respects the importance of context and implicitly acknowledges the flexibility and context-dependence of peoples’ mental strategies in many diverse domains.

In his 1996 interview on this website, John Grinder has recommended that “anyone using the representational system material (e.g. eye movement patterns, unconscious selection of predicates….), [should] recognize and act congruently with the proposition that “the temporal value of a representational system diagnosis is 30 seconds.”

Bostic St. Clair & Grinder’s definition in “Whispering in the Wind,” calls attention to the ability to shift between representational systems: “The selection of predicates under normal circumstances is an unconscious act – this makes it particularly valuable to the trained listener as the speakers are thereby revealing what their present ongoing underlying activated mode of thought and processing is, typically without any awareness that they are offering such information. It is relatively simple to develop significant states of rapport by the simple strategy of tracking (that is, following the lead of) the representation system preferred by the person you are attempting to achieve rapport with – as they shift from one representational system to another, you simply adjust your communication to remain in synch.”

Thus because “both parties are presenting their material in the same representational system,” information transfer is effective and efficient.

Note that Bostic St. Clair and Grinder describe preference for representational system in the same breath as describing their ability to shift between them in their communications – presupposing context-specificity.

Thus, in specific contexts, a particular sensory system may take dominance (for example, being primarily aware of external kinesthetic representations – bodily movements and sensations – while swimming, or concentrating preferentially on auditory comparisons while composing a new melody on the piano).

Representational system preferences thus tend to be a contextual artefact in that when an individual considers specific contexts, their language can reflect how they process the information relating to the process of considering that context.

In certain cases a person may find themselves with certain rigid representations and strategies which preclude behavioural choice.,  In such a case, where one representational system may predominate, “the only thing you need to do is to join their system wherever they are and then slowly overlap to lead them into the system you want to engage them with” (1976, p44).

Thus sensory predicates should be matched in real-time, at the moment a person produces them. In fact, Hammer (1983) used the process of tracking and matching or mismatching predicates in this manner, finding an effect of matching on perceived empathy, although Hammer also neglected other methodological issues rendering the study inconclusive.


Understanding the development and the issues surrounding the PRS concept is a vital step in interpreting the results of academic research into NLP. Whether or not the research has had a direct impact upon the existing representational systems model, the current model is further in line with the New Code principle of calibration and the importance of considering the role of context in any communication.

Full References

Bandler, R., & Grinder, J. (1979). Frogs into princes : neuro linguistic programming. Moab, Utah: Real People Press.

Bandler, R., & Grinder, J. T. (1976). The structure of magic II. Palo Alto, Calif.: Science and Behavior Books.

Bostic St. Clair, C., & Grinder, J. (2001). Whispering In The Wind. Scotts Valley, California 950666: J & C Enterprises.

Einspruch, E. L., & Forman, B. D. (1985). Observations Concerning Research Literature on Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 32(4), 589-596.

Elich, M., Thompson, R. W., & Miller, L. (1985). Mental imagery as revealed by eye movements and spoken predicates: A test of neurolinguistic programming. Journal of Counselling Psychology, 32(4), 622-625.

Ellickson, J. (1983). Representational systems and eye movements in an interview. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 30, 339-345.

Falzett, W. (1981). Matched versus unmatched primary representational systems and their relationship to perceived trustworthiness in a counseling analog. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 28, 305-308.

Gumm, W., Walker, M., & Day, H. (1982). Neurolinguistic programming: Method or myth? Journal of Counseling Psychology, 29, 327-330.

Hammer, A. L. (1983). Matching perceptual predicates: Effect on perceived empathy in a counseling analogue. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 30(2), 172-179.

About the Author

Richard Thompson, BSc. (Cognitive Science), is a Graduate of Exeter University, and is a freelance writer and web consultant. He holds the Graduate Certificate in NLP and enjoys receiving responses to his work.

Article content copyright 2006. Richard Thompson. All rights reserved.

All other material copyright 2006. INSPIRITIVE, Pty Ltd. All rights reserved.

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