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Meta-programs in general are programs that create, control or make decisions about programs, such as when and how to run them, preferred and unpreferred programs, and strategic choices of fall-back or alternative programs.

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) uses the term specifically to indicate the more general pervasive habitual patterns commonly used by an individual across a wide range of situations. Examples of NLP meta-programs include the preference for overview or detail, the preference for where to place one's attention during conversation, habitual linguistic patterns and body language, and so on.

Related concepts in other disciplines are "Cognitive Styles" or "Thinking Styles."



The use of the term program when talking about the human mind originates from the cybernetics metaphor, which considers the human brain as a biocomputer to which one can apply all principles known in computing. The cybernetic model had been named by Norbert Wiener around 1946, and became influential through the Macy conferences, which were held between 1942 and 1953 and attended by prominent members as Gregory Bateson, Warren McCulloch, John Von Neuman, Walter Pitts, Norbert Wiener et al. This metaphor has been inspired on the Turing principle, named after Alan M. Turing, who indicated that its possible to program a machine to imitate the behavior of any other machine and even that of a human . The metaphor got inverted, and a basic premise became that cognitive activity can be explained in terms of computation.

According to this "mind-as-computer" metaphor, the mind is constantly and continuously running a complex set of programs which are controlling all aspects of our existence, such as breathing, walking, talking, etc. Dr. John C. Lilly, who can be considered as the first person to define the term meta-programs, formally defined a program as: "a set of internally consistent instructions for the computation of signals, the formation of information, the storage of both, the preparation of messages, the logical processes being used, the selection processes, and the storage addresses all occurring within a biocomputer, a brain." And a meta-program as: "a set of instructions, descriptions, and means of control of a set of programs."

NLP use of the term

In NLP, the term "Programs" is used as a synonym for “strategy”, which are specific sequences of mental steps, mostly indicated by their representational activity (using VAKOG), leading to a behavioral outcome. In the entry for the term “Strategy” in their Encyclopedia, Robert Dilts & Judith Delozier explicitly refer to the mind as computer metaphor: "A strategy is like a program in a computer. It tells you what to do with the information you are getting, and like a computer program, you can use the same strategy to process a lot of different kinds of information." In their encyclopedia, Dilts and Delozier then define metaprograms as: "[programs] which guide and direct other thought processes. Specifically they define common or typical patterns in the strategies or thinking styles of a particular individual, group or culture."

While most NLP authors acknowledge that most of the domain's ideas, including the notions of representational systems and programs, are rather metaphorical, at the same time NLP acts as if the metaphor were true, much in line with the Anglo-American philosophical tradition . In their encyclopedia, Dilts & Delozier state: "NLP shares many philosophical underpinnings with pragmatism. [This] ... can be seen in the emphasis NLP places on outcomes and on the criterion of usefulness rather than objective truth and the perception of all models and distinctions as simply working hypothesis." And "In fact, all [NLP] models can be perceived as symbolic or metaphoric, as opposed to reflective of reality."

While, as Dilts & Delozier (2000) write, persons can apply the same meta-program regardless of the content and context of a situation, research shows that meta-programs can change over time and may be different in different contexts (e.g. home VS work) and at different times (e.g. under influence of training). While one might say that the research "failed" when one considers the personality explanation of the initial goal, the average changes in an individual's “personality” in terms of meta-programs over time and between contexts are comparable to findings measured in other personality theories. Indeed, in contrast to social psychologists who put emphasis on the power of the situation, many psychologists researching personality sometimes pay only little attention to the effect of culture and context.

Examples of meta-programs mentioned in NLP

Original NLP texts mention the following metaprograms (Dilts, Cameron 1980-1982)

  • The preference for overview or detail (or generalization v. specificity)
  • Reference System: Internal or external focus
  • Modal Properties:
    • proactive or reactive
    • Outcome preferences (towards/away))
  • Processing
    • Comparison: Making distinctions (more aware of sameness or differentness)
    • Match/Mismatch
  • Time orientation (near/far past, present, near/far future)
  • Sorting Categories
    • Self-Other
    • Filters: Preferential awareness of people, activities, location, things, information etc in others' communication

Several NLP authors have later extended the list, often including e.g.

  • Rule Structure: Preferred social styles (assertiveness, indifference, complacency, tolerance)
  • Convincer Patterns & Learning preferences (learn by reading, by observing others, by doing, from own experience)
  • Mc Clelland's Motivational preferences (power, popularity, or performance)

Other uses of the NLP concept

The meta-program concepts have proven to be universal, but how a NLP meta-program questionnaire such as iWAM gets scored and interpreted is really culturally-distinct. The socio-cultural approach to psychology argues that, to predict individual behavior, it is necessary to take into account very broad influences, including cultural values and several aspects we coin the individual's context (the environment, social organization, community, and family). Triandis, one of this field’s experts, developed a theory of subjecttive culture and its influence on the attitudes, norms and behaviors of individuals. His research has also examined the relationship between culture and work behavior, inter-group relations, social behavior, attributions, goal setting, motivation, social exchanges, personality, prejudice, and attitude change. In Triandis’ framework, individual patterns of responding and interacting with the environment are seen as part of "personality".

History of the concept in NLP

Given NLP's oral tradition, there are several stories of how meta-programs came into existence in NLP and who should be acknowledged for which piece of work.

One explanation is that when one analyses the effects of a program, a similar sequence of steps may lead to a different outcome. Suppose that a person is taking a decision whether to stay in their current job. One person may say: "When I imagine how this place will be like two years from now, I don't see enough changes and I’m afraid I’ll be bored." In a same situation, another person might say: “When I imagine how this place will be like two years from now, I don’t see many changes and I’m glad I’ll get that stability.” Both sentences use a future reference frame consisting of Visual constructed image which is then evaluated Kinesthetically internally (NLP notation: Vc -> Ki). However, the first person gets a bad feeling, while the second person gets a good feeling. They have been executing the same program on the same context. All other elements being the same, the only difference between these 2 persons is that they apply a different sorting category: the first one prefers change and the second one prefers stability.

According to another plausible explanation, meta-programs arose when Leslie Cameron et al. did research in order to answer to the question whether patterns could be found which typified a person across different contexts and thus would point to the "stable core" of a person. They came up with a series of different thinking styles which they called “meta-programs”. These meta-programs indicate how people make sense of the world and predict how the person may react in a given context. Using meta-programs we can understand the characteristic ways in which people behave, and thus the model is as useful (if not more) than many theories of personality.

Independent of how meta-programs came into NLP, most of the distinctions used pre-date NLP, as can be read in the article Putting NLP Metaprograms Research in context.

Criticisms of the concept

Lakoff & Johnson (2000) argue, these metaphors for the mind conflict with what cognitive science has discovered. However, viewed as a metaphor, the concept remains of value. Indeed as Lakoff & Johnson argue themselves, metaphors are the very means by which we can understand abstract domains and extend our knowledge into new areas, and the body of work that resulted from the meta-programs research-effort has proven its usefulness over the last 20 years.

These findings would not necessarily imply that NLP would argue against the mind as being embodied, which is one’s of the central properties of Lakoff and Johnson’s argument. The big difference between researchers working on Artificial Intelligence and those working on NLP is that the first use a computer as their laboratory, while the latter works with human subjects to test their theories.


Unpublished text extracted from the draft PhD dissertation of Patrick Merlevede


To learn more about NLP meta-programs, the following books can be recommended

  • Shelle Rose Charvet: Words that Change Minds (1995)
  • Bob G. Bodenhamer and L. Michael Hall: Figuring Out People - Design Engineering with Meta-Programs (1997)
  • Tad James & Wyatt Woodsmall: Time Line Therapy and The Basics of Personality (1988)

See also

External links

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