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 CBT, negative effects of psychological interventions, and what people want from therapy.
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
Therapists’ Appropriate Responsiveness to Clients
Stiles, W. B. & Horvath, A. O. (2017). Appropriate responsiveness as a contribution to therapist effects. In L. Castonguay and C. Hill (Eds.). How and why some therapists are better than others?: Understanding therapist effects (Ch. 4). Washington: American Psychological Association.
Appropriate responsiveness refers to therapists’ ability to adapt their techniques to the client’s requirements and circumstances. This might include planning treatment based on how the client is responding, using the client’s evolving responses to treatment as a guide to interventions, and adjusting interventions already in progress in light of subtle signs of client uptake. Appropriate responsiveness may depend on a client’s diagnosis, education, personality, stage of life, values, stage of therapy, among others. Responsiveness also depends on therapists’ skills, personality, theoretical orientation, and history of the therapeutic relationship. In this chapter, Stiles and Horvath review the literature on relationship variables that predict therapy outcomes and interpret these findings in the context of therapist responsiveness. To illustrate, previous research showed that therapists’ rigid adherence to a treatment manual was associated with worse client outcomes – or to state it differently, therapist adherence flexibility was associated with better outcomes. This flexibility is an indication of appropriate responsiveness on the part of the therapist. Stiles and Horvath also argue that most of the relationship variables that predict client outcomes reflect whether therapists appropriately respond to the circumstances of the client at a particular point in therapy. That is, evidence-based relationship factors like alliance, cohesion, empathy, goal consensus, positive regard, and others evaluate whether the therapist successfully tailored interventions and behaviors to the client’s unique personality and circumstances. For example, therapeutic alliance (the affective bond, and agreement on tasks and goals of therapy) indicates that the therapist selected interventions that were appropriate to the client, introduced them at the right time, and was attentive to and interested in the client’s progress. In support of this, the authors cite research showing that the therapeutic alliance is largely a function of the therapists’ responsiveness and not the client’s characteristics. That is, therapists are largely responsible for the quality of the therapeutic alliance.
Research is increasingly indicating that therapists’ ability to respond appropriately to clients on a moment-to-moment basis is a key therapeutic factor. In other words, therapists who can build strong alliances, repair alliance ruptures, work for goal consensus and collaboration, manage countertransference, and be empathic are those who respond to the changing nature of client characteristics and needs in therapy. Supervision that provides feedback to therapists on these therapeutic factors, mastering a framework to guide interventions, client progress monitoring and feedback, and acquiring knowledge of client personality and cultural factors can sensitise therapists to their client’s changing requirements and allow them to respond therapeutically.
Does it Matter Which Therapist a Client Gets?
Barkham, M., Lutz, W., Lambert, M., & Saxon, D. (2017). Therapist effects, effective therapists, and the law of variability. In L.G. Castonguay and C.E. Hill (Eds.) How and why are some therapists better than others? Understanding therapist effects. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Psychotherapy research has often focused on the differences between treatment types (CBT, interpersonal psychotherapy, psychodynamic therapy), which has overshadowed research on what makes for an effective therapist. Psychotherapists represent the most costly important component of psychotherapy, and only recently has research begun to catch up to the importance of therapist effects. The term “therapist effects” refers to differences between therapists (i.e., variability) in their clients’ outcomes. In this chapter, Barkham and colleagues review some of the research on effective therapists. Best estimates of therapist effects suggest that differences between therapists account for about 8% of client outcomes – which is considered a medium effect and larger than the variance accounted for by the type of therapy that a client receives. Psychotherapy research often tries to control for therapist effects by training therapists to adhere to a manual, however adherence to a manual does not substantially reduce therapist effects, and adherence is not related to patient outcomes. The implication is that which therapist a client sees matters to the client’s mental health outcomes. The best research on the topic indicates that about 20% of therapists are substantially better than the average therapist, and 20% are substantially worse than the average. (The good news is that 60% of therapists [the average] are equally and positively effective). In that study of 119 therapists, the least effective therapists had about 40% of their clients recover, whereas the most effective therapists had about 76% of their clients recover. In other words, the better therapists were almost twice as effective as the worse therapists. In a re-examination of previous data, Barkham and colleagues looked at whether other variables, like client symptom severity, played a role in therapist effects. They found that differences among therapists was higher as client baseline severity increased. That is, the gap between better and worse therapists increased when client symptoms were more severe and complex. Good therapists were better equipped to handle more complex cases.
There are important differences between therapists in their effectiveness, and this makes a difference to clients. It is particularly important for clients with more severe symptoms to be matched with more effective therapists. Previous research indicates that the level of therapist interpersonal skills (alliance, empathy, warmth, emotional expression, verbal skills) can account for significant proportion of therapist effects, and so training therapists in these interpersonal skills will improve client outcomes. Also, therapists who receive continuous reliable feedback throughout therapy about their client’s symptom levels can also drastically reduce client drop-outs and the number of clients who get worse during treatment.
The Importance of Psychosocial Factors in Mental Health Treatment
Greenberg, R.P. (2016). The rebirth of psychosocial importance in a drug-filled world. American Psychologist, 71, 781-791.
In this thoughtful piece, Greenberg reviews the research on psychosocial factors that affect mental health treatment outcomes – including for medications and in psychotherapy. There has been an important shift in the last few decades to view mental disorders, including depression, as biologically based. For example, surveys indicate that the public’s belief in biological causes of mental illness rose from 77% to 88% during a 10 year period. During the same period the belief in the primacy of biological treatment for mental disorders rose from 48% to 60%. Further, 20% of women and 15% of men in the US are currently taking antidepressant medications. Some of these trends are due to direct to consumer marketing of medications by the pharmaceutical industry, which saw a 300% increase in sales in antidepressants. Some of these trends are also due to Federal agencies like the National Institute of Mental Health that vigorously pursued an agenda of biological research. But what is the evidence for a purely biological view of mental health? Greenberg notes that the evidence is poor. For example, no one has been able to demonstrate that a chemical imbalance actually exists to explain depressive symptoms – which undermines the reason for using medications to treat depression. Further, research on the efficacy of antidepressant medications shows that they perform only slightly better than a placebo pill, prompting a former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine to declare that this difference is unlikely to be clinically meaningful. The placebo effect is essentially a psychosocial effect. It refers to: the patient’s experience of a caring relationship with a credible professional, and the patient’s expectations and hopes of getting better. Placebo is a very real phenomenon that also has an impact on purely medical interventions like surgeries. In psychotherapy trials, relational/contextual factors like therapeutic alliance, expectations, therapist empathy, and countertransference likely account for more of the client’s outcomes than the particular therapeutic technique that is used. In both psychotherapy and medication treatments for depression, it appears that the more patients perceived their doctors as caring, empathic, open, and sincere, the greater their symptom improvement. There is also good evidence that psychotherapy is as effective and antidepressants for mild to moderate depression, and that antidepressants are slightly superior for chronic depression. However, even the latter should be interpreted carefully and within the context that patients prefer psychotherapy, their adherence to medications is poorer, side effects are worse for medications, and drop out rates are lower for psychotherapy.
Patients benefit from antidepressant medications, but perhaps not exactly for the reasons that they are told. Psychosocial factors likely account for a large proportion of the effects of many medically-based interventions for mental disorders. Psychosocial factors are actively used in many psychotherapies, and therapists’ qualities like their ability to establish an alliance, empathy, and professionalism account for a moderate to large proportion of why patients get better.
How Important are the Common Factors in Psychotherapy?
Wampold, B. E. (2015). How important are the common factors in psychotherapy? An update. World Psychiatry, 14, 270-277.
What is the evidence for the common factors in psychotherapy and how important are they to patient outcomes? In their landmark book, The Great Psychotherapy Debate, Wampold and Imel cover this ground is some detail, and I reviewed a number of the issues raised in their book in the PPRNet blog over the past year. This article by Wampold provides a condensed summary of the research evidence for the common factors in psychotherapy, including: therapeutic alliance, therapist empathy, client expectations, cultural adaptation of treatments, and therapist effects. Therapeutic alliance refers to therapist and client agreement on tasks and goals of therapy, and the bond between therapist and client. A meta-analysis of the therapeutic alliance included over 200 studies of 14,000 patients and found a medium effect of alliance on patient outcomes (d = .57) across a variety of disorders and therapeutic orientations. A number of studies are also concluding that the alliance consistently predicts good outcomes, but that early good outcomes do not consistently predict a subsequent higher alliance. Further, therapists and not patients were primarily responsible for the alliance-outcome relationship. Another common factor, empathy, is thought to be necessary for cooperation, goal sharing, and social interactions. A meta-analysis of therapist empathy that included 59 studies and over 3,500 patients found that the relationship between empathy and patient outcome was moderately large (d = .63). Patient expectations that they will receive benefit from a structured therapy that explains their symptoms can be quite powerful in increasing hope for relief. A meta-analysis of 46 studies found a small but statistically significant relationship (d = .24) between client expectations and outcome. Cultural adaptation of treatments refers to providing an explanation of the symptoms and treatment that are acceptable to the client in the context of their culture. A meta analysis of 21 studies found that cultural adaptation of evidence-based treatments by using an explanation congruent with the client’s culture was more effective than unadapted evidence-based treatments, and the effect was modest (d = .32). Finally, therapist effects, refers to some therapists consistently achieving better outcomes than other therapists regardless of the patients’ characteristics or treatments delivered. A meta analysis of 17 studies of therapist effects in naturalistic settings found a moderately large effect of therapist differences (d = .55).
These common factors of psychotherapy appear to be more important to patient outcomes than therapist adherence to a specific protocol and therapist competence in delivering the protocol. As Wampold argues, therapist competence should be redefined as the therapist’s ability to form stronger alliances across a variety of patients. Effective therapists tend to have certain qualities, including: a higher level of facilitative interpersonal skills, a tendency to express more professional self doubt, and they engage in more time outside of therapy practicing various psychotherapy skills.
Clients and Therapists Differ in Their Perceptions of Psychotherapy.
Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change: Starting in March 2013 I will review one chapter a month from the Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change in addition to reviewing psychotherapy research articles. Book chapters have more restrictive copy right rules than journal articles, so I will not provide author email addresses for these chapters. If you are interested, the Handbook table of content and sections of the book can be read on Google Books.
Bohart, A.C. & Wade, A.G. (2013). The client in psychotherapy. In M. Lambert (Ed.) Bergin and Garfield’s handbook of psychotherapy and behavior change (6th ed.), pp. 219-257. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Last month I blogged about the section in Bohart and Wade’s (2013) chapter that focused on client symptom severity and motivation. This month I focus on differences between clients and therapists on their perceptions of therapy processes and outcomes. In a previous blog (see June 2013), I reviewed a meta analysis that showed that given two equally effective treatments, clients should be given their preference in order to improve outcomes. Clearly, client perceptions and preferences are important, and perhaps more important than the therapist’s perceptions. Bohart and Wade (2013) reviewed a number of studies that demonstrated this. For example, studies show that client ratings of the therapeutic alliance predicted which therapists had better than average outcomes, whereas therapist ratings of the alliance did not predict outcomes. In three other meta-analyses, client perceptions of therapist genuineness, empathy, and therapeutic presence were each more predictive of outcomes than the respective therapists’ assessments of their own genuineness, empathy, and therapeutic presence. Clients also value different outcomes compared to therapists and researchers. Most research on outcomes tends to focus on symptom reduction, but clients appear to have a broader view of good outcomes. In a qualitative study, clients focused on healthier relationship patterns, an increase in self-understanding that led to freedom from and avoidance of self-destructive behaviour, and stronger valuing of the self, in addition to symptom reduction. Others report that clients define good outcomes as reengaging in meaningful work and social roles, and restoring their self respect.
Clients are more finely attuned to the therapeutic alliance than therapists, and perhaps are better at detecting relevant and helpful therapist stances. If you are interested in assessing therapeutic alliance or a therapist’s empathy, don’t ask the therapist, ask the client. This has implications for training therapists in helpful therapeutic relationship stances. Helping trainees find areas for continued development as a therapist (i.e., in terms of improving their empathy, genuineness, and therapeutic presence) may require asking their clients’ opinions. Client perceptions of therapist qualities are more relevant than therapist perceptions when assessing effective therapist relationship stances. Therapists should monitor client preferences, particularly if the client is having difficulty engaging in the therapy. If possible and reasonable, therapists should alter their relationship approach to a client based on client feedback. Regarding outcomes, therapists, researchers, and agencies should consider broader definitions of outcomes that are more aligned with what clients want and value. Improved self concept, improved relationships, and better social and work functioning may be just as important as symptom reduction for most clients.