Eysenck, Rogers and Psychotherapy Effectiveness By John Marzillier, PhD on 3/2/11 - 1:49 PM

In the 1970s I worked as a psychology lecturer in Hans Eysenck’s department at the Institute of Psychiatry, London. He was a controversial figure, quiet and introverted when met face to face, but on the academic stage a formidable and ruthless opponent. Rod Buchanan’s recent biography, Playing with Fire:The Controversial Career of Hans J Eysenck, nicely captures the complexity of the man, part prolific scientist, and part inveterate showman. Whether it was race and IQ, cancer and smoking or the effectiveness of psychotherapy, Eysenck did not hold back from taking the unpopular position. His 1952 paper challenging the effectiveness of psychotherapy triggered off a fierce debate that resonates today. How do we determine that psychotherapy works? Many therapists believe the question is either meaningless – like asking if medicine works – or has been loudly answered in the affirmative following thousands upon thousands of research trials. But the question is not as simple as it sounds.

In the 1970s I recall researching into Encounter groups that were all the rage then and coming across a statement by Carl Rogers. He claimed that a positive consequence of a successful Encounter group was for the members to become aware of their psychological problems and go on to have individual therapy for them. So the measure of success in Rogers’ terms was (a) having a problem and (b) going into therapy, the opposite of what most people see as psychotherapy’s goals! What Rogers claim illustrates is that any notion of outcome is based upon a set of values. For him authenticity was paramount and therapy was not a means of getting rid of symptoms but a chance to explore oneself, a process of self actualisation that was the key to the well-lived life. To be happy was not to be free of problems but to feel comfortable in oneself and to relate to others in a genuine and empathic way. Attractive as this philosophy may be, it is not one that the researchers into the effectiveness of psychotherapy have adopted. On the contrary, a quasi-medical model has been all powerful. Researchers have sought to prove that any specific therapy works in terms of making people feel better and enabling them to get rid of depression, anxiety, addictions or whatever ‘illness’ they are deemed to have. The problem I have with that it does not describe psychotherapy as I know it. Most psychotherapists realise that these simplicities mask the truly interesting part of therapy which is determining what the client’s problem actually is.

In my memoir, The Gossamer Thread. My Life as a Psychotherapist, I describe my first therapy case whom I call Peter. Peter’s problem was a phobia about using public toilets. His anxiety would rise exponentially when any men came in so he avoided public toilets altogether and led a restricted social life. I took over the therapy from another clinical psychologist (who went on to become a distinguished researcher into psychotherapy) and plugged away at Wolpe’s systematic desensitisation, first in imagination then in reality. The reality I chose was to see Peter in a bar where we would chat and drink beer in a way that is unthinkable today. In the course of these conversations I got to know him well, and he me, since I had no idea about boundaries being young and totally inexperienced. The result was a great success but it was in Rogerian not quasi-medical terms. When by chance two years later I met Peter again, he was a changed man, relaxed, happy in himself, content in his career. When I asked him about the original problem, at first he looked puzzled and then said, ‘Oh, that. I still have it but it doesn’t bother me anymore.’ There was a lesson to be learned about what psychotherapy outcome really means but it took me many years to learn it.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections