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What is NLP good for?

NLP stands for Neuro-Linguistic Programming and in a nutshell, it is a method of changing someone’s thoughts and behaviours to have the desired outcome happen to them. Ever since it’s inception in the 70’s it is thought to be a treatment to a variety of behavioural and everyday-life problems, such as phobias, anxieties, managing work/ life balance, and improvements in workplace/ study performance. To reiterate, NLP is meant to change people’s actions, thoughts, and outlook, among other things using a variety of communication, behavioural, and perceptual techniques. Although this approach to bringing forth positive change relies on a lot of linguistics and communication, it should not be confused with Natural Language Processing, which, incidentally, shares the same acronym.


Before we continue any further, it must be stated that NLP is not a cure-all and it certainly does not affect everyone to the same extent. This form of therapy merely gives a new perspective to the patient which may be able to give them a different approach or outlook on their issues and troubles. It is always good to seek out the help that fits the person best but getting in contact with a clinical psychologist is always strongly recommended in most cases.


The two developers of NLP are Richard Bandler and John Grinder. They theorised that taking the behavioural and thought patterns of successful people, it should be possible to put said patterns into others to benefit them. Neuro-Linguistic Programming really gained wide-spread appeal when the minds behind the therapy published two books, The Structure of Magic I and II. Many people found the therapy enticing because the books detailed an incredible amount of issues people would have in everyday life and how NLP can help in those issues. So many people found apparent salvation in these books.


That being said, the therapy approach is based on some cognitive theories, but they did not seem to be wholly conclusive. For example, a person builds a “map” of sorts in their brains. There are logical fallacies and biases in this map, as it is unavoidable to grow up and develop without them as they are a by-product of sensory experiences. NLP therapists attempt to “re-map” a patient to avoid said fallacies and biases, thereby improving their life. One example of this bias towards one sensory system over the other, which is known as the Preferred Representational System (PRS). Therapists would find these biases through communicating with the patient, for example: if the patient says ‘I see what you mean’ or ‘I hear you’ is a hint that the patient is biased towards one over the other. Based on information like these, further steps can be suggested to the patient like, goal-setting approaches, information-gathering, or rapport-building.


Some researchers believe that it relies too much on the placebo effect. Placebo itself is a substance or treatment that is designed to have no therapeutic value. These include inert tablets, inert injection, sham surgeries, etc. Considering that NLP is meant to re-wire one’s thought processes, which is an arduous task, the methods used are usually not quite capable of achieving this. It could work if the patient re-wires their thinking sub-consciously by their own accord, instead of having a person do it for them. Unfortunately, there are not many conclusive pieces of evidence in the field as most are anecdotal, more on that later. As mentioned before, the placebo effect plays a large role in these therapies. So those who did have a positive quantifiable difference are few and far between to come up with conclusive findings. Regardless, it is always great that some people find help but due to the lack of replicability, it leaves much to desire.


In 2006 a team of researchers conducted a survey by asking 101 mental health professionals to rate the credibility of supposed psychological therapies. The rating went from 1 (“not at all discredited”) to 5 (“certainly discredited”). NLP got a rating of 3.87, while psychotherapy and acupuncture both got more credibility scores at 3.52 and 3.49 respectively. The main issue is that there is no governing body to oversee the procedures and to maintain a standard for every NLP practitioner. This problem can be related to the fact that too many techniques are being used and it is difficult to regulate each practitioner with their own unique approaches.


To answer the initial question “What is NLP good for?”: it definitely has good intentions to help people, but sadly some may turn out to be a scam of sorts. But it does not rule out the possibility of actually helping people, but the issue is that to reach that goal, there might be more reliable and efficient approaches to it. In conclusion, NLP is not a bad thing as long as it is done with the intention of helping people, and not to take their money, but going to a clinical psychologist is always a good idea.


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