PC Whispering: Astonishing new claims for leadership training

April 1, 2007

rws-00-fool.jpgman-listens.jpgSunday April 1st 2007: A leadership study suggests that Neurolinguistic Programming can assist computer users to improve their relationships with their machines. A modified version of Horse Whispering was also found to have a positive effect, while a ‘cocktail’ combining both treatments was found to be even more effective.

An international study, Project Koestler, will be reported to a conference of human/computer interface scientists starting today at the University of Greater Manchester, England. The research was carried out by a team of researchers from Duke University (North Carolina), and academic colleagues from Greater Manchester (England), Edinburgh (Scotland), and Cork, Ireland.

The conference will learn of evidence from carefully controlled trials in all four regions. The study indentified computer-users as belonging to high CE and low CE (computer empathic) sub-groups. Essentially, the high CE groups were assembled from individuals who had reported unusual skills at getting computers to do what they wanted them to. The low CE groups were reported as very poor at getting computers to do what they wanted them to. The groups represent relatively high and low ‘leadership’ skills over computers.

In the primary study, participants received either training in Neurolinguistic Programming, or in developing greater sensitivity to the computer as a valued friend and work colleague. This treatment was quickly labeled as PC Whispering, after the controversial work pioneered by the original Horse Whisperer, Monty Roberts. A follow-up study, still on-going, is examining the effects of combining both kinds of training.

The approach

Participants were recruited from respondents to advertisements in local newspapers asking for volunteers for open-access evening classes in improving computer skills. The researchers followed the obligations of explaining the rationale of the experiment, and any possible adverse consequences for volunteers.

Each course of treatment involved explanations to the volunteers of how human behaviors can help or hinder computer relationships. The explanations were followed with practice of the behavior-modifications proposed within the treatment. The volunteers then carried out procedures with their own PCs and when hooked up to a special machine developed for the program by researchers at Duke University. The apparatus monitored physiological states of the volunteers.

The Results

The training seemed to have little impact on the high CE group. One respondent appeared to perform at a lower level after treatment with NLP, but had returned to his pre-test performance levels within a few days. There were no significant effects.

However, within the low CE group, results were spectacular. After the NLP training the average CE measures for this sub-group rose to nearly the levels of the high CE group at all four training sites. After the PC Whispering, the results were similar. All four sites reported substantial improvements. However, the improvements were marginally less than those of the group receiving the NLP training.

A smaller more complex study is underway. The researchers are more cautious in making claims for this study, which suggests that a combination of NLP and PC whispering will enhance performance of both high and low CE groups.

What does all this mean?

Project Koestler is named after the Hungarian-born intellectual Arthur Koestler, who wrote extensively on human creativity, including a book on The Ghost in the Machine. He also funded research into the paranormal at the University of Edinburgh.

Until the actual results are examined, we must remain cautious of the claims being made. One expert in research methods told me that researchers who announce their work in this way may be publicity seekers if they do not already have a track record of publishing in scientific journals. Maybe it is all a hoax.

Nevertheless, many new ideas sound crazy, before they become the new orthodoxy. One AI expert who helped in the programming of Deep Blue to beat Garry Kasparov, is working on the next generation of computers. He has revealed that he expects these computers to make ‘better leaders than humans, and perhaps better team colleagues, and even life partners’.

Neurolinguistic Programming remains a contested model of behavior modification. At present, Wikipedia offers a caution on the contents of its article. Horse-whispering is an equally controversial technique. The original Horse Whisperer, Monty Roberts, insists the term is misleading, and prefers to emphasize skills that derive from listening not whispering to horses. The concept is being ‘tamed’ through different terminology such as intelligent horsemanship, or trust-based leadership.

As for PC whispering – perhaps we should just postpone judgment and ‘watch this space’.