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 known as cognitive styles or thinking styles.
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."
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.
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
Several NLP authors have later extended the list, often including e.g.
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.
One set of meta-programs consisting of 13 distinct patterns effecting work-place motivation and performance was elicited by Rodger Bailey and Ross Steward from their work as HR consultants and developed as the Language and Behaviour Profile, commonly known as the 'LAB Profile'. Rodger's work was further extended and developed by Shelle Rose Charvet and published in her book 'Words that Change Minds'.
These findings would not necessarily imply that NLP would argue against the mind as being embodied, which is one 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.