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NLP was developed in the mid-70s by John Grinder, a Professor at UC Santa Cruz and Richard Bandler, a graduate student. NLP, as most people use the term today, is a set of models of how communication impacts and is impacted by subjective experience. It's more a collection of tools than any overarching theory.

Much of early NLP was based on the work of Virginia Satir, a family therapist; Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt therapy; Gregory Bateson, anthropologist; and Milton Erickson, hypnotist.

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by <> Richard Bolstad

Research on Neuro Linguistic Programming
A Summary, Richard Bolstad, NLP Trainer, 1997. E-mail nlp@chch,
26 Southampton Street, Christchurch 8002, New Zealand, 64 (03) 337-1852

Also see, a German database of NLP research.


Research on NLP is in its infancy. The term NLP was first coined in 1976 by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, so that the entire field is currently only 20 years old, and some of the most significant techniques were developed within the last decade. Most NLP Practitioners trust the empirical evidence that what they are doing works, but the following article collects some of the scant research data currently available to support their experience. Some NLP techniques are simply "modelled" on techniques used and researched in other fields (Ericksonian Hypnosis and Classical Conditioning being the two main examples) and in these fields NLP is an accelerated methodology for learning these techniques, rather than the originator of them. In other cases research from the field of Psychology supports the theoretical basis of NLP techniques which in themselves have not been fully researched yet (a key example being the phenomenon called "Submodalities" in NLP). Finally some specific research on NLP's own developed techniques does exist.

The NLP Model Of Sensory System Use And The NLP Spelling Strategy

One of the most important claims made by NLP is that people think in specific sensory languages, and these types of thought can be accessed by changing the direction the subject's eyes look to. This proposition is well described in:
Neuro-Linguistic Programming: Volume 1 by Dilts, R., Grinder, J., Bandler, R. and DeLozier, J. Meta, Cupertino, 1980

The following experiment supports this notion, and it's application to memorising the spelling of words.

F. Loiselle at the University of Moncton in New Brunswick, Canada (1985) selected 44 average spellers, as determined by their pretest on memorising nonsense words. Instructions in the experiment, where the 44 were required to memorise another set of nonsense words, were given on a computer screen. The 44 were divided into four subgroups for the experiment.

  • Group One were told to visualise each word in the test, while looking up to the left.
  • Group Two were told to visualise each word while looking down to the right.
  • Group Three were told to visualise each word (no reference to eye position).
  • Group Four were simply told to study the word in order to learn it.

The results on testing immediately after were that Group One (who did acually look up left more than the others, but took the same amount of time) increased their success in spelling by 25%, Group Two worsened their spelling by 15%, Group Three increased their success by 10%, and Group Four scored the same as previously. This strongly suggests that looking up left (Visual Recall in NLP terms) enhances spelling, and is twice as effective as simply teaching students to picture the words. Furthermore, looking down right (Kinesthetic in NLP terms) damages the ability to visualise the words.Interestingly, in a final test some time later (testing retention), the scores of Group One remained constant, while the scores of the control group, Group Four, plummeted a further 15%, a drop which was consistent with standard learning studies. The resultant difference in memory of the words for these two groups was 61% .

Thomas Malloy at the University of Utah Department of Psychology completed a study with three groups of spellers, again pretested to find average spellers. One group were taught the NLP spelling strategy of looking up and to the left, one group were taught a strategy of sounding out by phonetics and auditory rules, and one were given no new information. In this study the tests involved actual words. Again, the visual recall spellers improved 25%, and had near 100% retention one week later. The group taught the auditory strategies improved 15% but this score dropped 5% in the following week. The control group showed no improvement.

These studies support the NLP Spelling Strategy specifically, and the NLP notion of Eye Accessing Cues, Sensory system use, and Strategies in general.They are reported in: Dilts, R. and Epstein, T., Dynamic Learning, Meta, Capitola, California,1995

The NLP Model of Sensory Representational System Use

The claim that which sensory system you talk in makes a difference to your results with specific clients was tested by Michael Yapko. He had 30 graduate students in counselling, and had them listen to three separate taped trance inductions. Each induction used language from one of the main sensory systems (visual, auditory and kinesthetic). Subjects were assessed before to identify their preference for words from these sensory systems. After each induction, their depth of trance was measured by electromyograph and by asking them how relaxed they felt. On both measures, subjects achieved greater relaxation when their preferred sensory system was used.

Yapko. M., "The Effects of Matching Primary Representational System Predicates on Hypnotic Relaxation." in the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 23, p169-175, 1981

The NLP Model Of Association-Dissociation And The NLP Phobia/Trauma Process

Several small scale studies support the success of the NLP Phobia cure, which is based on the NLP model of Dissociation. Here are a collection. In this case the treatment, which takes about 10 minutes, is the standard one taught on NLP Practitioner courses.

Denholtz M.S., and Mann, E.T., "An automated audiovisual treatment of phobias administered by non-professionals" in the Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry (6, p 111-115), 1975. The first report of the use of the technique, suggesting it may have some merits.

Allen, K., "An Investigation of the Effectiveness of Neuro Linguistic Programming Procedures in treating Snake Phobias" (in Dissertation Abstracts International 43, 861B), 1982. This study of 36 undergraduate students with snake phobias found the NLP process behaviourally as successful as far longer behaviourist Massed Systemic Desensitisation regimes, and more convincing subjectively to the participants.

Einspruch, E. "Neurolinguistic Programming in the Treatment of Phobias" in Psychotherapy in Private Practice, 6(1): 91-100, 1988 In this study from the University of Miami Phobia Trauma Clinic, 31 phobic clients were seen in group therapy, and 17 in individual therapy. The subjects were given questionnaires before and after therapy, and these suggest that the technique is successful for symptoms of both anxiety and depression in clients with phobias.

Koziey, P., and McLeod, G., "Visual kinesthetic Dissociation in Treatment of Victims of Rape" in Professional Psychology; Research and Practice, 18(3); 276-282,1987 The study, from the University of Alberta, showed the reduction of anxiety in teenage rape victims, and recommends the use of the process in cases of trauma.

The Use Of Submodalities

Many NLP techniques are based on the changing of specific qualities (called submodalities) of the internal pictures, sounds and body responses a subject uses. Research on these was occuring before NLP developed, and is summarised in the back of the book Gordon, D., Therapeutic Metaphors, Meta, Cupertino, California, 1978

Studies show, for example, that the submodalities in which a client views a placebo (how colourful the pill packaging is, say) will affect the result. Other studies show that changes in the submodalities in one sensory system will automatically result in changes in the other sensory systems and in emotional changes (so if you change the way your internal picture looks, you'll feel different). As an example, office workers in a room repainted blue will complain of the cold, even though the thermostat is constant, but will stop complaining if it is repainted yellow. These responses are physiological, so that sounds of about 80 decibels produce a 37% decrease in stomach contractions (similar to the result of "fear", and likely to be percieved as such, as the writers of scores for thriller movies know). These examples come from:

Buckalew, L.W., and Ross, S. ,"Relationship of Perceptual Characteristics to Efficacy of Placebos" in Psychological Reports 49, p955-961, 1981

Berry, P. "Effect of Coloured Illumination Upon Percieved Temperature" in Journal of Applied Psychology, 45(4) p248-250

Smith, E.L. and Laird, D.A., "The Loudness of Auditory Stimuli Which Affect Stomach Contractions In Healthy Human Beings" in Journal of the Acoustic Society of America, 2, p94-98, 1930


In orthodox psychological literature, the NLP technique of Anchoring is known as Classical Conditioning, as developed 100 years ago by Ivan Pavlov (who induced dogs to salivate by ringing a bell just before feeding them, and then ringing the bell alone). In one of the earliest studies of classical conditioning, an eleven month old boy (Albert) was introduced to a white rat. Initially, Albert liked the rat and wanted to play with it. However, each time he reached for it, the experimenter nmade a loud noise behind him, frightening him. After five such noises, Albert had anchored fear to the rat, and panicked whenever he saw it. Having induced this phobia by anchoring, the experimenters were then able to remove it similarly (though this is clearly an ethically dubious study both for Albert and the rat!). Research from p 40 in :

Davison, G.C., and Neale, J.M., Abnormal Psychology, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1986

Of the hundreds of examples of anchoring principles applied in an innovative way, without the name "Anchoring", one stands out for me. It is Ellen Langer's study of two groups of elderly men (aged 75-80 years), at Harvard University. For 5 days, these two comparable groups of men lived in a closely supervised retreat centre out in the country. One group was engaged in a series of tasks encouraging them to think about the past (to write an autobiography, to discuss the past etc). The other group was engaged in a series of tasks which actually anchored them back into a past time (1959). They wrote an autobiography only up to 1959, describing that time as "now", watched 1959 movies, had 1959 music playing on the "radios", and lived with only the artifacts available in 1951. Before and after the 5 days, both groups were studied on a number of criteria associated with aging. While the first group stayed constant or actually deteriorated on these criteria, the second group dramatically improved on physical health measures such as joint flexibility, vision, and muscle breadth, as well as on IQ tests. They were anchored back to being 50 years old, by the sights and sounds of 1959.

Langer, E.J. Mindfulness, Addison Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts, 1989

The NLP Allergy Process, described below, is an example of a researched NLP technique using this anchoring principle.

The NLP Allergy Process

Here a research base exists outside of NLP. Several studies suggest that allergic responses can be generated (and thus removed) by classical conditioning (which in NLP is called Anchoring). In these studies, an allergy inducing chemical is given to mice, for example, at the same time as a camphor smell is released. In following sessions, the smell of camphor will induce an allergic response. See as an example: "Pavlovian Conditioning of Rat Mucosal Mast Cells to Secrete Rat Mast Cell Protease II" in Science, 6 January 1989, p83-85

Small studies on the NLP technique itself are also supportive. Dr Judith Swack studied ten people who had a variety of allergies (cats, dust, flowers, cigarette smoke etc). Seven of the ten responded to the ten minute allergy process by become completely response-free. Over two years, the results reduced, as three of the seven regained some allergic response. Interestingly, of the three who initially got no success with the allergy process, two became allergy free once Swack used other NLP techniques (Time Line Therapy™, the Compulsion Blowout and the Trauma Process) with them. The overall success of NLP in treating allergies may be close to 100%, but the success of the 10 minute process itself, with no other interventions, is initially 70% and on long term followup is 40%.

Swack, J.A., "A Study of Initial Response and Reversion Rates of Subjects Treated With The Allergy technique", in Anchor Point, Vol 6, No2, Feb 1992

Hypnosis And Communication With The Unconscious Mind

The research on the results of Hypnosis in general, and Ericksonian Hypnosis in particular amounts to many volumes. NLP Practitioners have contributed to that research, as for example in the study done by Lynn Timpany (of Transformations NLP Consultants Ltd, New Zealand) into the use of a one session hypnosis treatment for morning sickness and anxiety in 12 women who were pregnant. Of those 12 women, two had sleeping problems which disappeared as a result of the session, five of the eight who were vomiting noticed a significant improvement, and two went from being nauseous virtually 100% of the time to feeling ill less than 20% of the time.

Timpany, L., "A Study of The Effectiveness of Single Session NLP Treatment For Pregnancy Treatment" in Anchor Point, June 1996, p18-19

The literature about hypnosis documents some remarkable successes with it's use in a variety of fields. As a reference, see:

Crasilneck, H.B. and Hall, J.A. , Clinical Hypnosis: Principles and Applications, Allyn and Bacon, Boston, 1985

Studies show that hypnosis can over-ride what would have been considered "incurable congenital conditions". For example, the British Medical Journal in 1952 published a study of a 16 year old boy with congenital ichthyosis erythroderma, whose skin was covered in a horny layer which weeped fluid at the joints. In a week following hypnosis, small areas of the body were clear, and the results spread to the rest of the body over the second week. (above text, p376).

In one of the clearest demonstrations of the ability to communicate with a person's (literally) unconscious mind, D. Cheek induced 3000 fully anaesthetised patients to produce hand movements as signals for "yes" and "no", obviously without their conscious knowledge.

Cheek, D., "Awareness of Meaningful Sounds Under General Anaesthesia." in Theoretical and Clinical aspects of Hypnosis, Symposium Specialists, 1981

Time Line Therapy™ And Treatment Of Medical Conditions Such As Asthma

A one year research study (May 1993-May 1994) into the treatment of asthmatics, using NLP, was done in Denmark. Results have already been presented at a number of European conferences, including the Danish Society of Allergology Conference (August 1994), and the European Respiratory Society Conference (Nice, France, October 1994)

The study was run by General Practitioner Jorgen Lund and NLP Master Practitioner Hanne Lund, from Herning, Denmark. Patients were selected from 8 general practices. 30 were included in the NLP Intervention group, and 16 in the control group. All received basic medical care including being supplied with medication. Most had never heard of NLP before, and many were completely unbelieving in it, or terrified of it. Their motivation to do NLP was generally low.The intervention group had an initial day introduction to NLP and Time Line Therapy*, and then 3-36 hours (average 13) of NLP intervention. The NLP focus was not mainly on the asthma; it was on how the people lived their daily lives. The interventions used were:

Clear anger, sadness, fear, hurt, guilt and any limiting decisions using T.L.Therapy*

Use the NLP Trauma cure on the origin of the asthma.

Use the NLP allergy cure.

The results affected both the peoples general lives, and their asthma. Patients tended to describe their change subjectively as enabling them to be "more open", get "collosal strength and self confidence" "a new life" etc.

The lung capacity of adult asthmatics tends to decrease by 50ml a year average. This occured in the control group. Meanwhile the NLP group increased their lung capacity by an average of 200ml (like reversing four years of damage in a year!). Daily variations in peak flow (an indicator of unstable lung function) began at 30%-40%. In the control group they reduced to 25% but in the NLP group they fell to below 10% . Sleep disorders in the control group began at 70% and dropped to 30%. In the NLP group they began at 50% and dropped to ZERO. Use of asthma inhalers and acute medication in the NLP group fell to near ZERO.

Hanne Lund points out that the implications of this project reach far beyond asthma management. She says "We consider the principles of this integrated work valuable in treatment of patients with any disease, and the next step will be to train medical staff in this model." Hanne Lund can be reached at: NLP Creative Kommunikationa, Bredgade 11, DK 7400 Herning, Denmark


None of the above studies are large enough to constitute scientific "proof" (with the possible exception of D. Cheek's 3000 unconscious patients giving hand signals). What they do is give us reason to research further, and grounds for using NLP in an experimental way. The situation remains as Eric Einspruch and Bruce Foreman saw it in their 1985 review of research on NLP; "Many skilled NLP Practitioners have a wealth of clinical data indicating that this model is highly effective. Clearly these Practitioners would provide a service to the field by presenting their data in the literature so they may be critically evaluated."

Einspruch, E.L., and Forman, B.D., "Observations Concerning Research Literature on Neuro-Linguistic Programming", in Journal of Counselling Psychology, Vol 32, 4, p589-596, 1985

© Copyright 1997, Richard Bolstad

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