“… is to enter a world where great harm is possible”.
This warning was given by Jeffrey Masson in his book Against Therapy, based on years of observations and analyses of various studies. This is also a title of the chapter from our forthcoming book Forbidden psychology. Between sorcery and science. In several posts I would try to explain, why we used this warning as a title.
As early as 1960, Bandura and his collaborators proved that psychotherapists – depending on their personality traits – are prone to expressing approval or disapproval for what patients are saying. Twelve therapists were examined for their ability to directly express hostility and the extent to which they looked for others’ approval. Then they were monitored during therapeutic sessions with patients. It turned out that those who were unable to show hostility were also prone to discouraging patients from doing so. Therapists who had been found to have a strong need for social approval were opposed to patients’ expressions of hostility. Therapists who were able to show hostility encouraged similar reactions in patients. Thanks to therapists’ reactions, patients were given hints on how to behave. When their hostility met with some sort of disapproval, patients showed it much more rarely at the end of therapy; the opposite was true in cases of approved hostility.
Murray conducted an even more telling experiment. It involved therapists specializing in the non-directive therapy developed by Carl Rogers, one during which therapists do not express their views at all. They also do not react in any way to what patients are saying. Their task is only to listen to their customers in a friendly manner. The role of therapists in non-directive therapy is to show patients “unconditional acceptance,” warmth and commitment, no matter what they say or do. Therapists are given intensive training to be able to follow these guidelines.
However, Murray’s experiment demonstrated that it is not that easy to put Rogers’ principles into practice. Recordings of therapeutic sessions showed that the experimenters were able to accurately predict what the therapists approved and disapproved of on the basis of their reactions to the information they had heard or based on the feelings displayed by the patients. Their attitude was quite clear, even though therapists thought they were abstaining from any judgments. It also turned out that indications of approval or disapproval influenced patients. Successive sessions taught them to avoid behaviors, which were frowned upon. This is an example of exceptionally powerful influence, because patients, unaware of the pressure exerted upon them, are not motivated in any way to put up any resistance. This influence affects even patients’ moral attitudes, making them fall in with therapists’, as shown in successive studies by Morris Parloff. Also Joan Welkowitz and her colleagues have demonstrated the ability of therapists to influence the values of their patients to come in line with their own. They arbitrarily assigned clients to therapists and subsequently found that the values of the therapists resembled those of their own patients more than those seen by other therapists, and that the similarity of values tended to increase over time or length of treatment. Similarly, a study by Rosenthal found a positive relationship between ratings of improvement and the change of clients’ moral values towards those of the psychologists, with respect to sex, aggression and authority.
The above experiments point to unintentional effects only. It is easy to imagine what a powerful tool for indoctrination is possessed by those therapists who might purposely want to bring certain changes in patients’ worldview or to modify their systems of values!
This problem is best illustrated by an old joke about the meeting of two therapists: one behavioristically oriented, and the other adhering to principles of humanist psychology. After a brief conversation it turned out that both therapists struggled with a similar case of an adult patient who was still wetting the bed. They talked about it for a moment, exchanged remarks on the methods they were going to apply and then went their respective ways. Two months later they chanced upon each other again on the street. Having passed the time of day, they went back to their previous talk and asked each other about the effects of their therapies. “Well,” replied the behaviorist, “I managed to reduce the patient’s bed-wetting by 80%. It happens sporadically now. And how’s your patient?” he asked. “Mine,” answered the humanist, “keeps bed-wetting, but he’s now proud of it!”
 Bandura, A., Lipsher, D. H., & Miller, P. E. (1960). Psychotherapists’ approach-avoidance reactions to patient’s expressions of hostility. Journal of Counsulting Psychology, 24, 1-8.
 Murray, E. J. (1956). A content analysis method of studying psychotherapy. Psychological Monographs, 70, 420.
 Parloff, M. B. (1956). Some factors affecting the quality of therapeutic relationships. Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology, 52, 5-10.
 Welkowitz, J., Cohen, J., & Ortmeyer, D. (1967). Value system similarity: Investigation of patient—therapist dyads. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 31, 48-55.
 Rosenthal, D. (1955). Changes in some moral values following psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 19, 431-36.