An NLP myth bites the dust.

Once again, a week in which one of those “Truths” that I have grown up with has been knocked off its perch.  I seem to be noticing this more often these days, which on the one hand is exciting, but one the other could be seen as troubling.  I conclude that it is simply that I am getting older, and obviously haven’t updated my research often enough!

Liar or not? You decide.

So this week’s “Truth” is the one they sell you on pretty well any NLP-based training courseNLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) has a huge following worldwide, and to some it exerts a powerful hold akin to some form of religion, it seems to me.  It deals with how to consciously gain influence and build relationships with others using various conscious techniques, one of which is to try and work out how the mind of the other person processes information based on studying their eye movements.

You may well have come across the theory that you can tell if someone is lying based  on where their eyes go when they are talking about a given subject.  Supposedly if you are right handed and look to your right, you are visualising a constructed memory (and thus lying).  If you look to the left you are visualising an actual memory (so telling the truth).

Research led by Dr Caroline Watt at Edinburgh University has led her to conclude that this theory does not hold water.  What I find extraordinary is that, to quote her research:

No previous research has properly examined the validity of a notion that has received widespread acceptance among the public.”

How come it is so widely accepted, not least by thousands of fee-paying training consultants who want to become licensed practitioners in NLP? A subject for another Blog, I think.

Amongst other things her team studied film of relatives of missing people who were appealing to the public for information.  They found no correlation between eye movements and whether or not they were subsequently proved to have been lying.

That’s a pity, actually, because I look to my left when I explain things, whether or not they are true.  So if you were an NLP expert you would have me down, until now, as a trustworthy individual, and now I am going to have to work harder to get you to trust me!  Thanks very much, Dr Watt.

Thinking about this for a bit longer than I have thus far in my life, I now have a question which I wish I’d asked the NLP guru who got me onto this eye movement thing.  If this theory works, in order to be able to apply it confidently you would need to know whether they are right or left handed, would you not?  How does that work then?  Get them to sign something for you within the first few moments of the dialogue?

“Ah, Jimmy, very nice to meet you.  Before we go any further, would you mind signing this blank piece of paper so I can check your handedness?  I find it very helpful in building relationships and working out whether or not you are a liar.”

Perhaps not.  I think my message today is, as with everything, and especially if it comes from a business skills trainer like myself, to take it with a healthy dose of salt (unless you’re David Kanigan – a joke which only he or his many loyal Blog followers  would appreciate).

About Michael Brown Training

I'm a business skills trainer, facilitator and coach. I've been helping people to learn for 16 years, working all around the world on topics such as Negotiation, Conflict Handling, Sales, Leadership, Consulting and Personal Effectiveness. I'm an ENFP, constantly looking for new and inspiring things to do. I love my job for its variety and the stimulation I get from it, and spend most of my time seeing how far we can go with the subjects we work on in the training room. I've recently started a new venture in making video on how NOT to do things, which you can find at
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14 Responses to An NLP myth bites the dust.

  1. Bill H says:

    NLP proponents have been promoting the eye movement theory. Just do a web search! The actual research on eye movement relates to types of memory and is valid. The extensions made by some regarding NLP are apparently not true.

    NLP is pseudoscience. Note, that doesn’t mean that all claims made by NLP promoters are necessarily false, but the theory itself has not been verified, and there is, as yet, no evidence that most of what is promoted is true, other than the ideas (such as eye movement related to mental state (not to lying) that have been picked up from normal neurological research.


  2. tony says:

    Can only agree with Dave. no NLP trainers who are reputable or NLP authors say anything about eye movements relating to to lying. This is just the ignorant reworking of brain dead twats that listen to political or religious bullshit and create some completely warped truth out of it.
    Where is L. Ron Hubbard when we need him?


  3. graham says:

    I only asked because my wife is ambidextrous…………….


  4. Graham says:

    Hang on Dave, I have seen a 40 foot birthday cake floating in the see so it would be a reality for me. Oh and Mike, what if they are ambidextrous?


  5. Dave says:

    I love it when you dive in both feet first, Mike!

    First, NLP Practitioners who are taught by reputable trainers, learn that calibration is essential to find out how the subject’s eye’s move. There are generalisations about typical responses and they are just that – generalisations. Clean language is vital when calibrating to avoid internal questions which may arise. So, asking “See again your home’s front door” will help you know which way the subject’s eyes move to visualise reality. “Picture a 40-foot Birthday Cake floating in mid-ocean” will let you know how they “see” a constructed image.

    Second, there is no apparent link between left and right handedness and eye movements.

    Third, visualisation, whether constructed or real, typically only happens when the eyes move up, i.e. above the horizontal plane. In the horizontal plane, it is typically an auditory response – real or imaginary, below horizontal is typically an internal reaction, either feelings or internal dialogue.

    Finally, and the bone of contention, is the popular myth, or theory – to use your description – about the link between eye movements and lying. I have never heard this theory presented as fact in an NLP classroom. NLP is very clear that the left or right movement only indicate reality or constructed – i.e. not lying – they could be constructing a completely different scenario, hence the importance of clean language.

    So, a nice wind-up, and a nice piece of research into a myth constructed around NLP by those with limited knowledge! No blank cheques for you then.

    Master NLP Practitioner!
    (Off to read the research paper now)


    • Hi Dave

      Thanks for adding some proper facts to my prod on the arm!! I knew someone somewhere wouldnt be able to resist!
      Did you read the research yet, and have you written to Doctor Watt to put her straight on it all?


    • Gil says:

      Hi Dave! Refreshing to see you refer to calibration – it feels, or should I say, it looks like Dr Watt’s positive intention with her research was far from ecological – feedback for her and for us as this gave us the chance to explain how NLP has been distorted over the years.
      Many thanks! And to those who believe Dr Watt – check her eye accessing cues when she tells you about her research! (just kidding!)


  6. Laughing. You hooked me from your opening line. (De-bunking truths.) Love the video clip. However, in less than 700 words, you’ve destroyed the underlying premise of one of my favorite TV shows: “Lie to Me.” In nothing sacred anymore? 🙂


    • Hi Dave

      No, thing is sacred any more. Not even your TV shows! Watch out, as my Myth busting gun is fully loaded and ready to shoot! I reckon I have earned the right to cause some Blog carnage now. I know you enjoy it, so I am only emulating you, ho ho.


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