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
How Reliable is the Association Between Therapeutic Alliance and Patient Outcomes?
Flückiger, C., Del Re, A. C., Wampold, B. E., & Horvath, A. O. (2018). The alliance in adult psychotherapy: A meta-analytic synthesis. Psychotherapy. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pst0000172
The therapeutic alliance is one of the most researched concepts in psychotherapy. The alliance, also called the working alliance or therapeutic alliance, consists of the collaborative agreement between patient and therapist on the tasks (what to do) and goals (what to achieve) of their therapeutic work together. Alliance also includes the relational or emotional bond between therapist and patient. It is different from therapist empathy, transference, countertransference, the real relationship and other concepts related to the therapeutic relationship. Researchers and clinicians have known for years about the importance of developing and maintaining an alliance to achieving patient outcomes. The growing research in this area now allows one to see how stable this finding is. Fluckiger and colleagues conducted a meta analysis of 306 studies with over 30,000 patients that assessed the alliance-outcome relationship. The research occurred in naturalistic settings (during regular clinical practice) and in randomized controlled trials. The overall effect size based on 295 independent comparisons was r = .278 (95% CI: .256, .299), indicating a statistically significant medium-sized association accounting for about 8% of treatment outcomes. To put this in perspective, this effect is as large as or larger than the effects of many common medical interventions. The type of therapy made no difference to this finding - the alliance was just as important to CBT as it was to psychodynamic, interpersonal, and emotionally focused therapies. The alliance-outcome correlation was somewhat smaller, though still significant among those with substance-use disorders, but otherwise was consistent for all other disorders tested (depression, anxiety, PTSD, borderline personality disorder). The alliance measure used, who rated the alliance, when it was assessed, and the outcome that was measured tended to have a small or no impact on the results. The alliance-outcome relationship was just as important to everyday clinical practice as it was in randomized controlled trials.
The alliance-outcome association is highly reliable or stable across a number of therapies, diagnoses, measurements, and study designs. This very large body of research suggests that therapists should: (1) build and maintain an emotional bond, and agreement on tasks and goals with patients throughout therapy; (2) develop the alliance early by focusing on agreement on treatment and goals; (3) address ruptures in the alliance early and immediately; and (4) assess the strength and quality of the alliance regularly throughout treatment from the patient’s perspective using a well-known brief alliance measure.
Do Common Factors Matter in Psychotherapy?
Cuijpers, P., Driessen, E., Hollon, S. D., van Oppen, P., Barth, J., & Andersson, G. (2012). The efficacy of non-directive supportive therapy for adult depression: a meta-analysis. Clinical psychology review, 32(4), 280-291.
The research evidence indicates that there is very little difference between different types of psychotherapy (CBT, IPT, PDT, EFT, and others) in patient outcomes, especially for depression. Nondirective supportive treatment (NDST) also shows positive outcomes for various disorders. NDST is often used as a “placebo” condition in psychotherapy trials to control for common or non-specific factors. Common factors refer to those aspects that are common to all therapies, but that are not specific to any one therapy (e.g., therapist interpersonal skills, therapeutic alliance, client expectations). NDST does not involve specific therapeutic interventions like cognitive restructuring, transference interpretations, two-chair techniques, etc. In this meta analysis, Cuijpers and colleagues assessed those randomized controlled trials for depression in which specific treatments (e.g., CBT, PDT, IPT, EFT) or no treatment control conditions were directly compared to NDST. By doing so, the authors were able to estimate how much of patient outcomes were attributable to: specific effects of treatments (the difference between a specific intervention and NDST), common effects of treatment (the difference between NDST and no treatment), and extra-therapeutic factors (the effects of no treatment). The meta analysis included 31 studies with over 2500 patients with depression. Twenty-one comparisons included CBT, and the rest included IPT, PDT, or EFT. NDST was significantly less effective than other specific therapies (e.g., CBT, IPT, PDT, or EFT) at post-treatments g = −0.20 (95% CI: −0.32 to −0.08), but the effect was quite small. The difference between NDST and CBT alone (the most researched treatment type) was not statistically significant. Interestingly, when the authors controlled for researcher allegiance (an indication of which treatment was preferred by the researcher), the superior effects of specific treatments over NDST disappeared. NDST was significantly more effective than no-treatment, and the effect was moderate, g=0.58 (95% CI: 0.45–0.72). Pre- to post-treatment change in symptoms in the control condition was statistically significant, g = 0.39 (95% CI: 0.03–0.74), indicating the positive effects of extra-therapeutic factors on depressive symptoms (e.g., events in the patient’s life not related to therapy). Overall, the authors were able to estimate that almost 50% of patient outcomes could be attributed to common factors (therapist interpersonal skills, therapeutic alliance, client expectations, etc.), about 17% was due to specific therapy techniques (cognitive restructuring, two chair techniques, IPT interventions), and about 33% was due to extra-therapeutic factors (e.g., the natural course of depressive symptoms or other events in the patient’s life).
Factors like therapist interpersonal skills and managing the therapeutic relationship appear to account for most (50%) of why patients with depression get better. The specific interventions based on therapy models like CBT account for relatively less of patient outcomes (17%). The natural course of the disorder and other events in patients’ lives account for about a third of patient improvement. Therapists can learn how to maximize the effects of common factor skills through deliberate practice and training to identify and repair alliance ruptures to help their patients get better.
What Do Patients Value in a Psychotherapist?
Boswell, J. F., Constantino, M. J., Oswald, J. M., Bugatti, M., Goodwin, B., & Yucel, R. (2018). Mental health care consumers’ relative valuing of clinician performance information. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 86(4), 301-308.
Research has shown that some therapists are more effective than others both in terms of their overall effectiveness and in terms of their effectiveness with specific patient problems. Further, despite advances in medicine on this topic, there is little or no information provided to patients about a therapist’s track record on overall effectiveness. In any case, little is known about what patients value in psychotherapists and how much they are willing to give up in order to get what they value. For example, do patients prefer therapists who are highly effective for most problems, and would they be willing to tolerate a poorer therapeutic relationship in order to work with such a highly effective therapist? In this study, Boswell and colleagues employed a relative valuing procedure often used in economics to assess the relative value to patients of different therapist characteristics and performance. Patients were asked how much they were willing to give up on one therapist characteristic (therapist’s overall effectiveness with clients [i.e., overall track record]) in order to receive more of some other characteristic (therapist specific effectiveness in a problem domain, a better therapeutic alliance, lower cost of therapy). The study included 403 patients treated in mental health clinics in the U.S. Patient characteristics were typical of those seen in such clinics – predominantly they had problems with depression or anxiety, were 41 years old on average, mostly women (68.5%), and receiving individual psychotherapy (89.3%). In general, patients highly valued a therapist with a track record of general overall effectiveness. However, patients were willing to give up more of their therapists overall effectiveness if the therapist had a track record of successfully treating their specific problem (e.g., therapist A has lower general efficacy but has demonstrated greater specific efficacy for depression). Patients were also willing to sacrifice therapist general effectiveness in order to pay less for therapy (vs paying a higher fee for a more effective therapist), and in order to work with a provider with whom they would have a better therapeutic alliance (vs a lower alliance with a more generally effective therapist). Surprisingly, patients placed a lower value on factors like therapist gender and race. Younger patients put greater value on therapist performance data (i.e., their track record data), suggesting a generational effect in which younger clients tend to prefer to make decisions based on available data.
Patients were willing to give up some therapist general effectiveness in order to work with someone who has a track record of being effective for their specific problem, who costs less, and with whom they could have a better therapeutic alliance. Fortunately, therapist general efficacy and domain specific efficacy tend to be highly correlated, and so patients may not have to choose between these. The findings also suggest that patients may be willing to see a therapist who is less generally effective if it meant they could have a good relational experience with the therapist. Research indicates that therapists are able to improve their outcomes and therapeutic alliances with additional training and deliberate practice.
Therapist Characteristics That Affect Client Outcomes
Lingiardi, V., Muzi, L., Tanzilli, A., & Carone, N. (2017). Do therapists' subjective variables impact on psychodynamic psychotherapy outcomes? A systematic literature review. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy. Advance online publication.
Psychotherapists differ in their effectiveness such that some therapists are more effective than others, and these differences account for up to 9% of client outcomes. Despite this, not many studies have looked at therapist personal characteristics that might be associated with better or worse outcomes. In this systematic literature review, Lingiardi and colleagues focus on empirical studies of psychodynamic therapists and their personal characteristics that might affect therapeutic processes and client outcomes. The authors included only quantitative studies. Thirty studies representing nearly 1,400 therapists and 6,000 clients were included in the review. Most studies occurred in a naturalistic setting, and most therapists were female (66%) with an average of over 9 years of experience. The studies looked at various therapist personal characteristics and their association with therapeutic processes and client outcomes. Therapist attachment security (ability to engage in meaningful loving relationships and adaptively manage emotions) was associated with better client outcomes. Similarly, therapists who reported better experiences of parental care and better quality relationships with attachment figures tended to have clients who rated a more positive therapeutic alliance. In addition, therapist interpersonal functioning was evaluated in several studies. Therapists who were rated as more affiliative (warm, friendly) and less hostile (cold, rejecting) tended to have clients who achieved better outcomes. Further, therapist facilitative interpersonal skills (emotional expressiveness, verbal fluency, warmth, empathy) were associated with better client outcomes in short-term therapy. Finally, several studies assessed therapist self-concept (stable means by which one treats oneself). Therapists who were more hostile or negative toward the self tended to be more critical or ignoring of clients, which lead to poorer client outcomes.
Therapist personal characteristics (attachment security), interpersonal skills (warmth, friendliness, empathy), and self concept (how one treats oneself) may account for why some therapists are more effective than others. Problems in these areas might lead to problematic countertransference (emotional reactions on the part of therapists triggered by client issues) or therapeutic alliance ruptures, both of which are related to poorer client outcomes. Therapists can learn methods of managing countertransference and repairing alliance ruptures. If the personal characteristics are persistent and problematic, therapists might consider personal therapy.
Therapist Multicultural Orientation Improves Client Outcomes
Davis, D. E., DeBlaere, C., Owen, J., Hook, J. N., Rivera, D. P., Choe, E., . . . Placeres, V. (2018). The multicultural orientation framework: A narrative review. Psychotherapy, 55(1), 89-100.
Many therapists have better outcomes with White or European clients than clients from diverse racial or ethnic minorities, and this might be due to racial and ethnic microaggressions that sometimes occur in therapy. Microaggression refer to intentional or unintentional brief commonplace verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities that are experienced as derogatory or negative by racial and ethnic minority clients. A multicultural orientation refers to how the cultural worldviews, values, and beliefs of clients and therapists interact to co-create a relational experience in therapy. Therapist multicultural orientation has three elements. First, cultural humility, in which a therapist is able to maintain an interpersonal stance that is open to the client’s experience of cultural identity. Second, cultural opportunity, in which the therapist uses events in therapy to explore a client’s cultural identity in depth. Third, cultural comfort in which a therapist feels at ease, open, and calm with diverse clients. These elements are important in order to negotiate a therapeutic alliance (i.e. agreement on tasks and goals of therapy, and the emotional bond between client and therapist). In this narrative review, Davis and colleagues look at the small existing research on multicultural orientation and how that research can inform therapists’ practices. The authors found that in the two studies on the topic, greater therapist cultural humility was associated with better client outcomes. Several studies found that cultural humility was associated with a positive therapeutic alliance, and that therapist cultural humility was associated with fewer microaggressions as experienced by racial and ethnic minority clients. Finally, missed opportunities by therapists to explore the meaning of culture and identity were associated with negative client outcomes. Presumably, such missed opportunities meant that therapists did not recognize and repair cultural ruptures.
The research on multicultural orientation suggests several practice implications. (1) Cultural humility requires therapists to explore their automatic cultural assumptions because if they remain unexplored they may be harmful to clients. (2) Therapists should overtly discuss the importance of cultural identities with clients in order to help both therapist and client develop a more complex understanding of the issues that bring the client to therapy. (3) A strong therapeutic alliance may require the therapist to incorporate their client’s cultural worldview and perspective when conceptualizing the client’s problems. (4) Depending on the client’s cultural worldview, therapists may consult with the client’s family and/or spiritual leaders when negotiating a culturally acceptable way of addressing the client’s problems. (5) Therapists need to identify for themselves when their values conflict with those of the client, and seek consultation or supervision when they do.
Politics in the Therapy Room during the Trump Era
Solomonov, N. & Barber, J.P. (2018). Patients’ perspectives on political self-disclosure, the therapeutic alliance, and the infiltration of politics into the therapy room in the Trump era. Journal of Clinical Psychology, DOI: 10.1002/jclp.22609.
Most studies of psychotherapy do not take into account the current political climate, and most therapists do not think about the impact of their politics on clients. Studies have focused on the effects of large historical-political events on therapy, but mainly in terms of client reactions to the events. Such studies typically assume that therapist and client shared or agreed on perspectives of the event. However, the 2016 U.S. presidential election was extremely polarizing and may represent one of those events in which clients and therapists do not agree. What if clients and therapists disagreed about the experience of the election and its aftermath – what might be the impact on their therapeutic alliance? To what extent are polarizing politics discussed in therapy, and how are these discussions experienced by clients? Solomonov and Barber conducted a national survey among 604 psychotherapy clients from the 50 U.S. states. The mean age of the sample was 33.82 years (SD = 11.10), 57% were women, 58% were Caucasian, 48% indicated that they voted for Hilary Clinton and 32% indicated that they voted for Donald Trump. Overall, 64% of patients indicated that they had spoken about politics with the therapist (66% of Trump supporters and 70% of Clinton supporters). Among Trump supporters, 38% of clients indicated that their therapist was a Republican, whereas 35% thought their therapist was a Democrat. Among Clinton supporters, only 14% said their therapist was a Republican and 64% perceived their therapist was a Democrat. Thirty percent of clients reported that their therapist explicitly disclosed their political views, and 38% of clients reported that even though their therapist did not explicitly disclose their political views the client could easily guess the therapist’s views. Clients who believed their therapist shared their political views reported significantly higher therapeutic alliance with the therapist than those who believed their therapist did not share their views. Clients who voted for Clinton reported significant increases in expression of negative feelings from before to after the election, whereas Trump supporters did not report a significant increase in negative feelings. Neither Trump nor Clinton supporters reported an increase in positive emotions pre and post election.
About two thirds of clients in the U.S. have political discussions with their therapists, and almost half wanted to talk more about politics during sessions. Even though general self-disclosure among therapists is relatively infrequent, political self-disclosure among therapists about the 2016 U.S. election seemed to occur much more frequently. It is possible that political instability and the polarizing political climate in the U.S. may contribute to more self-disclosure of a political kind among therapists. This could have an impact on therapy. Clients who perceived their therapists to share political views reported a better therapeutic alliance than those who had divergent political views from their therapist. Similarities in values between therapist and client have long been known to be associated with the therapeutic alliance. The study demonstrates that in the current political climate in the U.S., client perceptions of shared or divergent values with therapists make their way into the therapeutic space.