The Psychotherapy Practice Research Network (PPRNet) blog began in 2013 in response to psychotherapy clinicians, researchers, and educators who expressed interest in receiving regular information about current practice-oriented psychotherapy research. It offers a monthly summary of two or three published psychotherapy research articles. Each summary is authored by Dr. Tasca and highlights practice implications of selected articles. Past blogs are available in the archives. This content is only available in English.
…I blog about transtheoretical principles of change, microaggressions and outcomes, interpretations and outcomes.
Type of Research
- ALL Topics (clear)
- Alliance and Therapeutic Relationship
- Anxiety Disorders
- Attendance, Attrition, and Drop-Out
- Client Factors
- Client Preferences
- Cognitive Therapy (CT) and Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
- Combination Therapy
- Common Factors
- Depression and Depressive Symptoms
- Efficacy of Treatments
- Feedback and Progress Monitoring
- Group Psychotherapy
- Illness and Medical Comorbidities
- Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)
- Long-term Outcomes
- Neuroscience and Brain
- Outcomes and Deterioration
- Personality Disorders
- Placebo Effect
- Practice-Based Research and Practice Research Networks
- Psychodynamic Therapy (PDT)
- Resistance and Reactance
- Self-Reflection and Awareness
- Suicide and Crisis Intervention
- Therapist Factors
- Transference and Countertransference
- Trauma and/or PTSD
- Treatment Length and Frequency
Psychotherapy Relationships That Work: Becoming an Evidence-Based Therapist II
Norcross, J. C., & Lambert, M. J. (2018). Psychotherapy relationships that work III. Psychotherapy, 55(4), 303-315.
Relationship factors in psychotherapy are some of the most important predictors of patient outcomes. They outweigh factors like the type of therapy provided in determining whether patients get better after psychotherapy. In this second overview article, Norcross and Lambert provide a review of 17 meta-analyses of relationship factors in psychotherapy that contribute to positive outcomes. Like the review of patient factors also found in this blog and E-Newsletter, this article briefly outlines those evidence-based relationship factors that reliably predict patient outcomes in psychotherapy. The therapeutic relationship refers to how the therapist and patient relate to each other, or their interpersonal behaviors. By contrast, techniques or interventions refer to what is done by the therapist. Practice guidelines typically focus on interventions or therapeutic orientation. As the authors argue, what is missing from treatment guidelines are the person of the therapist and the therapeutic relationship – evidence for which is backed up by 5 decades of research. Even in studies of highly structured manualized psychotherapy for a specific disorder in which efforts were made to reduce the effect of individual therapist, up to 18% of outcomes (a moderate to large effect) could be attributed to the person of the therapist. By contrast somewhere between 0% and 10% of outcomes (a small to moderate effect) is attributable to specific treatment methods. So, which therapeutic relationship factors are reliably related to patient outcomes? These include: the therapeutic alliance in individual therapy (306 studies, g = .57) couple therapy (40 studies, g = .62), and adolescent psychotherapy (43 studies, g = .40), collaboration (53 studies, g = .61) and goal consensus (54 studies, g = .49), cohesion in group therapy (55 studies, g = .56), therapist empathy (82 studies, g = .58), collecting and delivering client feedback or progress monitoring (24 studies, g = .14 to .49), managing countertransference (9 studies, g = .84), and repairing therapeutic alliance ruptures (11 studies, g = .62) among others. Over the next few months, I will be reviewing these meta analyses in more detail to discuss how therapists can use this evidence base to improve their patients’ outcomes.
The research as a whole indicates that therapists should make the creation and cultivation of the therapeutic relationship a primary goal of therapy. Factors such as managing the therapeutic alliance, repairing alliance ruptures, engaging in ongoing progress monitoring, managing countertransference and others should be used to modify treatments and interpersonal stances in order to maximize outcomes. When seeking out professional development and training, practitioners should focus on evidence-based relationship factors (managing the alliance, judicious self disclosure, managing emotional expression, promoting credibility of the treatment, collecting formal feedback, managing countertransference) in addition to focusing on evidence-based treatments.
How Reliable is the Association Between Therapeutic Alliance and Patient Outcomes?
Flückiger, C., Del Re, A. C., Wampold, B. E., & Horvath, A. O. (2018). The alliance in adult psychotherapy: A meta-analytic synthesis. Psychotherapy. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pst0000172
The therapeutic alliance is one of the most researched concepts in psychotherapy. The alliance, also called the working alliance or therapeutic alliance, consists of the collaborative agreement between patient and therapist on the tasks (what to do) and goals (what to achieve) of their therapeutic work together. Alliance also includes the relational or emotional bond between therapist and patient. It is different from therapist empathy, transference, countertransference, the real relationship and other concepts related to the therapeutic relationship. Researchers and clinicians have known for years about the importance of developing and maintaining an alliance to achieving patient outcomes. The growing research in this area now allows one to see how stable this finding is. Fluckiger and colleagues conducted a meta analysis of 306 studies with over 30,000 patients that assessed the alliance-outcome relationship. The research occurred in naturalistic settings (during regular clinical practice) and in randomized controlled trials. The overall effect size based on 295 independent comparisons was r = .278 (95% CI: .256, .299), indicating a statistically significant medium-sized association accounting for about 8% of treatment outcomes. To put this in perspective, this effect is as large as or larger than the effects of many common medical interventions. The type of therapy made no difference to this finding - the alliance was just as important to CBT as it was to psychodynamic, interpersonal, and emotionally focused therapies. The alliance-outcome correlation was somewhat smaller, though still significant among those with substance-use disorders, but otherwise was consistent for all other disorders tested (depression, anxiety, PTSD, borderline personality disorder). The alliance measure used, who rated the alliance, when it was assessed, and the outcome that was measured tended to have a small or no impact on the results. The alliance-outcome relationship was just as important to everyday clinical practice as it was in randomized controlled trials.
The alliance-outcome association is highly reliable or stable across a number of therapies, diagnoses, measurements, and study designs. This very large body of research suggests that therapists should: (1) build and maintain an emotional bond, and agreement on tasks and goals with patients throughout therapy; (2) develop the alliance early by focusing on agreement on treatment and goals; (3) address ruptures in the alliance early and immediately; and (4) assess the strength and quality of the alliance regularly throughout treatment from the patient’s perspective using a well-known brief alliance measure.
Do Common Factors Matter in Psychotherapy?
Cuijpers, P., Driessen, E., Hollon, S. D., van Oppen, P., Barth, J., & Andersson, G. (2012). The efficacy of non-directive supportive therapy for adult depression: a meta-analysis. Clinical psychology review, 32(4), 280-291.
The research evidence indicates that there is very little difference between different types of psychotherapy (CBT, IPT, PDT, EFT, and others) in patient outcomes, especially for depression. Nondirective supportive treatment (NDST) also shows positive outcomes for various disorders. NDST is often used as a “placebo” condition in psychotherapy trials to control for common or non-specific factors. Common factors refer to those aspects that are common to all therapies, but that are not specific to any one therapy (e.g., therapist interpersonal skills, therapeutic alliance, client expectations). NDST does not involve specific therapeutic interventions like cognitive restructuring, transference interpretations, two-chair techniques, etc. In this meta analysis, Cuijpers and colleagues assessed those randomized controlled trials for depression in which specific treatments (e.g., CBT, PDT, IPT, EFT) or no treatment control conditions were directly compared to NDST. By doing so, the authors were able to estimate how much of patient outcomes were attributable to: specific effects of treatments (the difference between a specific intervention and NDST), common effects of treatment (the difference between NDST and no treatment), and extra-therapeutic factors (the effects of no treatment). The meta analysis included 31 studies with over 2500 patients with depression. Twenty-one comparisons included CBT, and the rest included IPT, PDT, or EFT. NDST was significantly less effective than other specific therapies (e.g., CBT, IPT, PDT, or EFT) at post-treatments g = −0.20 (95% CI: −0.32 to −0.08), but the effect was quite small. The difference between NDST and CBT alone (the most researched treatment type) was not statistically significant. Interestingly, when the authors controlled for researcher allegiance (an indication of which treatment was preferred by the researcher), the superior effects of specific treatments over NDST disappeared. NDST was significantly more effective than no-treatment, and the effect was moderate, g=0.58 (95% CI: 0.45–0.72). Pre- to post-treatment change in symptoms in the control condition was statistically significant, g = 0.39 (95% CI: 0.03–0.74), indicating the positive effects of extra-therapeutic factors on depressive symptoms (e.g., events in the patient’s life not related to therapy). Overall, the authors were able to estimate that almost 50% of patient outcomes could be attributed to common factors (therapist interpersonal skills, therapeutic alliance, client expectations, etc.), about 17% was due to specific therapy techniques (cognitive restructuring, two chair techniques, IPT interventions), and about 33% was due to extra-therapeutic factors (e.g., the natural course of depressive symptoms or other events in the patient’s life).
Factors like therapist interpersonal skills and managing the therapeutic relationship appear to account for most (50%) of why patients with depression get better. The specific interventions based on therapy models like CBT account for relatively less of patient outcomes (17%). The natural course of the disorder and other events in patients’ lives account for about a third of patient improvement. Therapists can learn how to maximize the effects of common factor skills through deliberate practice and training to identify and repair alliance ruptures to help their patients get better.
Therapeutic Alliance Predicts Client Outcomes in CBT
Cameron, S. K., Rodgers, J., & Dagnan, D. (2018). The relationship between the therapeutic alliance and clinical outcomes in cognitive behaviour therapy for adults with depression: A meta‐analytic review. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, DOI: 10.1002/cpp.2180.
The therapeutic alliance refers to the collaborative agreement between therapist and client on the tasks of therapy (homework, treatment approach, intervention style) and goals of therapy (to reduce depressive symptoms, to improve interpersonal relationships, to cope better with stress), plus the emotional bond between therapist and client. The alliance is part of a larger concept of therapeutic relationship that also includes the real relationship between client and therapist and the transference relationship (maladaptive relational patterns in the client based on a history of relationships with parental figures). The alliance is thought to be a common factor across different therapeutic orientations, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), time-limited psychodynamic psychotherapy (TLPP), and interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT). In fact, the alliance is known to have a moderate and robust relationship to client outcomes regardless of who rates the alliance (therapist, client, observer), which measure is used, and when in therapy the alliance is rated (early, middle, late). Although Beck emphasized the alliance as a key therapeutic principle in CBT, some CBT writers argue that the alliance is not so important. In this study, Cameron and colleagues conducted a meta analysis of 13 randomized controlled trials that assessed the relationship between therapeutic alliance and CBT outcomes for depression in adult clients. The overall mean correlation between therapeutic alliance and outcome was r = 0.26 (95% CI [.19–.32]), which indicates a moderate and significant relationship. This is very close to the value found in a larger meta analysis of over 200 alliance – outcome studies.
The study demonstrates the importance of the therapeutic alliance to client outcomes in CBT. The association was at similar levels to those found in other types of therapy. Therapists conducting CBT should attend to building and maintaining an alliance, which provides a context to facilitate CBT interventions. If a client is not completing homework for example, it is likely that there is a lack of agreement on tasks of therapy, and this part of the alliance may need to be renegotiated. Therapists may also benefit from routinely assessing the alliance in therapy with their clients on a session by session basis using short and easy to use measures. Reviewing these scales regularly can alert a therapist to potential problems in the alliance and the need to repair any tensions or ruptures.
The Importance of Focusing on Problems in Psychotherapy
Yulish, N. E., Goldberg, S. B., Frost, N. D., Abbas, M., Oleen-Junk, N. A., Kring, M., . . . Wampold, B. E. (2017). The importance of problem-focused treatments: A meta-analysis of anxiety treatments. Psychotherapy, 54(4), 321-338.
Typically, meta-analyses indicate that the differences between treatments in client outcomes are small or non-existent. When a treatment is found to be more effective than a comparison condition, it is usually because the treatment (and not the comparison) is focused on the particular problem that is measured as the main outcome variable. The contextual model of change in psychotherapy posits three paths to client change: 1) therapist empathy and the real therapeutic relationship; 2) client expectations related to the therapist’s explanation of the problems and of how the therapy will reduce these problems (e.g., agreement on tasks and goals, which are aspects of therapeutic alliance); and 3) the direct specific interventions of the therapy to address these problems. In this meta-analysis, Yulish and colleagues examine aspects of the second and third component of the contextual model by examining if the difference between treatments for anxiety disorders is due to the relative differences in their focus on symptoms. In this systematic review, the authors identified 135 randomized controlled trials of direct comparisons of psychotherapy for anxiety disorders. They then rated each treatment and control condition for: the amount of explanation provided to clients for their symptoms, the amount of explanation provided to clients for the treatment approach, and the specificity of the interventions to address the symptoms. In a series of meta-regressions the authors found that: 1) explanations for the symptoms and for the treatment approach, and 2) treatments that were more symptom focused resulted in larger treatment effects. When the authors pit explanations against symptom focus to predict outcomes, they found that providing clients with an explanation for symptoms and interventions (which resulted in higher client expectations of receiving benefit) was more important than the symptom focus of the treatment.
This study suggests three mechanisms by which psychotherapy may lead to symptom relief for anxiety disorders: 1) providing clients with a clear explanation of symptoms and of therapeutic interventions, 2) having an agreement about the tasks and goals of therapy (i.e., therapeutic alliance), and 3) engaging in specific therapeutic actions that derive from the explanation of symptoms. Sitting with a client, being warm and accepting, expressing empathy and understanding, but not providing the client an explanation for his or her distress or a means to overcoming that distress may not be good enough. Such approaches may be beneficial for some with anxiety disorders, but they fail to fully make use of the factors that lead to effective therapy. The expectations of benefit created by the explanation of symptoms and interventions, in addition to specific therapeutic actions that are consistent with the explanation, may play a critical role in reducing symptoms of anxiety.
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Therapeutic Alliance in the Treatment of Adolescents
Murphy, R. & Hutton, P. (2017). Therapist variability, patient reported therapeutic alliance, and clinical outcomes in adolescents undergoing mental health treatment: A systematic review and meta-analysis. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, doi:10.1111/jcpp.12767.
The therapeutic alliance refers to the affective bond between therapist and client, and their agreement on the tasks and goals of therapy. The alliance is a well-known predictor of outcomes in adult psychotherapy with a mean alliance-outcome correlation of r = .28. Less is known about the role of the alliance in the treatment of adolescents. Some reviews indicate that the alliance-outcome relationship in children and adolescents is weaker than observed among adults, but these reviews may have been flawed since they included both children and adolescents in the same review, and the number of studies they reviewed was small. A large rigorous systematic review of adolescents’ perceptions of the alliance can provide insight into their experience of psychological treatment and inform routine mental health practice. In their meta analysis, Murphy and Hutton reviewed studies of clinical samples of adolescents between the age of 12 – 19 who received psychological treatment. The authors made sure that the measures of alliance and outcomes were reliable, they excluded studies of those with medical and neurocognitive problems, and included only studies with adolescents (i.e., excluding studies with primarily children). Twenty-seven studies with almost 3,000 participants were included. Main presenting problems of adolescent patients were: substance use, eating disorders, behavioral difficulties, and a range of mood and anxiety disorders. The mean weighted effect size of the alliance-outcome relationship among studies of psychological treatment of adolescents was r = .29 (95% CI: 0.21, 0.37; p < .001) indicating a moderate effect.
This is the largest meta analysis of the alliance-outcome relationship in the psychological treatment of adolescents with mental health problems. The alliance was moderately associated with outcomes, and so therapeutic alliance may be a reliable predictor of clinical progress in the treatment of adolescents. The findings suggest that those working with adolescents should routinely assess the alliance after each session in order to evaluate if they need to address relational barriers to positive outcomes. For example, if the alliance markedly declines from one session to the next, then clinicians should address potential problems in their relationship with the adolescent client, renegotiate goals, or renegotiate the tasks of therapy.