The Great Psychotherapy Debate: Since in April, 2015 I review parts of The Great Psychotherapy Debate (Wampold & Imel, 2015) in the PPRNet Blog. This is the second edition of a landmark, and sometimes controversial, book that surveys the evidence for what makes psychotherapy work. You can view parts of the book in Google Books.
Wampold, B.E. & Imel, Z.E. (2015). The great psychotherapy debate: The evidence for what makes psychotherapy work (2nd edition). New York: Routledge.
In this part of the book, Wampold and Imel reviewed the research literature on the therapeutic alliance. The therapeutic alliance is considered a pan-theoretical construct that is critical to the success of all psychotherapies. Alliance is defined as the: (a) agreement on the goals of therapy, (b) agreement on the tasks of therapy, and (c) the bond between therapist and client. Numerous meta analyses across several decades demonstrate a robust relationship between the alliance and therapy outcome. For example, Horvath and colleagues (2011) conducted a meta analysis with 190 studies that included over 14, 000 clients in which the average effect size was r = .28, indicating a moderate and significant association between alliance and outcomes. Some researchers argued that this is an under-estimation of the alliance outcome relationship. In Horvath and colleagues’ meta analysis, they found no difference between type of psychotherapy (CBT, interpersonal, dynamic) and the alliance – outcome relationship. However, the alliance may work differently in some therapies. For example, in CBT there is some evidence that the collaborative bond is not related to outcomes, but rather the agreement on tasks and goals is related to patient outcomes. This highlights that an alliance cannot happen without techniques; in other words, if techniques fail to engage the patient in the work of therapy, then the technique is not working properly. Wampold and Imel also reviewed the research on whether the therapist or the patient is most influential in developing an alliance. Using sophisticated statistical techniques, they were able to disentangle the effects of therapists and clients. More effective therapists were those who had stronger alliances with patients, and their patients had better outcomes. However, the patient’s contributions to developing an alliance were not significant. Finally, Wampold and Imel reviewed the research on whether early alliance causes good outcomes, or whether early outcomes causes a good alliance. If the latter were true, then the therapeutic alliance would simply be an artifact of early improvement – that is, the alliance would not be necessary for patients to improve. Most of the studies, which were conducted by researchers of different theoretical orientations, concluded that early alliance predicts outcomes and not the other way around. There is some evidence that change in the alliance and change in symptoms have a reciprocal impact – as the alliance grows the patient subsequently improves and as the patient improves the alliance subsequently grows.
Clearly, developing and maintaining a therapeutic alliance is important to achieving good patient outcomes in psychotherapy. The alliance is not independent from techniques of psychotherapy. In other words, therapists and clients have to agree on the tasks and goals of treatment, and this agreement is fundamental to all treatment modalities offered to patients. If there is no agreement, then therapists have to consider changing course or discussing with the client ways of achieving an agreement. Over and above that, therapists and clients must have some interpersonal bond that is likely underpinned by the therapist’s empathy, positive regard, and concern for the client. The research is clear that it is the therapist who most strongly contributes to the development of an alliance, and so it is the therapist’s responsibility to nurture a positive working alliance.