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Rolling Eyes Over Flawed University Research

This July, notably during the ‘Silly Season’ a research paper was lodged with the PLoSONE research database entitled ‘The Eyes Don’t Have It: Lie Detection and Neuro-Linguistic Programming’ thereby tarnishing the reputation of three universities: Hertfordshire, Edinburgh and British Columbia. The research team was led by Professor Richard Wiseman.

The research study purported to show evidence that the Eye Accessing Cues model of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) as used by NLP Practitioners to detect lying was false.
In doing so they have created a classic Straw Man argument. Had they limited the scope of the research to the exposure of a simplistic urban myth, which undoubtedly has merit from good intentions, some of the results may have had validity. And welcome support of the NLP Community.

The paper confirms the originators of NLP, Richard Bandler and John Grinder did not propose that eye accessing cues could be used to detect lying. However, the paper suggests that the notion is commonplace, but does not quantify these sources or give an indication as to how widespread this urban myth has spread. It suggests erroneously that these sources or people are ‘NLP Practitioners’ who claim an insight into whether people are lying from their eye movements. Throughout the paper, the number of NLP Practitioners constantly changes; from the inference of ‘all’ to ‘many’ and ‘some.’

If I dress a wound, take a blood pressure reading, or recommend eating more fruit, I may practise medicine but I would not call myself a medical practitioner. In the same way, people who use or practice NLP techniques and create YouTube video clips may not necessarily be NLP Practitioners. Such practitioners usually qualify after completing a course of skills training, rather than simply reading a book. Therefore to say that NLP Practitioners as a group claim lie detection skills with eye accessing cues is a fallacy of composition.

The three experiments passed by the respective ethics committees of the universities overlooked the fact the NLP model was not, in fact, tested. The paper details a severely edited version detailing only eye accessing cues relating to vision. Furthermore a specific ‘vision’ pattern was removed along with other accessing cues. This new ‘Wiseman’s Chimera,’ presumably linked to the experiments as part of an ‘NLP training Sheet’ was further altered by the addition of specific measures (of angles of degree) which are not mentioned in the original model. Therefore claiming the NLP model was tested, is false.

NLP Eye Accessing cues model eyes looking up left and right with gradations at 44 degrees and 20 degrees
____Figure 1. NLP Accessing Cues Model_________ Figure 2. Wiseman's Chimera

The research also claimed that the NLP literature suggests that the alleged relationship of lying and eye movement is strongest in right handed people. This claim is also false. Notwithstanding the erroneous linking of cues to lies, the literature actually claims that a specific
pattern of eye movements is attributed to a “normally organised” right handed person. The use of quote marks - with other content - clearly indicates that the pattern is a generalisation and individuals are likely to vary in their response to appropriate questions coded for sensory mode replies. Furthermore, the originators warn against the use of results of the cues alone.

The NLP model suggests that the Eye Accessing Cues may indicate a brief or longer sensory
mode of thought. A person may construct, imagine or refer to eidetic, (remembered) images, sounds, or dialogue during a conversation many times. It is important to note: Some may construct a sensory based idea independent of a questioner’s current verbiage. Some people may recall a set of recently imagined sequences of information. One can not extrapolate an accessing cue of a sensory mode directly to some content of lying. That is analogous to describing a car by its passengers, or a fallacy by composition. Hence, reliance on a single visual cue (and ignoring other tells) as an indication of lying is flawed.

Out of seventeen references, only one reference is made to NLP literature directly:
The Structure of Magic I. In fact, this contains no reference to eye accessing cues at all. The relevant volume is Frogs into Princes, which is finally referred to by the research author’s brief reply on the PLoSONE website. Three other references alluding to NLP, authored by Sharpley and Heap and used regularly in reviews of NLP, together with the Rhodes and Solomon reference in the follow up reply have serious flaws in methodology and conclusions, as highlighted by extensive analysis on the website of Andy Bradbury, a Psychologist and well known NLP Master Practitioner and Author.

In the PLoSONE reply by the author, Wiseman insists the link is ‘maintained’ by the reference to
Mann’s article on Police Psychology, quoting a participant of a seminar raising the question about NLP eye movements and deception. The participant may have misunderstood content of the seminar or simply picked up on the urban myth of eye movements and lying. To rely on a participants’ casual remark as sound evidence is questionable.

Most NLPers welcome relevant research. As well as the NLP Research and Recognition Project, many Universities, such as Surrey, Kingston and Portsmouth are undertaking serious research into the Field.

A friend once claimed that she could spot her partner lying from eyebrow movements as he spoke. She did this through an informal ‘longitudinal study.’ She was not even trained in NLP or Psychological techniques. Perhaps this is an area ripe for rigorous university research into lying.

In conclusion, the research paper (basing itself on a single unrelated NLP Literature source) suggesting that the NLP eye movement hypothesis fails to support the claims of NLP is in itself, false. The NLP model does not make such a claim, nor does it claim lying relating directly to cues, as a key part of NLP. In addition, the concluding statement presupposes NLP practitioners continue to make claims about eye movements and lie detection. Again, without specific quantification of the population, the allegation is false as it stands. The research thus, over defines the scope of a population and under defines the instrument used.
Furthermore, this flawed research has since been promoted worldwide through the media and has been presented as authorative fact by the BBC and the press worldwide.

Steve Cowie is an independent researcher and writer with Odyssey Ltd.

Examples of Eye Accessing Cues demonstrated by unimpeachable sources:

accessing cue accessing cue

accessing cue accessing cue

Images courtesy of BBC and Richard Dawkins.

For a more in-depth critique about academic research and NLP, I recommend Andy Bradbury's well regarded website:

The original press release

EYE ACCESSING CUES Study by Edinburgh and Hertfordshire Univerities.



Steve Cowie, Managing Director of Odyssey Ltd and NLP Trainer, welcomes the results of the psychology research carried out by Edinburgh and Hertfordshire Universities. He states:

“The NLP community in the main, I’m sure, will welcome the research which concludes that lie detection by a single eye accessing cue in isolation is false.

It is disappointing that a few misguided individuals whether they have received rudimentary training or not have fanned the flames of this particular urban myth and claim it is NLP when it is not. Regrettably this appears to include the research team who also fallaciously compound their error by attributing the few unknown unskilled and uncounted proponents to the entire NLP community.

The multiplicity of eye accessing cues (which were not discussed in any depth within the report) can, in conjunction with other micro-movements or gestures, known generally as ‘tells’, give an insight into how people make sense of their world. A comprehensive study of each individual participant is important to ensure that they use a cue consistently within each context. For example, a friend (not even trained in NLP) could tell, over time, when her husband was lying, by the particular micro-movement of his eyebrows.

My constructive criticism of the research methodology carried out by the universities would include many limiting factors and criteria in the selection and calibration of the participants, for behavioural cues generated by participants may change between each of the three contexts in which the experiments were carried out. Of particular importance would be the skills training of researchers to observe and collect the complex set of multi-sensory data, over time, not just static visual cues. There is no indication of the depth of researcher training.

Furthermore, there are some references of previous studies quoted at the end of the report that have been criticised as not being academically rigorous. Therefore the research integrity is seriously weakened.”


Steve Cowie MSc, is the Managing Director of Odyssey Ltd and an NLP Trainer. He is a Chartered Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development

Amended 15 Jul 2012 19:00


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