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Articles of Interest

The Efficacy of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy

Jonathan Shedler
University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine

February–March 2010 American Psychologist © 2010 American Psychological Association 0003-066X/10/$12.00 Vol. 65, No. 2, 98–109 DOI: 10.1037/a0018378

Empirical evidence supports the efficacy of psychodynamic therapy. Effect sizes for psychodynamic therapy are as large as those reported for other therapies that have been actively promoted as “empirically supported” and “evidence based.” In addition, patients who receive psychodynamic therapy maintain therapeutic gains and appear to continue to improve after treatment ends. Finally, nonpsychodynamic therapies may be effective in part because the more skilled practitioners utilize techniques that have long been central to psychodynamic theory and practice. The perception that psychodynamic approaches lack empirical support does not accord with available scientific evidence and may reflect selective dissemination of research findings.

Keywords: psychotherapy outcome, psychotherapy process, psychoanalysis, psychodynamic therapy, metaanalysis

There is a belief in some quarters that psychodynamic concepts and treatments lack empirical support or that scientific evidence shows that other forms of treatment are more effective. The belief appears to have taken on a life of its own. Academicians repeat it to one another, as do health care administrators, as do health care policymakers. With each repetition, its apparent credibility grows. At some point, there seems little need to question or revisit it because “everyone” knows it to be so.

The scientific evidence tells a different story: Considerable research supports the efficacy and effectiveness of psychodynamic therapy. The discrepancy between perceptions and evidence may be due, in part, to biases in the dissemination of research findings. One potential source of bias is a lingering distaste in the mental health professions for past psychoanalytic arrogance and authority. In decades past, American psychoanalysis was dominated by a hierarchical medical establishment that denied training to non-MDs and adopted a dismissive stance toward research. This stance did not win friends in academic circles. When empirical findings emerged that supported nonpsychodynamic treatments, many academicians greeted them enthusiastically and were eager to discuss and disseminate them. When empirical evidence supported psychodynamic concepts and treatments, it was often overlooked.

This article brings together findings from several empirical literatures that bear on the efficacy of psychodynamic treatment. I first outline the distinctive features of psychodynamic therapy. I next review empirical evidence for the efficacy of psychodynamic treatment, including evidence that patients who receive psychodynamic therapy not only maintain therapeutic gains but continue to improve over time. Finally, I consider evidence that nonpsychodynamic therapies may be effective in part because the more skilled practitioners utilize interventions that have long been central to psychodynamic theory and practice.

Distinctive Features of Psychodynamic Technique

Psychodynamic or psychoanalytic psychotherapy1 refers to a range of treatments based on psychoanalytic concepts and methods that involve less frequent meetings and may be considerably briefer than psychoanalysis proper. Session frequency is typically once or twice per week, and the treatment may be either time limited or open ended. The essence of psychodynamic therapy is exploring those aspects of self that are not fully known, especially as they are manifested and potentially influenced in the therapy relationship.

Undergraduate textbooks too often equate psychoanalytic or psychodynamic therapies with some of the more outlandish and inaccessible speculations made by Sigmund Freud roughly a century ago, rarely presenting mainstream psychodynamic concepts as understood and practiced today. Such presentations, along with caricatured depictions in the popular media, have contributed to widespread misunderstanding of psychodynamic treatment (for discussion of how clinical psychoanalysis is represented and misrepresented in undergraduate curricula, see Bornstein, 1988, 1995; Hansell, 2005; Redmond & Shulman, 2008). To help dispel possible myths and facilitate greater understanding of psychodynamic practice, in this section I review core features of contemporary psychodynamic technique.

Blagys and Hilsenroth (2000) conducted a search of the PsycLit database to identify empirical studies that compared the process and technique of manualized psychodynamic therapy with that of manualized cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Seven features reliably distinguished psychodynamic therapy from other therapies, as determined by empirical examination of actual session recordings and transcripts (note that the features listed below concern process and technique only, not underlying principles that inform these techniques; for a discussion of concepts and principles, see Gabbard, 2004; McWilliams, 2004; Shedler, 2006a):

  1. Focus on affect and expression of emotion. Psychodynamic therapy encourages exploration and discussion of the full range of a patient’s emotions. The therapist helps the patient describe and put words to feelings, including contradictory feelings, feelings that are troubling or threatening, and feelings that the patient may not initially be able to recognize or acknowledge (this stands in contrast to a cognitive focus, where the greater emphasis is on thoughts and beliefs; Blagys & Hilsenroth, 2002; Burum & Goldfried, 2007). There is also a recognition that intellectual insight is not the same as emotional insight, which resonates at a deep level and leads to change (this is one reason why many intelligent and psychologically minded people can explain the reasons for their difficulties, yet their understanding does not help them overcome those difficulties).
  2. Exploration of attempts to avoid distressing thoughts and feelings. People do a great many things, knowingly and unknowingly, to avoid aspects of experience that are troubling. This avoidance (in theoretical terms, defense and resistance) may take coarse forms, such as missing sessions, arriving late, or being evasive. It may take subtle forms that are difficult to recognize in ordinary social discourse, such as subtle shifts of topic when certain ideas arise, focusing on incidental aspects of an experience rather than on what is psychologically meaningful, attending to facts and events to the exclusion of affect, focusing on external circumstances rather than one’s own role in shaping events, and so on.

Psychodynamic therapists actively focus on and explore avoidances.

  1. Identification of recurring themes and patterns. Psychodynamic therapists work to identify and explore recurring themes and patterns in patients’ thoughts, feelings, self-concept, relationships, and life experiences. In some cases, a patient may be acutely aware of recurring patterns that are painful or self-defeating but feel unable to escape them (e.g., a man who repeatedly finds himself drawn to romantic partners who are emotionally unavailable; a woman who regularly sabotages herself when success is at hand). In other cases, the patient may be unaware of the patterns until the therapist helps him or her recognize and understand them.
  2. Discussion of past experience (developmental focus). Related to the identification of recurring themes and patterns is the recognition that past experience, especially early experiences of attachment figures, affects our relation to, and experience of, the present. Psychodynamic therapists explore early experiences, the relation between past and present, and the ways in which the past tends to “live on” in the present. The focus is not on the past for its own sake, but rather on how the past sheds light on current psychological difficulties. The goal is to help patients free themselves from the bonds of past experience in order to live more fully in the present.
  3. Focus on interpersonal relations. Psychodynamic therapy places heavy emphasis on patients’ relationships and interpersonal experience (in theoretical terms, object relations and attachment). Both adaptive and nonadaptive aspects of personality and self-concept are forged in the context of attachment relationships, and psychological difficulties often arise when problematic interpersonal patterns interfere with a person’s ability to meet emotional needs. Focus on the therapy relationship. The relationship between therapist and patient is itself an important interpersonal relationship, one that can become deeply meaningful and emotionally charged. To the extent that there are repetitive themes in a person’s relationships and manner of interacting, these themes tend to emerge in some form in the therapy relationship. For example, a person prone to distrust others may view the therapist with suspicion; a person who fears disapproval, rejection, or abandonment may fear rejection by the therapist, whether knowingly or unknowingly; a person who struggles with anger and hostility may struggle with anger toward the therapist; and so on (these are relatively crude examples; the repetition of interpersonal themes in the therapy relationship is often more complex and subtle than these examples suggest). The recurrence of interpersonal themes in the therapy relationship (in theoretical terms, transference and countertransference) provides a unique opportunity to explore and rework them in vivo. The goal is greater flexibility in interpersonal relationships and an enhanced capacity to meet interpersonal needs.
  4. Exploration of fantasy life. In contrast to other therapies in which the therapist may actively structure sessions or follow a predetermined agenda, psychodynamic therapy encourages patients to speak freely about whatever is on their minds. When patients do this (and most patients require considerable help from the therapist before they can truly speak freely), their thoughts naturally range over many areas of mental life, including desires, fears, fantasies, dreams, and daydreams (which in many cases the patient has not previously attempted to put into words). All of this material is a rich source of information about how the person views self and others, interprets and makes sense of experience, avoids aspects of experience, or interferes with a potential capacity to find greater enjoyment and meaning in life. The last sentence hints at a larger goal that is implicit in all of the others: The goals of psychodynamic therapy include, but extend beyond, symptom remission. Successful treatment should not only relieve symptoms (i.e., get rid of something) but also foster the positive presence of psychological capacities and resources. Depending on the person and the circumstances, these might include the capacity to have more fulfilling relationships, make more effective use of one’s talents and abilities, maintain a realistically based sense of self-esteem, tolerate a wider range of affect, have more satisfying sexual experiences, understand self and others in more nuanced and sophisticated ways, and face life’s challenges with greater freedom and flexibility. Such ends are pursued through a process of self-reflection, self-exploration, and self-discovery that takes place in the context of a safe and deeply authentic relationship between therapist and patient. (For a jargon-free introduction to contemporary psychodynamic thought, see That Was Then, This Is Now: Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy for the Rest of Us [Shedler, 2006a, which is freely available for download at http://psychsystems.net/shedler. html]).

I thank Mark Hilsenroth for his extensive contributions to this article; Marc Diener for providing some of the information reported here; Robert Feinstein, Glen Gabbard, Michael Karson, Kenneth Levy, Nancy McWilliams, Robert Michels, George Stricker, and Robert Wallerstein for their comments on drafts of the article; and the 500-plus members of the Psychodynamic Research Listserv for their collective wisdom and support.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jonathan Shedler, Department of Psychiatry, University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine, Mail Stop A011-04, 13001 East 17th Place, Aurora, CO 80045. E-mail: jonathan@shedler.com

1 I use the terms psychoanalytic and psychodynamic interchangeably.

How Effective Is Psychotherapy in General?

In psychology and in medicine more generally, meta-analysis is a widely accepted method for summarizing and synthesizing the findings of independent studies (Lipsey & Wilson, 2001; Rosenthal, 1991; Rosenthal & DiMatteo, 2001). Meta-analysis makes the results of different studies comparable by converting findings into a common metric, allowing findings to be aggregated or pooled across studies. A widely used metric is effect size, which is the difference between treatment and control groups, expressed in standard deviation units.2 An effect size of 1.0 means that the average treated patient is one standard deviation healthier on the normal distribution or bell curve than the average untreated patient. An effect size of 0.8 is considered a large effect in psychological and medical research, an effect size of 0.5 is considered a moderate effect, and an effect size of 0.2 is considered a small effect (Cohen, 1988).

The first major meta-analysis of psychotherapy outcome studies included 475 studies and yielded an overall effect size (various diagnoses and treatments) of 0.85 for patients who received psychotherapy compared with untreated controls (Smith, Glass, & Miller, 1980). Subsequent meta-analyses have similarly supported the efficacy of psychotherapy. The influential review by Lipsey and Wilson (1993) tabulated results for 18 meta-analyses concerned with general psychotherapy outcomes, which had a median effect size of 0.75. It also tabulated results for 23 metaanalyses concerned with outcomes in CBT and behavior modification, which had a median effect size of 0.62. A meta-analysis by Robinson, Berman, and Neimeyer (1990) summarized the findings of 37 psychotherapy studies concerned specifically with outcomes in the treatment of depression, which had an overall effect size of 0.73. These are relatively large effects. (For a review of psychotherapy efficacy and effectiveness research, see Lambert & Ogles, 2004).

To provide some points of reference, it is instructive to consider effect sizes for antidepressant medications. An analysis of U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration (FDA) databases (published and unpublished studies) reported in the New England Journal of Medicine found effect sizes of 0.26 for fluoxetine (Prozac), 0.26 for sertraline (Zoloft), 0.24 for citalopram (Celexa), 0.31 for escitalopram (Lexapro), and 0.30 for duloxetine (Cymbalta). The overall mean effect size for antidepressant medications approved by the FDA between 1987 and 2004 was 0.31 (Turner, Matthews, Linardatos, Tell, & Rosenthal, 2008).3 A meta-analysis reported in the prestigious Cochrane Library (Moncrieff, Wessely, & Hardy, 2004) found an effect size of 0.17 for tricyclic antidepressants compared with active placebo (an active placebo mimics the side effects of an antidepressant drug but is not itself an antidepressant).4 These are relatively small effects. Methodological differences between medication trials and psychotherapy trials are sufficiently great that effect sizes may not be directly comparable, and the findings should not be interpreted as conclusive evidence that psychotherapy is more effective. Effect sizes for antidepressant medications are reported to provide reference points that will be familiar to many readers (for more comprehensive listings of effect size reference points, see, e.g., Lipsey & Wilson, 1993; Meyer et al., 2001).


2 This score, known as the standardized mean difference, is used to summarize the findings of randomized control trials. More broadly, the concept effect size may refer to any measure that expresses the magnitude of a research finding (Rosenthal & Rosnow, 2008).

3 The measure of effect size in this study was Hedges’ g (Hedges, 1982) rather than Cohen’s d (Cohen, 1988), which is more commonly reported. The two measures are based on slightly different computational formulas, but in this case the choice of formula would have made no difference: “Because of the large sample size (over 12,000), there is no change in going from g to d;bothvaluesare.31totwo decimal places” (R. Rosenthal, personal communication to Marc Diener, January 2008).

4 Although antidepressant trials are intended to be double-blind, the blind is easily penetrated because the adverse side effects of antidepressant medications are physically discernible and widely known. Study participants and their doctors can therefore figure out whether they are receiving medication or placebo, and effects attributed to medication may be inflated by expectancy and demand effects. Use of “active” placebos better protects the blind, and the resulting effect sizes are approximately half as large as those otherwise reported.

How Effective Is Psychodynamic Therapy?

A recent and especiallymethodologicallyrigorous meta-analysis of psychodynamic therapy, published by the Cochrane Library,5 included 23 randomized controlled trials of 1,431 patients (Abbass, Hancock, Henderson, & Kisely, 2006). The studies compared patients with a range of common mental disorders6 who received short-term (< 40 hours) psychodynamic therapy with controls (wait list, minimal treatment, or “treatment as usual”) and yielded an overall effect size of 0.97 for general symptom improvement. The effect size increased to 1.51 when the patients were assessed at long-term follow-up (>9monthsposttreatment). In addition tochange in general symptoms, the meta-analysis reported an effect size of 0.81 for change in somatic symptoms, which increased to 2.21 at long-term follow-up; an effect size of 1.08 for change in anxiety ratings, which increased to 1.35 at follow-up; and an effect size of 0.59 for change in depressive symptoms, which increased to 0.98 at follow-up.7 The consistent trend toward larger effect sizes at follow-up suggests that psychodynamic therapy sets in motion psychological processes that lead to ongoing change, even after therapy has ended.

A meta-analysis published in Archives of General Psychiatry included 17 high-quality randomized controlled trials of short-term (average of 21 sessions) psychodynamic therapy and reported an effect size of 1.17 for psychodynamic therapy compared with controls (Leichsenring, Rabung, & Leibing, 2004). The pretreatment to posttreatment effect size was 1.39, which increased to 1.57 at long-term follow-up, which occurred an average of 13 months posttreatment. Translating these effect sizes into percentage terms, the authors noted that patients treated with psychodynamic therapy were “better off with regard to their target problems than 92% of the patients before therapy” (Leichsenring et al., 2004, p. 1213).

A newly released meta-analysis examined the efficacy of short-term psychodynamic therapy for somatic disorders (Abbass, Kisely, & Kroenke, 2009). It included 23 studies involving 1,870 patients who suffered from a wide range of somatic conditions (e.g., dermatological, neurological, cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, genitourinary, immunological). The study reported effect sizes of 0.69 for improvement in general psychiatric symptoms and 0.59 for improvement in somatic symptoms. Among studies that reported data on health care utilization, 77.8% reported reductions in health care utilization that were due to psychodynamic therapy—a finding with potentially enormous implications for health care reform.

A meta-analysis reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry examined the efficacy of both psychodynamic psychotherapy (14 studies) and CBT (11 studies) for personality disorders (Leichsenring & Leibing, 2003). The metaanalysis reported pretreatment to posttreatment effect sizes using the longest term follow-up available. For psychodynamic therapy (mean length of treatment was 37 weeks), the mean follow-up period was 1.5 years and the pretreatment to posttreatment effect size was 1.46. For CBT (mean length of treatment was 16 weeks), the mean follow-up period was 13 weeks and the effect size was 1.0. The authors concluded that both treatments demonstrated effectiveness. A more recent review of short-term (average of 30.7 sessions) psychodynamic therapy for personality disorders included data from seven randomized controlled trials (Messer & Abbass, in press). The study assessed outcome at the longest follow-up period available (an average of 18.9 months posttreatment) and reported effect sizes of 0.91 for general symptom improvement (N = 7 studies) and 0.97 for improvement in interpersonal functioning (N = 4 studies).

Two recent studies examined the efficacy of long-term psychodynamic treatment. A meta-analysis reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Leichsenring & Rabung, 2008) compared long-term psychodynamic therapy (> 1 year or 50 sessions) with shorter term therapies for the treatment of complex mental disorders (defined as multiple or chronic mental disorders, or personality disorders) and yielded an effect size of 1.8 for overall outcome.8 The pretreatment to posttreatment effect size was 1.03 for overall outcome, which increased to 1.25 at long-term follow-up (p < .01), an average of 23 months posttreatment. Effect sizes increased from treatment completion to follow-up for all five outcome domains assessed in the study (overall effectiveness, target problems, psychiatric symptoms, personality functioning, and social functioning). A second meta-analysis, reported in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry (de Maat, de Jonghe, Schoevers, & Dekker, 2009), examined the effectiveness of long-term psychodynamic therapy (average of 150 sessions) for adult outpatients with a range of diagnoses. For patients with mixed/moderate pathology, the pretreatment to posttreatment effect was 0.78 for general symptom improvement, which increased to 0.94 at long-term follow-up, an average of 3.2 years posttreatment. For patients with severe personality pathology, the pretreatment to posttreatment effect was 0.94, which increased to 1.02 at long-term follow-up, an average of 5.2 years posttreatment.

These meta-analyses represent the most recent and methodologically rigorous evaluations of psychodynamic therapy. Especially noteworthy is the recurring finding that the benefits of psychodynamic therapy not only endure but increase with time, a finding that has now emerged from at least five independent meta-analyses (Abbass et al., 2006; Anderson & Lambert, 1995; de Maat et al., 2009; Leichsenring & Rabung, 2008; Leichsenring et al., 2004). In contrast, the benefits of other (nonpsychodynamic) empirically supported therapies tend to decay over time for the most common disorders (e.g., depression, generalized anxiety; de Maat, Dekker, Schoevers, & de Jonghe, 2006; Gloaguen, Cottraux, Cucharet, & Blackburn, 1998; Hollon et al., 2005; Westen, Novotny, & Thompson-Brenner, 2004).9

Table 1

Table 1 summarizes the meta-analytic findings described above and adds additional findings to provide further points of reference. Except as noted, effect sizes listed in the table are based on comparisons of treatment and control groups and reflect response at the completion of treatment (not long-term follow-up). Studies supporting the efficacy of psychodynamic therapy span a range of conditions and populations. Randomized controlled trials support the efficacy of psychodynamic therapy for depression, anxiety, panic, somatoform disorders, eating disorders, substance-related disorders, and personality disorders (Leichsenring, 2005; Milrod et al., 2007).

Findings concerning personality disorders are particularly intriguing. A recent study of patients with borderline personality disorder (Clarkin, Levy, Lenzenweger, & Kern-berg, 2007) not only demonstrated treatment benefits that equaled or exceeded those of another evidence-based treatment, dialectical behavior therapy (Linehan, 1993), but also showed changes in underlying psychological mechanisms (intrapsychic processes) believed to mediate symptom change in borderline patients (specifically, changes in reflective function and attachment organization; Levy et al., 2006). These intrapsychic changes occurred in patients who received psychodynamic therapy but not in patients who received dialectical behavior therapy.

Such intrapsychic changes may account for long-term treatment benefits. A newly released study showed enduring benefits of psychodynamic therapy five years after treatment completion (and eight years after treatment initiation). At five-year follow-up, 87% of patients who received “treatment as usual” continued to meet diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorder, compared with 13% of patients who received psychodynamic therapy (Bateman & Fonagy, 2008). No other treatment for personality pathology has shown such enduring benefits. These last findings must be tempered with the caveat that they rest on two studies and therefore cannot carry as much evidential weight as findings replicated in multiple studies conducted by independent research teams. More generally, it must be acknowledged that there are far more empirical outcome studies of other treatments, notably CBT, than of psychodynamic treatments. The discrepancy in sheer numbers of studies is traceable, in part, to the indifference to empirical research of earlier generations of psychoanalysts, a failing that continues to haunt the field and that contemporary investigators labor to address.

A second caveat is that many psychodynamic outcome studies have included patients with a range of symptoms and conditions rather than focusing on specific diagnostic categories (e.g., those defined by diagnostic criteria specified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [4th edition, DSM-IV; American Psychiatric Association, 1994]). The extent to which this is a limitation is open to debate. A concern often raised about psychotherapy efficacy studies is that they use highly selected and unrepresentative patient samples and, consequently, that their findings do not generalize to real-world clinical practice (e.g., Westen et al., 2004). Nor is there universal agreement that DSM–IV diagnostic categories define discrete or homogeneous patient groups (given that psychiatric comorbidity is the norm and that diagnosable complaints are often embedded in personality syndromes; Blatt & Zuroff, 2005; Westen, Gabbard, & Blagov, 2006). Be that as it may, an increasing number of studies of psychodynamic treatments do focus on specific diagnoses (e.g., Bateman & Fonagy, 2008; Clarkin et al., 2007; Cuijpers, van Straten, Andersson, & van Oppen, 2008; Leichsenring, 2001, 2005; Milrod et al., 2007).


5 More widely known in medicine than in psychology, the Cochrane Library was created to promote evidence based practice and is considered a leader in methodological rigor for meta-analysis.

6 These included nonpsychotic symptom and behavior disorders commonly seen in primary care and psychiatric services, for example, nonbipolar depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and somatoform disorders, often mixed with interpersonal or personality disorders (Abbass et al., 2006).

7 The meta-analysis computed effect sizes in a variety of ways. The findings reported here are based on the single method that seemed most conceptually and statistically meaningful (in this case, a random effects model, with a single outlier excluded). See the original source for more fine-grained analyses (Abbass et al., 2006).

8 The atypical method used to compute this effect size may provide an inflated estimate of efficacy, and the effect size may not be comparable to other effect sizes reported in this review (for discussion, see Thombs, Bassel, & Jewett, 2009).

9 The exceptions to this pattern are specific anxiety conditions such as panic disorder and simple phobia, for which short-term, manualized treatments do appear to have lasting benefits (Westen et al., 2004).

A Rose by Another Name: Psychodynamic Process in Therapies

The “active ingredients” of therapy are not necessarily those presumed by the theory or treatment model. For this reason, randomized controlled trials that evaluate a therapy as a “package” do not necessarily provide support for its theoretical premises or the specific interventions that derive from them. For example, the available evidence indicates that the mechanisms of change in cognitive therapy (CT) are not those presumed by the theory. Kazdin (2007), reviewing the empirical literature on mediators and mechanisms of change in psychotherapy, concluded, “Perhaps we can state more confidently now than before that whatever may be the basis of changes with CT, it does not seem to be the cognitions as originally proposed” (p. 8).

There are also profound differences in the way therapists practice, even therapists ostensibly providing the same treatment. What takes place in the clinical consulting room reflects the qualities and style of the individual therapist, the individual patient, and the unique patterns of interaction that develop between them. Even in controlled studies designed to compare manualized treatments, therapists interact with patients in different ways, implement interventions differently, and introduce processes not specified by the treatment manuals (Elkin et al., 1989). In some cases, investigators have had difficulty determining from verbatim session transcripts which manualized treatment was being provided (Ablon & Jones, 2002).

For these reasons, studies of therapy “brand names” can be highly misleading. Studies that look beyond brand names by examining session videotapes or transcripts may reveal more about what is helpful to patients (Goldfried & Wolfe, 1996; Kazdin, 2007, 2008). Such studies indicate that the active ingredients of other therapies include unacknowledged psychodynamic elements.

One method of studying what actually happens in therapy sessions makes use of the Psychotherapy Process Q-Sort (PQS; Jones, 2000). This instrument consists of 100 variables that assess therapist technique and other aspects of the therapy process based on specific actions, behaviors, and statements made during sessions. In a series of studies, blind raters scored the 100 PQS variables from archival, verbatim session transcripts for hundreds of therapy hours from outcome studies of both brief psychodynamic therapy and CBT (Ablon & Jones, 1998; Jones & Pulos, 1993).10

In one study, the investigators asked panels of internationally recognized experts in psychoanalytic therapy and CBT to use the PQS to describe “ideally” conducted treatments (Ablon & Jones, 1998). On the basis of the expert ratings, the investigators constructed prototypes of ideally conducted psychodynamic therapy and CBT. The two prototypes differed considerably.

The psychodynamic prototype emphasized unstructured, open-ended dialogue (e.g., discussion of fantasies and dreams); identifying recurring themes in the patient’s experience; linking the patient’s feelings and perceptions to past experiences; drawing attention to feelings regarded by the patient as unacceptable (e.g., anger, envy, excitement); pointing out defensive maneuvers; interpreting warded-off or unconscious wishes, feelings, or ideas; focusing on the therapy relationship as a topic of discussion; and drawing connections between the therapy relationship and other relationships.

The CBT prototype emphasized dialogue with a more specific focus, with the therapist structuring the interaction and introducing topics; the therapist functioning in a more didactic or teacher-like manner; the therapist offering explicit guidance or advice; discussion of the patient’s treatment goals; explanation of the rationale behind the treatment and techniques; focusing on the patient’s current life situation; focusing on cognitive themes such as thoughts and belief systems; and discussion of tasks or activities (“homework”) for the patient to attempt outside of therapy sessions.11

In three sets of archival treatment records (one from a study of cognitive therapy and two from studies of brief psychodynamic therapy), the researchers measured therapists’ adherence to each therapy prototype without regard to the treatment model the therapists believed they were applying (Ablon & Jones, 1998). Therapist adherence to the psychodynamic prototype predicted successful outcome in both psychodynamic and cognitive therapy. Therapist adherence to the CBT prototype showed little or no relation to outcome in either form of therapy. The findings replicated those of an earlier study that employed a different methodology and also found that psychodynamic interventions, not CBT interventions, predicted successful outcome in both cognitive and psychodynamic treatments (Jones & Pulos, 1993).

An independent team of investigators using different research methods also found that psychodynamic methods predicted successful outcome in cognitive therapy (Castonguay, Goldfried, Wiser, Raue, & Hayes, 1996). The study assessed outcomes in cognitive therapy conducted according to Beck’s treatment model (Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery, 1979), and the findings had been reported as evidence for the efficacy of cognitive therapy for depression (Hollon et al., 1992).12

Investigators measured three variables from verbatim transcripts of randomly selected therapy sessions in a sample of 64 outpatients. One variable assessed quality of the working alliance (the concept working alliance, or therapeutic alliance, is now widely recognized and often considered a nonspecific or “common” factor in many forms of therapy; many do not realize that the concept comes directly from psychoanalysis and has played a central role in psychoanalytic theory and practice for over four decades; see Greenson, 1967; Horvath & Luborsky, 1993). The second variable assessed therapist implementation of the cognitive treatment model (i.e., addressing distorted cognitions believed to cause depressive affect). The third variable, labeled experiencing, beautifully captures the essence of psychoanalytic process:

At the lower stages of [experiencing], the client talks about events, ideas, or others (Stage 1); refers to self but without expressing emotions (Stage 2); or expresses emotions but only as they relate to external circumstances (Stage 3). At higher stages, the client focuses directly on emotions and thoughts about self (Stage 4), engages in an exploration of his or her inner experience (Stage 5), and gains awareness of previously implicit feelings and meanings [emphasis added] (Stage 6). The highest stage (7) refers to an ongoing process of in-depth self-understanding. (Castonguay et al., 1996, p. 499)

Especially noteworthy is the phrase “gains awareness of previously implicit feelings and meanings.” The term implicit refers, of course, to aspects of mental life that are not initially conscious. The construct measured by the scale hearkens back to the earliest days of psychoanalysis and its central goal of making the unconscious conscious (Freud, 1896/1962).13

In this study of manualized cognitive therapy for depression, the following findings emerged: (a) Working alliance predicted patient improvement on all outcome measures; (b) psychodynamic process (“experiencing”) predicted patient improvement on all outcome measures; and (c) therapist adherence to the cognitive treatment model (i.e., focusing on distorted cognitions) predicted poorer outcome. A subsequent study using different methodology replicated the finding that interventions aimed at cognitive change predicted poorer outcome (Hayes, Castonguay, & Goldfried, 1996). However, discussion of interpersonal relations and exploration of past experiences with early caregivers—both core features of psychodynamic technique—predicted successful outcome.

These findings should not be interpreted as indicating that cognitive techniques are harmful, and other studies have reported positive relations between CBT technique and outcome (Feeley, DeRubeis, & Gelfand, 1999; Strunk, DeRubeis, Chiu, & Alvarez, 2007; Tang & DeRubeis, 1999). Qualitative analysis of the verbatim session transcripts suggested that the poorer outcomes associated with cognitive interventions were due to implementation of the cognitive treatment model in dogmatic, rigidly insensitive ways by certain of the therapists (Castonguay et al., 1996). (No school of therapy appears to have a monopoly on dogmatism or therapeutic insensitivity. Certainly, the history of psychoanalysis is replete with examples of dogmatic excesses.) On the other hand, the findings do indicate that the more effective therapists facilitated therapeutic processes that have long been core, centrally defining features of psychoanalytic theory and practice.

Other empirical studies have also demonstrated links between psychodynamic methods and successful outcome, whether or not the investigators explicitly identified the methods as “psychodynamic” (e.g., Barber, Crits-Christoph, & Luborsky, 1996; Diener, Hilsenroth, & Weinberger, 2007; Gaston, Thompson, Gallagher, Cournoyer, & Gagnon, 1998; Hayes & Strauss, 1998; Hilsenroth, Ackerman, Blagys, Baity, & Mooney, 2003; Høglend et al., 2008; Norcross, 2002; Pos, Greenberg, Goldman, & Korman, 2003; Vocisano et al., 2004).


10 The cognitive therapy study was a randomized controlled trial for depression; the psychodynamic therapy studies were panel studies for mixed disorders and for posttraumatic stress disorder, respectively. See the original source for more detailed descriptions (Ablon & Jones, 1998; Jones & Pulos, 1993).

11 See the original source for more complete descriptions of the two therapy prototypes (Ablon & Jones, 1998).

12 The study is one of the archival studies analyzed by Jones and his associates (Ablon & Jones, 1998; Jones & Pulos, 1993).

13 Although the term “experiencing” derives from the humanistic therapy tradition, the phenomenon assessed by the scale—a trajectory of deepening self-exploration, leading to increased awareness of implicit or unconscious mental life—is the core defining feature of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic therapy.

The Flight of the Dodo

The heading of this section is an allusion to what has come to be known in the psychotherapy research literature as the Dodo bird verdict. After reviewing the psychotherapy outcome literatures of the time, Rosenzweig (1936), and subsequently Luborsky, Singer, and Luborsky (1975), reached the conclusion of the Dodo bird in Alice in Wonderland: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” Outcomes for different therapies were surprisingly equivalent, and no form of psychotherapy proved superior to any other. In the rare instances when studies found differences between active treatments, the findings virtually always favored the preferred treatment of the investigators (the investigator allegiance effect; Luborsky et al., 1999).

Subsequent research has done little to alter the Dodo bird verdict (Lambert & Ogles, 2004; Wampold, Minami, Baskin, & Callen Tierney, 2002). For example, studies that have directly compared CBT with short-term psychodynamic therapy for depression have failed to show greater efficacy for CBT over psychodynamic therapy or vice versa (Cuijpers et al., 2008; Leichsenring, 2001). Leichsenring (2001) noted that both treatments appeared to qualify as empirically supported therapies according to the criteria specified by the American Psychological Association’s Division 12 Task Force on Promotion and Dissemination of Psychological Procedures (1995; Chambless et al., 1998). Some of the studies compared psychodynamic treatments of only eight sessions’ duration, which most practitioners would consider inadequate, with 16-session CBT treatments. Even in these studies, outcomes were comparable (Barkham et al., 1996; Shapiro et al., 1994).

There are many reasons why outcome studies may fail to show differences between treatments even if important differences really exist. Others have discussed the limitations and unexamined assumptions of current research methods (Goldfried & Wolfe, 1996; Norcross, Beutler, & Levant, 2005; Westen et al., 2004). Here I focus on one salient limitation: the mismatch between what psychodynamic therapy aims to accomplish and what outcome studies typically measure.

As noted earlier, the goals of psychodynamic therapy include, but extend beyond, alleviation of acute symptoms. Psychological health is not merely the absence of symptoms; it is the positive presence of inner capacities and resources that allow people to live life with a greater sense of freedom and possibility. Symptom-oriented outcome measures commonly used in outcome studies (e.g., the Beck Depression Inventory [Beck, Ward, Mendelson, Mock, & Erbaugh, 1961] or the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression [Hamilton, 1960]) do not attempt to assess such inner capacities (Blatt & Auerbach, 2003; Kazdin, 2008). Possibly, the Dodo bird verdict reflects a failure of researchers, psychodynamic and nonpsychodynamic alike, to adequately assess the range of phenomena that can change in psychotherapy.

The Shedler–Westen Assessment Procedure (SWAP; Shedler & Westen, 2007; Westen & Shedler, 1999a, 1999b) represents one method of assessing the kinds of inner capacities and resources that psychotherapy may develop. The SWAP is a clinician-report (not-self report) instrument that assesses a broad range of personality processes, both healthy and pathological. The instrument can be scored by clinicians of any theoretical orientation and has demonstrated high reliability and validity relative to a wide range of criterion measures (Shedler & Westen, 2007; Westen & Shedler, 2007). The SWAP includes an empirically derived Healthy Functioning Index comprising the items listed in Table 2, which define and operationalize mental health as consensually understood by clinical practitioners across theoretical orientations (Westen & Shedler, 1999a, 1999b). Many forms of treatment, including medications, may be effective in alleviating acute psychiatric symptoms, at least in the short run. However, not all therapies aim at changing underlying psychological processes such as those assessed by the SWAP. (A working version of the SWAP, which generates and graphs T scores for a wide range of personality traits and disorders, can be previewed at www.SWAPassessment.org.)

Researchers, including psychodynamically oriented researchers, have yet to conduct compelling outcome studies that assess changes in inner capacities and resources, but two studies raise intriguing possibilities and suggest directions for future research. One is a single case study of a woman diagnosed with borderline personality disorder who was assessed with the SWAP by independent assessors (not the treating clinician) at the beginning of treatment and again after two years of psychodynamic therapy (Lingiardi, Shedler, & Gazzillo, 2006). In addition to meaningful decreases in SWAP scales that measure psychopathology, the patient’s SWAP scores showed an increased capacity for empathy and greater sensitivity to others’ needs and feelings; increased ability to recognize alternative viewpoints, even when emotions ran high; increased ability to comfort and soothe herself; increased recognition and awareness of the consequences of her actions; increased ability to express herself verbally; more accurate and balanced perceptions of people and situations; a greater capacity to appreciate humor; and, perhaps most important, she had come to terms with painful past experiences and had found meaning in them and grown from them. The patient’s score on the SWAP Healthy Functioning Index increased by approximately two standard deviations over the course of treatment.

A second study used the SWAP to compare 26 patients beginning psychoanalysis with 26 patients completing psychoanalysis (Cogan & Porcerelli, 2005). The latter group not only had significantly lower scores for SWAP items assessing depression, anxiety, guilt, shame, feelings of inadequacy, and fears of rejection but significantly higher scores for SWAP items assessing inner strengths and capacities (see Table 2). These included greater satisfaction in pursuing long-term goals, enjoyment of challenges and pleasure in accomplishments, ability to utilize talents and abilities, contentment in life’s activities, empathy for others, interpersonal assertiveness and effectiveness, ability to hear and benefit from emotionally threatening information, and resolution of past painful experiences. For the group completing psychoanalysis, the mean score on the SWAP Healthy Functioning Index was one standard deviation higher.

Table 2 Definition of Mental Health: Items From the Shedler– Westen Assessment Procedure (SWAP–200; Shedler& Westen, 2007)

  • Is able to use his/her talents, abilities, and energy effectively and productively.
  • Enjoys challenges; takes pleasure in accomplishing things.
  • Is capable of sustaining a meaningful love relationship characterized by genuine intimacy and caring.
  • Finds meaning in belonging and contributing to a larger community (e.g., organization, church, neighborhood).
  • Is able to find meaning and fulfillment in guiding, mentoring, or nurturing others.
  • Is empathic; is sensitive and responsive to other people’s needs and feelings.
  • Is able to assert him/herself effectively and appropriately when necessary.
  • Appreciates and responds to humor.
  • Is capable of hearing information that is emotionally threatening (i.e., that challenges cherished beliefs, perceptions, and self-perceptions) and can use and benefit from it.
  • Appears to have come to terms with painful experiences from the past; has found meaning in and grown from such experiences.
  • Is articulate; can express self well in words.
  • Has an active and satisfying sex life.
  • Appears comfortable and at ease in social situations.
  • Generally finds contentment and happiness in life’s activities.
  • Tends to express affect appropriate in quality and intensity to the situation at hand.
  • Has the capacity to recognize alternative viewpoints, even in matters that stir up strong feelings.
  • Has moral and ethical standards and strives to live up to them.
  • Is creative; is able to see things or approach problems in novel ways.
  • Tends to be conscientious and responsible.
  • Tends to be energetic and outgoing.
  • Is psychologically insightful; is able to understand self and others in subtle and sophisticated ways.
  • Is able to find meaning and satisfaction in the pursuit of long-term goals and ambitions.
  • Is able to form close and lasting friendships characterized by mutual support and sharing of experiences.

Methodological limitations preclude drawing causal conclusions from these studies, but they suggest that psychodynamic therapy may not only alleviate symptoms but also develop inner capacities and resources that allow a richer and more fulfilling life. Measures such as the SWAP could be incorporated in future randomized controlled trials, scored by independent assessors blind to treatment condition, and used to assess such outcomes. Whether or not all forms of therapy aim for such outcomes, or researchers study them, they are clearly the outcomes desired by many people who seek psychotherapy. Perhaps this is why psychotherapists, irrespective of their own theoretical orientations, tend to choose psychodynamic psychotherapy for themselves (Norcross, 2005).

Discussion

One intent of this article was to provide an overview of some basic principles of psychodynamic therapy for readers who have not been exposed to them or who have not heard them presented by a contemporary practitioner who takes them seriously and uses them clinically. Another was to show that psychodynamic treatments have considerable empirical support. The empirical literature on psychodynamic treatments does, however, have important limitations. First, the number of randomized controlled trials for other forms of psychotherapy, notably CBT, is considerably larger than that for psychodynamic therapy, perhaps by an order of magnitude. Many of these trials—specifically, the newer and better-designed trials—are more methodologically rigorous (although some of the newest psychodynamic randomized controlled trials, e.g., that of Clarkin et al., 2007, also meet the highest standards of methodological rigor). In too many cases, characteristics of patient samples have been too loosely specified, treatment methods have been inadequately specified and monitored, and control conditions have not been optimal (e.g., using wait-list controls or “treatment as usual” rather than active alternative treatments—a limitation that applies to research on empirically supported therapies more generally). These and other limitations of the psychodynamic research literature must be addressed by future research. My intent is not to compare treatments or literatures but to review the existing empirical evidence supporting psychodynamic treatments and therapy processes, which is often underappreciated.

In writing this article, I could not help being struck by a number of ironies. One is that academicians who dismiss psychodynamic approaches, sometimes in vehement tones, often do so in the name of science. Some advocate a science of psychology grounded exclusively in the experimental method. Yet the same experimental method yields findings that support both psychodynamic concepts (e.g., Westen, 1998) and treatments. In light of the accumulation of empirical findings, blanket assertions that psychodynamic approaches lack scientific support (e.g., Barlow & Durand, 2005; Crews, 1996; Kihlstrom, 1999) are no longer defensible. Presentations that equate psychoanalysis with dated concepts that last held currency in the psychoanalytic community in the early 20th century are similarly misleading; they are at best uninformed and at worst disingenuous.

A second irony is that relatively few clinical practitioners, including psychodynamic practitioners, are familiar with the research reviewed in this article. Many psychodynamic clinicians and educators seem ill-prepared to respond to challenges from evidence-oriented colleagues, students, utilization reviewers, or policymakers, despite the accumulation of high-quality empirical evidence supporting psychodynamic concepts and treatments. Just as anti-psychoanalytic sentiment may have impeded dissemination of this research in academic circles, distrust of academic research methods may have impeded dissemination in psychoanalytic circles (see Bornstein, 2001). Such attitudes are changing, but they cannot change quickly enough.

Researchers also share responsibility for this state of affairs (Shedler, 2006b). Many investigators take for granted that clinical practitioners are the intended consumers of clinical research (e.g., Task Force on Promotion and Dissemination of Psychological Procedures, 1995), but many of the psychotherapy outcome studies and meta-analyses reviewed for this article are clearly not written for practitioners. On the contrary, they are densely complex and technical and often seem written primarily for other psychotherapy researchers—a case of one hand writing for the other. As an experienced research methodologist and psychometrician, I must admit that deciphering some of these articles required hours of study and more than a few consultations with colleagues who conduct and publish outcome research. I am unsure how the average knowledgeable clinical practitioner could navigate the thicket of specialized statistical methods, clinically unrepresentative samples, investigator allegiance effects, inconsistent methods of reporting results, and inconsistent findings across multiple outcome variables of uncertain clinical relevance. If clinical practitioners are indeed the intended “consumers” of psychotherapy research, then psychotherapy research needs to be more consumer relevant (Westen, Novotny, & Thompson-Brenner, 2005).

With the caveats noted above, the available evidence indicates that effect sizes for psychodynamic therapies are as large as those reported for other treatments that have been actively promoted as “empirically supported” and “evidence based.” It indicates that the (often unacknowledged) “active ingredients” of other therapies include techniques and processes that have long been core, centrally defining features of psychodynamic treatment. Finally, the evidence indicates that the benefits of psychodynamic treatment are lasting and not just transitory and appear to extend well beyond symptom remission. For many people, psychodynamic therapy may foster inner resources and capacities that allow richer, freer, and more fullling lives.

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