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 psychotherapy for borderline personality disorder, capacity to metnalize and therapy resistant depression, and negative effects of psychotherapy
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
Do Psychotherapy Trainees Get Better with More Training?
Owen, J., Wampold, B. E., Kopta, M., Rousmaniere, T., & Miller, S. D. (2016). As good as it gets? Therapy outcomes of trainees over time. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 63, 12-19.
Does psychotherapy training improve trainees’ knowledge and skills? Do trainees improve in their ability to produce positive client outcomes over time? The research on training psychotherapists is mostly inconclusive. Some studies show little or no difference between trainees and experienced therapists, and others found no association between level of experience and client outcomes. On the other hand, some researchers have found a relationship between training and competence in delivering a particular type of treatment. Overall, the research seems to show that there is a lot of variability between therapists in their outcomes and on how training affects their practice and their clients’ outcomes. However, rarely do these studies assess outcomes within the same trainee over time as they accumulate more training. In this study, Owen and colleagues evaluate if psychotherapy trainees’ client outcomes improved with training over time. They assessed 114 psychology trainees at different levels of training in 47 clinics across the U.S. These training therapists saw over 1100 clients over at least a 12-month period, and many therapists were followed for three years. The average client improved, but with small effects (d = .31, CIs not reported). Therapists were more effective with clients who were more distressed (d = .66) than clients who were less distressed (d = .10), probably because more distressed clients had more room to improve. Trainees’ outcomes improved significantly over time, although their average improvement over time was small. Most importantly, trainees’ improvements over time varied so that the researchers were able to identify four patterns of change over a three year period of training: (1) one group of trainees started out with moderately good outcomes and their outcomes remained moderately good over time; (2) a second group started out with small positive effects in their client outcomes and they improved to achieve moderately good outcomes by their third year; (3) a third group of trainees started out with small positive client outcomes but their outcomes got worse by their third year; and (4) a fourth group started out with poor outcomes and improved to achieve small positive outcomes by year 3 of their training.
Trainees appear to have various trajectories in their ability to foster positive client outcomes over time, and, at times, that trajectory is negative. Trainees whose outcomes get worse over time (group 3) or who do not achieve at least moderately good outcomes (group 4) may need specific training to foster better interpersonal effectiveness, empathy, management of countertransference, and humility. In general, therapists should assess their clients’ outcomes with progress monitoring tools in order to use the feedback to improve their outcomes over time. If outcomes are not positive on average, then therapists should consider remediation, further training, or consultation.
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.
What Characterizes Effective Therapists?
Wampold, B. E., Baldwin, S. A., Holtforth, M. G., & Imel, Z. E. (2017). What characterizes effective therapists. 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.
The research on therapist effects indicates that some therapists are more effective than others. Previous research showed that therapist characteristics like age, race, ethnicity, gender, and experience are not consistently related to patient outcomes. Neither is therapist competence and adherence to a treatment approach. In this chapter, Wampold and colleagues ask the question: what characterizes effective therapists? The research is complicated because it is difficult to disentangle therapist effects from patient factors. That is, it is possible that some clients (i.e., those who are more motivated, likeable, and psychologically minded) might create favorable conditions for some therapists to be more effective. However, recent advances in statistical methods have allowed researchers to isolate the effects of therapist characteristics from patient factors. Based on this new research, Wampold and colleagues identified four characteristics of effective therapists. (1) The ability to form an alliance across a range of patients. The therapeutic alliance is defined as the agreement on tasks and goals of therapy, and the affective bond between therapist and patient. Alliance is reliably associated with good patient outcomes. Research shows that therapists and not clients are primarily responsible for the alliance-outcome relationship. (2) Facilitative interpersonal skills – which includes verbal fluency, warmth, empathy, and emotional expression. These skills in a therapist are a strong predictor of patient outcomes. (3) Professional self doubt – or healthy skepticism about one’s abilities and skills leading to self-reflective practice has also been found to predict positive patient outcome. (4) Deliberate practice - defined as individualized training activities especially designed to improve specific aspects of an individual’s performance through repetition and successive refinement. The amount of time outside of therapy that therapists engage in improving targeted therapeutic skills predicted patient outcomes.
Some therapists are better than others - and demographics, professional affiliation, training, and adherence to a manual do not differentiate better therapists. Four factors are emerging as indicators of better therapists. Ability to develop, maintain, and repair a therapeutic alliance is well known to predict patient outcomes and it appears that therapists are largely responsible for the condition of the alliance. Therapists’ ability to be verbal, warm, and empathic is also key to patient outcomes. Professional skepticism about one’s abilities that lead to reflective practice is also an important characteristic in order to continually improve one’s abilities and monitor one’s outcomes. And, finally therapists who spend time outside of therapy deliberately and repetitively practicing skills will achieve better patient outcomes.
Lying in Psychotherapy: What Clients Don’t Tell Their Therapist
Blanchard, M. & Farber, B.A. (2016). Lying in psychotherapy: Why and what clients don’t tell their therapist about therapy and their relationship, Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 29, 90-112.
Clients’ disclosure of their thoughts and feelings are key aspects of psychotherapy, and trust is at the heart of the therapeutic relationship. However clients are not always honest with their therapist. Clients may keep secrets, hide negative reactions to interventions, minimize, spin, or tell outright lies. In this study, Blanchard and Farber asked: “what do clients lie about in therapy and why”. The authors used a broad definition of dishonesty that included: consciously twisting the facts, minimizing, exaggerating, omitting, and pretending to agree with the therapist. The authors excluded delusions, repression, denial, and other forms of unconscious deception. Blanchard and Farber were particularly interested in client dishonesty about therapy itself and about the therapist. The authors conducted an online survey of psychotherapy clients recruited from a community sample in a U.S. city, and 547 adult clients responded. The sample was surprisingly similar to a therapy-using population reported in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Most clients were women (78%), White (80%), saw a female therapist (71%), received CBT (35.4%) or psychodynamic therapy (18%), and were treated for depression (64%) and/or anxiety (49%) disorders. The survey asked about a wide range of possible topics for dishonesty such as use of drugs or alcohol, desire for revenge, pretending to agree with the therapist, etc. With this broad definition of conscious dishonesty, 93% of clients reported lying to their therapist, in which the average number of topics lied about per client was 8.4 (SD = 6.6). Those who lied more often also reported a general tendency in their lives to conceal negative personal information (r = .45). Only 6.8% of clients reported having told zero lies in therapy. Some topics were highly endorsed by clients – for example, 54% endorsed lying about “how badly I really feel – I minimized”, 25% did not disclose “my thoughts about suicide” and “my use of drugs or alcohol”. Other topics (endorsed by 5% to 25% of clients) included lies about eating habits, self-harm, infidelity, violent fantasies, experiences of physical or sexual abuse, and religious beliefs. About 72.6% of clients lied about at least one therapy-related topic, including: “pretending to like my therapist’s comments or suggestions” (29%), “reason for missing an appointment” (29%), “pretending to find therapy more effective than I do” (28%), “pretending to do the homework” (26%), “my real opinion of the therapist (19%), “not saying I want to end therapy (16%), and “my therapist makes me feel uncomfortable” (13%). Other items were relatively rare in the sample including “my romantic or sexual feeling about my therapist” (5%). Survey respondents were then asked why they were dishonest. Reasons why clients were dishonest included: “wanting to be polite”, “I didn’t want my therapist to feel he was bad at his job”, “I didn’t want to look bad or feel embarrassed”, “I would feel bad if I told her it really didn’t help me”, “wanting to avoid my therapist’s disapproval”, and “wanting to avoid upsetting my therapist”.
Using a broad definition of dishonesty, this study found that 93% of clients did not tell the truth in one way or another to their therapist. Concern about self-judgments (i.e., embarrassment) or external judgments (i.e., avoiding therapist’s disapproval) may lead most clients to be less than honest at some times. Over 70% of clients reported lying about an aspect of therapy itself or of the therapeutic relationship. Clients appear to be particularly sensitive to upsetting or disappointing their therapist. This suggests the importance of therapists monitoring the level of emotional safety, trust, and alliance in the therapeutic relationship. Therapists may have to accept a certain level of dissimulation by clients in the therapy. Engaging in empathy, positive regard, and a focused attention on the therapeutic relationship may be important for therapists in order to overcome a level of fear or distrust among some clients about their self-judgement or the therapist`s judgment. These findings suggest that clients may benefit from therapists who receive training in identifying and resolving therapeutic alliance ruptures.
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.