Elliott, R.E., Greenberg, L.S., Watson, J. Timulak, L., & Briere, E. (2013). Research on humanistic-experiential psychotherapies. In M.E. Lambert (Ed.), Bergin and Garfield’s Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change, 6th Edition (pp. 495-538). New York: Wiley.
Humanistic or experiential psychotherapies (HEP) include: person centred therapy, gestalt therapy, emotion-focused therapy, existential psychotherapy, and others. Elliott and colleagues argue that each of these approaches share the characteristic of valuing the centrality of an empathic and therapeutic relationship. That is, an authentic relationship between patient and therapist provides the client with a new and emotionally validating experience. HEP methods that deepen client emotional experiences occur within an empathic relationship, and interpersonal safety is key to enhancing a client’s attention for self awareness and exploration. Despite the long history of research in HEP, these treatments are often used as “control” conditions in outcome studies of psychotherapies – that is, to control for “non-specific” or relationship factors. Elliott and colleagues conducted meta analyses on the effectiveness of humanistic-experiential therapies. Overall, they included 199 studies of over 14,000 patients. Pre to post treatment effect sizes were large (d = .95), indicating a positive effect HEP across a wide range of clients. (A note on effect sizes: Cohen’s d < .20 represents a negligible effect; d = .20 to .49 is a small effect; d = .50 to .79 is a moderate effect; and d > .80 is a large effect). Compared to a wait-list control (62 studies), the positive effect of HEP was significant with a moderate effect size for the difference (d = .76). There were 135 studies that compared HEP to other active forms of psychotherapy. The difference between HEP and non-HEP therapies were trivial and non significant (d = .01). In the 76 studies that compared HEP to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), those who received CBT had better outcomes, but the effects were negligible (d = .13). The authors reported that there is enough evidence to indicate that HEP are efficacious for depressive disorders, substance misuse, and relationship problems; and HEP are probably efficacious for anxiety and psychotic disorders.
The research on outcomes of humanistic-existential psychotherapies (HEP) provides support for the effectiveness of these therapies for a variety of disorders, and provides further support for the importance of the facilitative and relationship factors that help patients get better. Empathy, genuineness, positive regard each comes with research support to indicate their importance to patient outcomes. Elliot and colleagues conclude that the education of psychotherapists is incomplete without greater emphasis on HEP and its facilitative components.