According to research published on 11 July 2012 by three teams of scientists (Universities of Hertfordshire, Edinburgh, and British Columbia) NLP ‘proponents’ are being irresponsible in teaching people about eye movements.*
Their paper is called ‘The Eyes Don’t Have It: Lie Detection and Neuro-Linguistic Programming’ and they have concluded:
"This work is the first to experimentally test the claims made by NLP practitioners about lie detection.
Results provide considerable grounds to be sceptical of the notion that the proposed patterns of eye movements provide a reliable indicator of lying.
As such, it would seem irresponsible for such practitioners to continue to encourage people to make important decisions on the basis of such claims.”
The basis for this scientific research
They began by deciding that “proponents of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) claim that certain eye movements are reliable indicators of lying”. They then proceeded to show that what they had decided was an NLP ‘truth’ was actually untrue…
Which is a bit like
- Identifying a group of car drivers who had had accidents
- Identifying that they each used the car steering wheel as part of their driving
- Teaching some non-drivers to use the steering wheel in the same way but without knowledge of the other requirements for safe driving
- Discovering that these non-drivers then had accidents
- Concluding that use of car steering wheels is scientifically proven to cause accidents.
A far-fetched analogy? Yes, perhaps a little. Though not all that far-fetched if you check how the authors went about their research. (See the link at the end of this article).
Their sources for their starting premise
Two initial questions arise when looking at this piece of research:
- Who did this 3-university scientific research team decide were ‘proponents of NLP’ and
- How did they assess whether or not these selected proponents had actually made these claims?
This is not made very clear in their paper. In fact they are strangely woolly on both counts. Nevertheless a careful reading of their paper indicates that they used three sources.
Source (1): Bandler & Grinder.
Their paper lists 17 references.
However the scientists reference just one NLP source The Structure of Magic I (1975) by Richard Bandler & John Grinder. Not a very rich list of NLP references - but, at least, they seemed to have selected an authoritative place to begin since Bandler & Grinder started the NLP ball rolling back in the period 1971-74. The care with which the researchers perused this book is indicated by the fact that, not only is the book primarily devoted to the NLP study of linguistics - but it does not deal with eye movements.
Thinking they may have simply got the book title and the publication date wrong, I checked the second book in the series The Structure of Magic II (1976). This is a similarly difficult book to read but, 30 years after first reading it, I valiantly rolled up my sleeves and scanned it – twice. And, yes, eye movement patterns are mentioned briefly - but eye movements and lying is (are?) not mentioned.
Strangely, the researchers do not quote the later, and much more readable, Frogs into Princes (1979) also by Bandler & Grinder which thoroughly deals with the complexity of observing eye movements.
In Frogs into Princes Bandler & Grinder strongly caution against making facile and simplistic generalisations about eye movements; generalisations such as the link between eye movements and lying, on which this scientific research project has studied.
So, in a nutshell:
- The originators of NLP cautioned against such a claim - and still do so
- The research team either did not know this - or chose to ignore it (neither of which would indicate diligence)
- The research team opted to test the claim which the NLP originators warned against.
Source (2): Widespread acceptance
The scientists announce that the Eye Movement Myth is "a notion that has received widespread acceptance among the public". They have provided no evidence to support this claim/assumption.
Source (3): The Internet and YouTube
The scientists do identify another source for their fundamental hypothesis (the relationships between eye moments and lying) as follows "these alleged relationships … are ubiquitous on the Internet … and two well-known YouTube videos have received 30,000 and 60,000 views respectively."
Faced with such evidence we might conclude that their identified ‘proponents of NLP’ are everywhere. To put this type of evaluation into perspective, 60,000 views doesn’t compare too well with the highly recommended old lady bashing the car (439,091 views) or the drunken squirrel (3.6 Million views)
Is it just me?
Am I missing something here?
If a group of scientific researchers want to do a serious research project with colleagues at two other universities surely they would start out with a firm foundation i.e. pick an hypothesis worth testing rather than something which they Googled (because, yes, they did admit using a Google search to evaluate how widely supported was their selected starting point).
Because it was popular on Google, and on YouTube, they decided they had a sound starting point for their research.
I just checked Google for "the earth is flat" and got 2,900,000 results while “aliens live amongst us” got 32.5 million results.
The research team set up a project to test one daft claim (see the NLP Lie Detector Myth published in 2008) so maybe they will next do some research to prove how wrong are those who believe in aliens among us or flat earthers.
But isn’t it good to have myths scientifically debunked
Yes, it is, and especially if the science is sound and if the myth (as it is in this case) is un-useful to the general public.
But if the myth is debunked by poor science it undermines both the debunking and the reputation of the de-bunkers leaving the myth stronger.
Their case would have been a little more convincing if they had
- Taken steps to create a sound premise to investigate
- Assessed whether NLP originators and trainers were supportive of or were rejecting of this premise
- Investigated how the eye movement patterns are actually taught and used by established and authoritative NLP training organisations.
Their case would have been stronger still if they had demonstrated the kind of precision we expect in scientific research - and the kind of precision we have assessed in the 100's of NLP Practitioners who have achieved NLP Practitioner Certification in our own NLP Certification training programmes.
Their imprecise and quite woolly thinking, as evidenced by the concluding paragraph of their paper, undermines the credibility and precision and thoroughness of their research.
Let’s look at this woolly thinking in their summing up:
Quote: "this work is the first to experimentally test the claims made by NLP practitioners about lie detection".
- Which NLP practitioners are they referring to?
- How do or how did they determine who was or is an NLP ‘practitioner’? For example, they did not speak with either of the originators of NLP nor with anyone from the world of NLP training.)
- Was their research aimed at the eye movement patterns in general? Or their relation to their ‘application’ in lie detection? This distinction is not made clear in their paper.
- Did they assume that in authentic NLP we consider the eye movement patterns to be true for everyone? (They are not and can differ considerably from one person to another. They will also differ in response to different styles of question. They will also differ depending on how recent is the event being recalled. They will also differ based on the emotions being experienced by the person. They will also differ etc. etc. etc. )
Quote: "Results provide considerable grounds to be sceptical of the notion that the proposed patterns of eye movements provide a reliable indicator of lying"
- How is it that they did not discover that the originators of NLP cautioned strongly against this notion?
- Would they have carried on with the project if they had encountered such an inconvenient fact?
- Do any professional NLP trainers support this notion? (No doubt there will be some, somewhere, but I’m sure that no Member Trainers of, for example, the Professional Guild of NLP would do so.)
Quote: "As such, it would seem irresponsible for such practitioners to continue to encourage people to make important decisions on the basis of such claims.”
- Yes, it would be irresponsible – if responsible NLP training bodies were doing so. Why have the researchers not verified if this is the case?
- Why have the researchers not qualified their work by indicating that they have been less-than-thorough in identifying who are these irresponsible ‘NLP practitioners’ or ‘proponents’?
- Why have the researchers not qualified their work by identifying whether or not such encouragement is widespread in the world of authentic NLP Training?
The only NLP work referenced in their paper is the afore-mentioned Structure of Magic I (1975). Ironically, if the researchers had read and absorbed the ideas in this book their conclusion would have been much more precise and therefore more authoritative....
... The Structure Magic I provides in-depth information on how to use the NLP Meta Model to be clear, unambiguous and precise in how you communicate - one of the key objectives in authentic NLP training.
The Case of the Missing Websites
Richard Wiseman, one of the paper's authors commented on his twitter account: "Love the NLP folks saying they never believed the eye movement/lying claim. Before yesterday we couldn't find website that was critical."
Inconveniently for the research team, our first on-the-web caution about believing that the eye movements can be used as lie detector was published over 12 years ago - and this is recorded in the Web Archive for 20 August 2000 http://web.archive.org/web/20000917062055/https://www.nlp-now.co.uk/q_and_a.htm
You can comment on website which published the paper
I have now been able to access the comments section of the PLoS One site which has published this research project
My comment is here: http://www.plosone.org/annotation/listThread.action?root=51991
The Eyes Don’t have it: Lie Detection and Neuro-Linguistic Programming by Professor Richard Wiseman (University of Hertfordshire, UK) and Dr Caroline Watt (University of Edinburgh, UK). http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0040259
By adding your own comment it should remain on academic record. Should remain? Well, strangely some comments later disappeared (see below).
So many flaws in one research project
I was tempted, until I decided that life was too short, to do further articles on this paper's many splendid examples of how not to do a piece of scientific research, such as
- the researcher handing over his/her mobile phone to each of the student volunteers so they could then hide it in the next room
- the researchers testing NLP, with no apparent NLP skill, by looking at news footage of people who lied on camera
- the stunning ineptitude of the researchers in not determining how the NLP Eye Movements are actually taught in professional NLP training programmes - and their being prepared to use YouTube videos instead
- the researchers 'training' (their description) a group of undergrad students in NLP Eye Movement detection skills - by giving them an information sheet to read
- and so on and on.
See this discussion, too
The Case of the Missing Comments
Is this really the future of ‘science’?
This morning (Wed 18 July 2012) there were 8 comments on the website of PLoSONE who reviewed and published the scientific paper by Dr Richard Wiseman and his colleagues. This evening there were just five.
One of the commentators has since questioned PLoSONE on what has happened to his comments.
The Case of the Missing Debate
Richard Wiseman has not responded to the many questions about the validity of their research paper posted on blogs and on Twitter.
However he has, this evening (18 July), announced on Twitter that their paper on PLoSONE has had 20,000 visits – the most ever for the publication, he claims. But he denied any knowledge of the removal of the critical comments on PLoSONE.
Does this mean that 20,000 visitors (publicity) justifies the questionable nature of their research and their conclusions (truth, accuracy)?
Usually serious academics welcome debate about their work, as a way of furthering debate and knowledge. Yet, here we have a group of scientists who seem more interested in the publicity their work has received that its accuracy. They have received great publicity, as Wiseman has accurately celebrated but have they contributed to serious scientific research?
You'll find more articles on Rep Systems here:
NLP, eyes and lying – Q&A – published Summer 2000 (from Q&A published Summer 2000)
NLP Representational Systems: Predicates (September 2001)
Using the famous NLP Eye Accessing Cues (January 2002)
'Gimme time to think!' (January 2006)
The NLP Eye Accessing Cues (January 2007)
NLP & Representational Systems (February 2007)
The ‘NLP Lie Detector Technique’ (February 2008)
Trivialising NLP (again…) (February 2010)
The NLP Lie-Detector Myth (yet again…) (August 2010)
How to use the NLP 'Rep Systems' (March 2012)
‘The Eyes Don’t Have It’ – NLP scientifically disproved? (July 2012)
Using the NLP Eye Movements (April 2013)