Larsson, B. P., Broberg, A. G., & Kaldo, V. (2013). Do psychotherapists with different theoretical orientations stereotype or prejudge each other? Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 1-10.
A remarkable difference between the field of psychotherapy and other health care or scientific areas is that psychotherapy is organized in different and somewhat competing theoretical orientations or schools. Leading thinkers of psychotherapy integration, have emphasized how this division presents an obstacle to integration and therefore to progress within the practice and science of psychotherapy. One of these obstacles could be persistent stereotypes that psychotherapists might have about other therapists who practice from a different theoretical orientation. Social psychologists have long known that people in one group (e.g., an in-group) may misjudge or stereotype people in other groups (e.g., out-groups). Stereotypes may be negative if members of an in-group hold a positive bias toward their in-group coupled with antagonism toward members of an out-group. Do psychotherapists stereotype other therapists who practice from a different theoretical orientation? A recent study by Larsson and colleagues addressed this question. They surveyed 416 therapists divided into four ‘pure’ self-reported schools: 161 psychodynamic therapists, 93 cognitive therapists, 95 behavioural therapists, and 67 integrative/eclectic therapists. Most were women (76%), mean age was in the mid 50s, mean experience was 5 to 10 years, and they represented a variety of disciplines including psychology, psychiatry, social work, and nursing. In the first section of the survey, therapists indicated what focus they deemed most important to their own psychotherapeutic work, including: (1) therapeutic relationship, (2) patient’s thoughts, (3) patient’s feelings, (4) patient’s behaviour, or (5) connection between the patient’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Therapists then estimated how they thought psychotherapists from other orientations would rate each of these foci. In the second section of the survey, therapists completed scales about what they deemed were important aspects of psychodynamic, cognitive, behavioral, and eclectic/integrative therapy, respectively. Once again, they rated how they thought therapists from the other orientations would respond. Self-ratings of therapists within each orientation indicated the ‘true’ (i.e., prototypical) opinions of each orientation. The differences between ‘true’ opinions of the in-group versus the in-group’s ratings of therapists from other orientations (i.e. of the out-group) indicated the level of misjudgement or stereotyping. Of the 18 areas on which out-groups were rated, 11 were significantly misjudged by the in-group. Eclectic/integrative therapists were much less likely to stereotype therapists of cognitive or psychodynamic orientations, who were equally likely to stereotype others. The belief that one’s own orientation compared to others is better characterized as an applied science (a belief endorsed most often by cognitive therapists) was a statistically stronger predictor of stereotyping than orientation per se.
Some researchers argue that different orientations are more similar in their practice of psychotherapy than theory would predict. Furthermore, research about common factors in psychotherapy suggests that these factors may be more important than techniques specific to a school of psychotherapy. However, as long as there are different therapeutic orientations there will likely remain a tendency among some psychotherapists to search for differences rather than to look for similarities between their own and other orientations. This may lead to stereotyping (i.e., an inaccurate opinion about therapists of other orientations), and perhaps negative stereotyping. Psychotherapists and researchers may want to keep in mind the tendency to stereotype clinicians from other orientations when talking to or about other psychotherapists. Such stereotyping is likely an impediment to good client care and research.
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