↑ comment by pjeby ·
2020-12-11T21:51:29.326Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
NLP stands for Neurolinguistic Programming -- a spur-of-the-moment name given by Richard Bandler after glancing at the titles of the books in his car when he was stopped by police for speeding, and was asked his occupation. Before that point, it was just a group of students and academics doing weird psychology experiments, after Bandler noticed some common language patterns between certain therapists whose books he was transcribing and editing (one a Gestalt therapist, the other a family therapist), and went to ask his linguistics professor about it.
Bandler later settled on a definition of NLP as, "an attitude which is an insatiable curiosity about human beings with a methodology that leaves behind it a trail of techniques." Which, one might argue, is just another way of saying "Science!"... but the more philosophically-oriented works of the NLP creators spend a lot of time talking about how so much of psychological science at the time (60's and 70's) was "how do we define how fucked-up somebody is", not "what can we do to help".
In contrast, the philosophy of NLP presupposes that people are not broken: whatever it is they're doing, they're doing perfectly according to their programming: a programming that can be understood in terms of internal processing steps (represented in sensory terms), and in terms of people's internal models, or maps of the territory. Behavior that may seem crazy or stupid can thus be understood as straightforward, even rational, when considering both a person's map and the processing steps they are using to think and respond to what they observe.
The Structure of Magic (the first book on NLP, which IIUC was also Bandler's masters thesis) was written to capture something that it appeared that more-effective therapists were doing to change people: specifically, noticing map-territory gaps and getting people to confront those gaps.
Bandler noticed the verbal patterns because he was typing the same kinds of questions and statements over and over, so he consulted the linguistics professor at his college to ask about them, and got help to describe the patterns in linguistic terms (like "lost performatives", "modal operators", and "complex equivalence").
Together, they concluded that the distortions of model-making -- that is, the distinctions between map and territory -- had specific, observable linguistic markers for the information that was being generalized, distorted, or deleted in the process of mental model-making. And that some effective therapists were people who had learned to pick up on these markers and respond to them with certain types of questions, if they perceived that the modeling distortions were relevant to the problem at hand. (Since we all distort things constantly, forcing everything to be specific just grinds all communication to a halt.)
Many of their original classifications and inventions from back in the 70's would be recognizable as LessWrong-style rationality moves. For example, one of Bandler's favorite techniques was to effectively Taboo people's problem descriptions, by telling them he was going to be hired to "have their problem" for them, so that they could have a day off from it, so he needed to know all the details. "How will I know when to start panicking?," he might ask, getting a person to literally coach him on the details of whatever the problem was, in the process eliciting all sorts of falsifiable information about what's going on in the person's model, cues, and behavior, rather than listening to a person's ideas about the problem.
This also illustrates the "methodology" of NLP: empirically observing behavior and taking people's statements literally and seriously, to an autism-like degree. (In fact, when I first read Animals In Translation by Temple Grandin, one of my first thoughts was that its author was basically applying the NLP philosophy to animal husbandry: seeing the details of what was happening from their perceptual and world-modeling point of view, instead of projecting expectations.)
Is there a book or resource that you would most recommend to learn NLP?
It sort of depends on what it is you want to learn. The more academically-oriented materials are things like The Structure of Magic (volume 1 is the more useful one of its two volumes) and Neurolinguistic Programming, Volume 1 (I don't know if a volume two was ever written.) Those are the books with the most formal structure and attempts at making falsifiable claims and coherent theories; most other books by the creators are essentially workshop transcripts of them teaching therapists to do interesting things.
(But then, while Using Your Brain For A Change is a workshop transcript and is mostly about techniques, there is also a fair amount of offhand commentary that describes the philosophy of NLP, with regard to things like empiricism, testing, "going first", doing different things until you find something that works, etc.)
If you have an interest in hypnosis, and the links between it and NLP, then Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. is an interesting contrast to The Structure of Magic, as it is all about the language of deliberate vagueness (which can be very useful in hypnosis and persuasion), while Magic is about the language of specificity. NLPers refer to the models presented in these books as the "meta model" (for specificity and "chunking down") and the "Milton model" (for vagueness and "chunking up").
The meta model should be of particular interest to LessWrongers, since it is a catalogue of patterns that help identify where a person's map (expressed in language) may differ from the territory, and a set of questions that can be used to increase specific understanding. (For example, the move described in The Power To Demolish Arguments [LW · GW] is what NLP called "chunking down" (going from abstracts to instances or examples) as opposed to "chunking up" (going from examples to abstracts).
Most other books tend to be catalogues of techniques developed using the theoretical models, philosopy, and methodology described in those books. A lot of these techniques are considered "NLP", in part because Bandler and Grinder did workshops to teach a bunch of the interesting things their experimentation club came up with, and called it an NLP practitioner certification. (Tony Robbins took an early course in NLP and then wrote his book Unlimited Power based on that and some other stuff.)
In general, though, popular works on NLP tend to have little connection or relevance to the core ideas, philosophies, or methods, and instead focus on specific ideas or techniques in a particular area of application. (Which is a bit like going around writing books on calculation tricks for how to target artillery shells effectively, and calling what you're writing about "Science". It might even be technically correct, but it's terribly misleading!)
In addition, they often promote concepts the NLP creators themselves discarded or updated decades ago, or discard essential information for applying the technique comprehensively. (The main missing ingredient usually being what the CFAR handbook describes as "Polaris", i.e. aiming at a goal and doing different things until you get it. For example, the NLP "swish" technique is often described in shorthand with a very specific set of visualization parameters, but for best results you actually need to both tune those parameters to the individual and test the results to make sure you didn't miss anything -- steps that are typically omitted in popular descriptions.)
In general, I view NLP as a kind of proto-rationality that was aimed at practical individual improvement, wherein many important tools we use today, were discovered, named, or experimented with. Its history also offers lessons regarding how difficult it is to take something that's rationality-oriented and bring it to a larger audience without losing the very thing that made it useful in the first place, and why it's important to focus more on what predictions a theory makes vs. how ludicrous the theory itself is. (Paraphrasing something the NLP developers said once, "Everything we're going to tell you is a lie. Some of these lies will be more useful than others.")
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