Psychological Research and NLP

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a psychological approach that aims to model the structure of expertise and expert performance and the patterns of communication that accompany them. Despite its popularity, the scientific validity of NLP has been questioned due to methodological errors in some of the studies conducted. In this article, we will explore the science behind NLP and address some of the methodological issues raised by critics.

One important aspect of NLP research is understanding the associative nature of the human nervous system. Pavlov’s famous experiments with dogs and bells illustrated the basic psychological understanding of association. NLP studies have occasionally overlooked the lessons learned from associative learning research. For example, Dorn (1983) attempted to determine participants’ preferred representational systems (PRS) by having them select one word out of three sets of visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic words. However, this study overlooked the fact that participants might choose a word based on its specific associations rather than their PRS.

Another important consideration in NLP research is the impact of context. Humans function within and are influenced by context, which significantly affects processing across a wide range of cognitive domains, including learning, memory, language interpretation, problem solving, and perception. The confounding and influential effects of context significantly affect processing in memory experiments, as well as in language interpretation, perception, and problem-solving. In a classic example of context-dependent memory, Baddeley and Godden (1975) tested the memory of participants in two different environments: underwater and on land. They found that participants recalled more words learned in the same environment where they were tested. The impact of context on NLP is also significant. For instance, Einspruch and Forman (1985) noted that the representational system in which information is stored or retrieved is highly contextualised and varies with the situation, directly influencing the system used. They also highlighted the importance of context in determining the meaning and structure of any communication.

Experimental design considerations are also critical to NLP research. Sharpley (1987) rightly pointed out that some of the methodological objections raised by Einspruch and Forman unnecessarily discounted a large number of potentially valuable results. However, an analysis of the literature reviews and the studies to which they refer revealed consistent oversights of vital distinctions necessary for scientific enquiry into NLP to succeed. NLP graduates are already trained in these core patterns, but it is important to integrate this knowledge into future design methodologies in NLP research.

In conclusion, the science behind NLP requires a deep understanding of the associative nature of the human nervous system, the impact of context on human functioning, and experimental design considerations. These factors have been overlooked in some studies, but their integration into future research can improve the scientific validity of NLP. While some criticisms of NLP may be valid, it is important to acknowledge the potential benefits of this approach and conduct rigorous studies to explore its effectiveness.


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Miller, R.R. & Schachtman, T.R. (1985): The Several Roles of Context at the Time of Retrieval. In P.D. Balsam & A. Tomie (Eds.), Context and Learning. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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