The Great Psychotherapy Debate: Since in April, 2015 I review parts of The Great Psychotherapy Debate (Wampold & Imel, 2015) in the PPRNet Blog. This is the second edition of a landmark, and sometimes controversial, book that surveys the evidence for what makes psychotherapy work. You can view parts of the book in Google Books.
Wampold, B.E. & Imel, Z.E. (2015). The great psychotherapy debate: The evidence for what makes psychotherapy work (2nd edition). New York: Routledge.
In this part of the book, Wampold and Imel discuss the importance of client expectations on psychotherapy outcomes. In particular, they equate client expectations with the placebo effect. In the July, 2015 PPRNet blog, I discussed Wampold and Imel’s distinction between the Contextual Model of psychotherapy and the Medical Model of psychotherapy. One pathway of the Contextual Model indicates that patients who accept an explanation for their disorder and who agree with therapists about therapy interventions, experience expectations that have a powerful impact on patients’ emotions and cognitions. The placebo effect has long been known to improve patients’ response to medical interventions. The placebo effect is defined as the difference between a supposedly inert event or medication and the natural course of the disorder. By contrast, the specific effect of an intervention or medication (e.g., an antidepressant) is defined as the difference between the medication and the placebo (i.e., the effect of a medication over and above the effect of a placebo). In one important meta analysis, the placebo effect accounted for about 68% of the antidepressants’ impact on depression scores. In other words, the placebo effect (i.e., the expectation of receiving help) has a powerful impact on depression. Generating an expectation of improvement (“this pill is an antidepressant that will reduce your depression”) involves: (1) providing a plausible explanation for the disorder (“depression is biochemical imbalance, and this pill [actually an inert placebo] will help”), and (2) having a relationship with an empathic provider. Client expectations of improvement result in mental health outcomes that approach the effects of standard medical treatment for depression. In psychotherapy, creating expectations about the effectiveness of the intervention, providing an explanation of the disorder based on psychological and biological theories, and agreeing on the tasks and goals of therapy are an integral part of the treatment. In other words, the placebo response is part of what makes psychotherapy work, and good therapists capitalize on its effects.
Patient expectations about the effectiveness of the therapy, their agreement with the therapist on the tasks and goals of therapy, and the therapist’s empathy toward the patient are key aspects that will increase the effectiveness of a therapeutic intervention. The explanation of the disorder and the treatment approach are embedded in psychological theories that typically underpin evidence-based psychotherapies.