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Back to Archives | Back to December 2010 Contents 

Perspective on Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP)

By Gary I. Wilson, Colonel (Retired), United States Marine Corps, Carlsbad, California

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eurolinguistic programming (NLP) techniques are popular with law enforcement officials for uncovering deception during interrogations. As a result of this popularity, various communities are witnessing the widespread application of NLP techniques to both interviews and interrogations.1 The purpose of this article is to explore the validity of detecting deception by using NLP techniques.

Specifically, this article succinctly considers the integration of NLP techniques with implicit behaviors such as eye movements. The premise behind NLP is that a person’s eye movements give interrogators a means to uncover truth and reveal deception. NLP advocates contend that they can detect deception by observing eye movements concordant with verbal statements furnished by suspects during interviews and interrogations.2

Par Anders Granhag, in his research, notes that distinguishing among facts, fiction, truth, noise, and deception is one of the central tasks associated with forensics, interviewing, and interrogation. 3 Charles Bond and Bella DePaulo review a large number of studies that focus on an individual’s ability to ferret out deception. They also report that people’s performance for detecting lies or deception appear just above the level of chance.4

This “just-above-the-level-of-chance” criterion is not particularly compelling or reassuring. It is about the same level of chance as flipping a coin. In the wake of Granhag’s work, Granhag and others suggest that people might be better at detecting deceptions using indirect ways of validating veracity and truth-telling.5

Granhag labels this indirect approach of determining veracity as implicit lie detection. In other words, it is an approach that targets things other than explicit veracity (for example, verbal declarations). The targets are implicit behavioral factors such as eye movements.6 Much of the effort surrounding the concept of implicit lie detection finds favor in the areas of paralinguistics and neurolinguistics.7

NLP: Integrating Communication and Therapy

NLP was conceptualized in the 1970s by Richard Bandler and John Grinder. Both Bandler and Grinder hypothesized that people tap into their cognitive processes communicating through different means: auditory, visual, and kinesthetics. Bandler and Grinder’s main thrust in developing NLP was to identify a new system of integrating communication and therapy.

Nevertheless, NLP has found its way into interrogation texts, professional journals, and interview rooms. For example, Vincent Sandoval and Susan Adams write in an FBI publication about how to use NLP in interviews.

Neurolinguistic programming is not a new concept nor used rarely. In fact, most successful interviewers employ some variation of it to gain rapport. However, by being conscious of the process and the benefits associated with NLP, interviewers can use these techniques to their advantage. By matching interviewees’ nonverbal behavior, and the manner in which they say something, and even their choice of words, interviewers can increase rapport and enhance communications. As a result, the potential for gaining crucial information needed to help resolve investigations improves significantly.8

Nathan Gordon, William Fleisher, David Zulawski, and Douglas Wicklander describe in their textbooks Effective Interviewing and Interrogation and Practical Aspects of Interview and Interrogation, which are widely used by law enforcement and academic institutions, how NLP is applied in law enforcement venues. Briefly, neurolinguistics explores the connection between language and the functioning of the nervous system.

Eye Movements

According to Gordon and Fleisher,9 and Zulawski and Wicklander, 10 advocates of neurolinguistics contend that there is a “probable” link between various kinds of eye movements and the cognitive neural processing of language. For example, Gordon and Fleisher write that when “eyes move upward and to the right in one’s gaze, this indicates a suspect may be creating or adding information to something they are attempting to visualize.”11

If a suspect’s eyes move directly to the right, this indicates the suspect is creating or adding information to something they have not heard. When a suspect’s eyes are looking straight up towards the ceiling, this neurolinguistic cue indicates a suspect may be seeking divine intervention or help from above. This eye movement is considered not consistent with the suspect’s memory of what actually transpired.

Joe Navarro and John Schafer, in an FBI Bulletin posit in concert with David Givens,12 state that

Eyes do not just see, they communicate when the brain conducts internal dialogue, recalls past events, crafts answers, or processes information. Eyes also serve as a blocking mechanism, much the same way as folded hands across the chest or turning away in disagreement. When people hear or see something they disagree with or do not fully support, their eyelids tend to close longer than a normal blink. This automatic response occurs so quickly the most extended eye closures go unnoticed. By cataloging a person’s baseline eye responses during nonstressful conversation, investigators can compare the eye responses with those during critical questions.

Additionally, individuals who struggle with an idea or concept often blink their eyes rapidly. Rapid blinking or “eyelid flutter” signals a sensitive topic. Officers carefully should observe the speaker’s eyes, which can alert to the possibility of deception.13

What is striking about law enforcement’s unabashed acceptance of NLP for revealing deception, is that neither Bandler nor Grinder ever proposed that assessing nonverbal or implicit behavior cues (that is, eye movements and blink rate) has any relevance or evidence-based connection to detecting deception. 14 Clearly, NLP was not intended by Bandler or Grinder to be used as a forensic, assessment, or analytical instrument for the detection of deception. Nevertheless, NLP applications continue to find their way into interrogation texts and interview rooms while growing in popularity. The question is, does research data support NPL’s use for detecting deception? Stan Walters argues that there is no data support for NLP use as an instrument for detecting deception, noting

One of the most stubborn misconceptions in investigative interviewing concerns the ability to spot truthful and deceptive statements made by an individual by merely watching eye movement. This misrepresentation of neurolinguistic programming proposes that when a person’s eyes move to his left, the individual is most likely recalling information. Should the interviewer ask for information and observe a left eye movement from the subject, then the subject is most likely being truthful in his statements because he is recalling known information. On the other hand, movement of the eyes to a person’s right is supposedly typical of a person who is creating information. If any response to an interviewer’s inquiry elicits a verbal response along with right eye movement, it is believed the subject is being deceptive. Nothing could be further from the truth, nor could a greater injustice be done to the practice of neurolinguistic programming, NLP. Despite the fact that scientific evidence reports otherwise, some investigative interviewers have complete faith in their ability to spot deception . . . . In many cases, this has become the staple of interview and interrogation training in law enforcement academies and investigative interviewing programs, with instructors’ consistently citing Bandler and Grinder’s work as the authoritative source of information. The use of eye-accessing cues to assess the truthful or deceptive responses of a subject is unreliable, and the correlation with deception is no better than chance.15

In other supportive studies, it was found to be common for the subject to have eye movements inconsistent with speech cues. Those same studies also determined that IQs were inconsistent with questions designed to elicit specific mental responses on the visual, auditory, or kinesthetic levels.16

Ethnicity and Gender

In addition to eye movement being inconsistent with speech cues, ethnicity and gender may also have an impact on assessing credibility and deception.17 Julie Lavigne, in a presentation to the American Psychological Association 2008 Convention, suggests that interactions between police officers and ethnic minorities are likely to be challenging. Interactions are characterized by mutual distrust and misinterpretation of cues, as well as misunderstandings regarding the actual meaning of the behavior exhibited.18

Ethnic and culture-related behaviors can be compounded with cues one uses to detect lies and might be misinterpreted by police officers as an attempt at lying even when the person questioned is not engaging in deception. Although research has shown that ethnic groups influence one’s own nonverbal behavior during interactions with others, few studies have examined the influence of ethnic groups on behavioral cues to deception. The lack of insights about the effects of ethnic groups on deceptive behavior is particularly striking . . . . Behavioral cues to deception are influenced both by individual (that is, ethnic groups) and contextual (that is, phase of investigation) factors. For this reason, detecting a suspect’s deception by means of their behavior is likely to be challenging and misleading for police and scholars.19

Gender and Profanity

While ethnic factors can influence or mislead police and scholars in their interpretation of implicit behavior such as eye movement, it is interesting to consider the effects of gender and profanity during interrogation. Kellie Ann Green and Julia Friedman, in their presentation to the Western Psychological Association 2006 Convention, described an experiment in which both profanity and gender contribute to the perception of credibility in the context of a hypothetical interrogation used in the study.20

Green and Friedman concluded that there is significant interaction between gender and profanity (p = .007) The “highest credibility was assigned to male suspects who used profanity and those with the lowest credibility were assigned to female suspects who use profanity.” 21 When males use profanity, they are considered credible; and when females use profanity, they are considered not credible. Another study involving gender and detection of lies by Armindo Freitas-Magalhaes notes that Portuguese “women, regardless of age, are more assertive in the identification and recognition of lies, particularly in the age bracket of 25 to 45 years.”22 This gives credence to the hypothesis that women are better at detecting deception than men.

The preceding research data might give one pause regarding the influence of not only gender on perceived credibility during interviews and detection of lies, but also on the use of profanity in these circumstances. The idea of NLP being able to detect deception solely by eye movements is seriously challenged by such data. Advocates of NLP, nonetheless, hold that there is a direct neurological connection between eye movements and representational systems.23 Yet the evidence-based data are lacking with respect to NLP use in determining truth or deception. Researchers in the past have pointed out the need for empirical studies to address the utility of police using NLP for detecting deception.24 It is evident that other factors, such as ethnic groups, gender, and use of profanity, can effectively influence perceived credibility (that is, truthfulness) while drastically impacting an investigator’s ability to detect deception when techniques like NLP are used in the absence of evidence-based data. Another consideration in detecting deception is the role that complex cognitive factors might play in challenging the utility of NLP for ascertaining deception.

Miron Zuckerman, Bella DePaulo, and Robert Rosenthal submit that lying is more cognitively complex than truth-telling. Zuckerman and the coauthors hypothesize that liars need to formulate communications that are internally consistent and consistent with what others already know: “The complex cognitive challenge involved in lying results in longer response latencies, more speech hesitations, greater pupil dilation, and fewer illustrators (e.g., movements) that accompany speech.”25 The authors make the case that the varying degrees to which both verbal and nonverbal cues occur differentially during deceptive communications compared with truthful communications are very important. Their research produced 159 estimates of 19 behavioral cues to deceptions. This underscores the complexity of detecting deception; the wide range of deceptive cues challenges the concept of relying solely upon NLP eye movement constructs to detect deception.26


NLP has captured the attention of law enforcement and interrogators regarding its application to detecting deception during interview and interrogation processes. Clearly, there is a lack of evidence-based data to support using NLP for ferreting out deception. Yet employing NLP techniques for detecting deception persists throughout law enforcement communities despite the dearth of supportive evidence. NLP utility for deciphering truth from deception is a myth. Nonetheless, it is still touted for investigative interviewing. Those working in the area of forensics need to be aware of the shortcomings of methods that are not evidence based. It is essential to strive for the use of techniques and methods that are supported by research data—“The only certain method of discerning truth relies on the corroboration of the known facts independent of the information provided by the person interviewed.”27 ■   


1Stan Walters, Principles of Kinesic Interview and Interrogation, 2nd ed. (New York: CRC Press, 2003), 138–140.
2Nathan Gordon and William Fleisher, Effective Interviewing and Interrogation Techniques, 2nd ed. (New York: Academic Press, 2006): 113–118.
3Par Anders Granhag, “Rethinking Implicit Lie Detection,” The Journal of Credibility Assessment and Witness Psychology 7, no. 3 (2006): 180–190, (accessed November 4, 2010).
4Charles Bond and Bella DePaulo, “Accuracy of Deception Judgments,” Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, no. 3 (2006): 214–234.
5Granhag, “Rethinking Implicit Lie Detection.”
7David Zulawski and Douglas Wicklander, Practical Aspects of Interview and Interrogation, 2nd ed. (Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 2002).
8Vincent Sandoval and Susan Adams, “Subtle Skills for Building Rapport Using Neuro-Linguistic Programming in the Interview Room,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 70, no.8 (August 2001): 5, (accessed November 4, 2010).
9Gordon and Fleisher, Effective Interviewing and Interrogation Techniques.
10David Zulawski and Douglas Wicklander, Practical Aspects of Interview and Interrogation.
11Gordon and Fleisher, Effective Interviewing and Interrogation Techniques.
12David Givens, The Nonverbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs, and Body Language Cues (Spokane, Washington: Center for Nonverbal Studies, 2000).
13Joe Navarro and John Schafer, “Detecting Deception,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 70, no. 7 (July 2001): 10, (accessed November 4, 2010).
14Walters, Principles of Kinesic Interview and Interrogation.
15Ibid., at 138–139.
16Aldert Vrij and Shara Lochun, “Neuro-Linguistic Programming and the Police: Worthwhile or Not,” Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology 12, no. 1 (January 1997): 25–31.
17Walters, Principles of Kinesic Interview and Interrogation.
18Aldert Vrij and Frans Willem Winkel, “Crosscultural Police-Citizen Interactions: The Influence of Race Beliefs and Nonverbal Communication on Impression Formation,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 22 (October 1992): 1546–1559; and Aldert Vrij and Frans Willem Winkel, “Perceptual Distortions in Cross-Cultural Interrogations: The Impact of Skin Color, Accent, Speech Style, and Spoken Fluency on Impression Formation,” Journal of Crosscultural Psychology 25 (June 1994): 284–295.
19Julie Lavigne, “Indicators of Deception: The Effects of the Ethnicity of the Suspect” (paper presented at the American Psychological Association 2009 Convention, Boston, Massachusetts).
20Kellie Ann Green and Julia Friedman, “Effects of Gender and Profanity during Interrogation on Perceived Credibility” (poster presentation, Western Psychology Association 2006 Convention, Riviera Resort, Palm Springs, California, April 30, 2006).
22Armindo Freitas-Magalhaes, “Effect of Look in Detection of Lies: Empirical Study with Portuguese” (paper presented at the American Psychological Association 2009 Convention, Toronto, Ontario, Canada).
23Sandoval and Adams, “Subtle Skills for Building Rapport Using Neurolinguistic Programming in the Interview Room,” 4.
24Vrij and Lochun, “Neuro-Linguistic Programming and the Police: Worthwhile or Not;” and and Sandoval and Adams, “Subtle Skills for Building Rapport using Neurolinguistic Programming in the Interview Room,” 4.
25Miron Zuckerman, Bella DePaulo, and Robert Rosenthal, “Verbal and Nonverbal Communication of Deception,” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 14, ed. Leonard Berkowitz (New York: Academic Press, 1981), 1–2.
26Bella DePaulo et al., “Cues to Deception,” APA Psychological Bulletin 129 (2003): 74–118.
27J. Reid Meloy, “The Psychology of Wickedness: Psychopathy and Sadism,” Psychiatric Annals 27 (September 1997): 633.

Please cite as:

Gary I. Wilson, "Perspective on Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP)," The Police Chief 77 (December 2010): 40–51, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 12, December 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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