Digesting psychotherapy

Last updated:

23 July 2014


Psychotherapy or counselling involves talking with a trusted therapist to find your own ways of relieving emotional, mental or relationship difficulties. By working together well, you can gain hope and achieve improvement by learning to make better use of your unique individual abilities and resources.

This website summarizes and digests essential facts and research evidence about psychotherapy and counselling. It also provides links to useful mental health resources for both the public and practitioners. The discussions take place mainly within British and Scottish contexts.

Please note that, because of other commitments, the website is no longer being developed or regularly maintained by its publishers. However, its content is still being made available to inform the public and practitioners.

what's new

14 July 2014
Site mothballed after updating various links in resources and updating the frequently asked questions with information about the UK's Professional Standards Authority and its Accredited Voluntary Registers scheme.
12 November 2012
Some minor reorganization and updating of links to resources; a few deletions and additions. Expanded information regarding criminal history checks in frequently asked questions.
12 April 2012
Added download link for Richard Mowbray's masterwork The Case Against Psychotherapy Registration to useful resources. Updated frequently asked questions about regulation. Archived information about defunct statutory regulation plans.
16 February 2011
New government Enabling Excellence white paper halts regulation by the Health Professions Council (HPC).

psychotherapy works

Psychotherapy (also referred to as 'counselling' or 'the talking cure') is a professional form of helpful conversation which has existed for thousands of years. It is part of our humanity to air our troubles with a trusted confidant, to gain hope and a fresh perspective on our predicament, and to change our lives for the better. We instinctively know how useful this can be, given the right person to trust and the right conditions. However, it is only over the past 25 years or so that sufficient data has been gathered from research to scientifically assess the effectiveness of psychotherapy.

Psychotherapy is now supported by more, and better quality, research evidence (Wampold, 2001) than many other interventions in health care. Beyond reasonable doubt, we find that psychotherapy works remarkably well overall and that its effects are generally lasting. The average client participating in psychotherapy does better than 79% of clients who are not. The rate of improvement in psychotherapy clients is significantly greater than that arising from spontaneous remission (natural recovery) or placebo (hope and expectancy) effects. Statistically, when the outcomes for a large group of therapy clients and a no-therapy control group are compared, the difference between the means is equal to approximately 0.8 of a standard deviation. This measurement, termed the effect size, estimates the absolute efficacy of psychotherapy - see animated graphs of psychotherapeutic effects.

While the effect size for psychotherapy is considered large, it still only accounts for 13% of the variance in outcomes. The remainder of the variance, 87%, can be attributed to 'extratherapeutic factors'. These comprise the resources clients bring into therapy and the influences on their lives outside it. The client's personal strengths and experiences, supportive aspects of their environment, and serendipity all contribute to the beneficial change which is catalyzed by therapy.

what influences outcome

Factors influencing outcome Having proven that psychotherapy works, research evidence (Wampold, 2001) also helps us to understand what aspects of psychotherapy are responsible for its benefits. The adjacent diagram shows that the biggest influence on outcome for the client comes from factors which are common to all types of psychotherapy. These common factors include the working alliance between the client and the therapist, the gaining of hope and the expectancy of improvement (placebo and allegiance effects), and the effectiveness of the therapist. It is clear from the research that psychotherapy helps the client most when it activates the common factors and makes them responsive to the client's centrality to change. This is known as a 'common factors' or 'contextual' approach to therapy.

Despite the many different types of psychotherapy, each with its own theory and techniques, the unique ingredients of a given therapy are not, in themselves, a vital source of therapeutic effects. Therefore, psychotherapy is unlike a medical treatment, where standard therapeutic ingredients are prescribed according to a diagnosis of the patient's problem from their symptoms.

Research findings (Wampold, 2001, Messer & Wampold, 2002) can now provide a more detailed breakdown of the influences on psychotherapy outcome. The diagram below shows these influences, together with the proportion of outcome variance that they represent:

Proportional influences on outcome

Although these figures are not simply additive, they do provide sound guidance to "what really matters", relatively speaking, in psychotherapy. Clearly, the person of the therapist and the zeal they have for their own brand of therapy are critical factors in the success of therapy. From the client's viewpoint, it is essential to have a good working relationship with the therapist and to be convinced that the therapy will really help them. Any bona fide therapy has the potential to be efficacious if both the therapist and client believe it to be so and are persuaded by its particular rationale and special techniques.

Further practical implications of these research findings are discussed below in More interesting facts and Tips for clients.

more interesting facts

There are other interesting findings which have emerged from the research data. A few of these facts may be rather surprising, but they are well established by the evidence (Wampold, 2001, Duncan & Miller, 2000, Hubble et al, 1999, and Bergin & Garfield, 1994). Aspects which are particularly pertinent to clients are considered in Tips for clients.

The outcome of therapy is very variable
Psychotherapy, although generally effective, depends on many complex and unpredictable factors in an individual case. Improvement cannot be guaranteed. The client's strengths and resources, social support, environmental circumstances, and even chance events, can all affect progress and outcome. While most clients are certainly helped by psychotherapy conducted in good faith, research suggests that some clients can deteriorate. However, reliable predictors of poor outcome have been identified (see below).

Therapeutic effectiveness varies significantly among individual therapists and service providers
Such variation cannot be explained by the nature of the cases being seen or the methods of therapy used. The variation in outcome due to different therapists within a given type of therapy is far greater than the variation due to different types of therapy. Although the personal qualities of the therapist are critical factors in the success of therapy, their qualifications, training, experience, and participation in supervision or personal therapy are not significantly linked to outcome.

Standardized treatments do not lead to improved outcomes
Adherence to therapy protocols (prescribed procedures) does not generally improve outcome. Also, differences in therapy methods, problem diagnoses, and length of therapy account for only a small amount of the variation in outcome. Therapeutic models and techniques are most useful when they provide the client with a convincing rationale for the therapy and help the therapist to structure and focus the therapy.

The client's active participation is crucial to success
The quality of the client's participation in therapy - their openness to the process and their level of active involvement - is probably the most important determinant of outcome. Also, clients who rate the therapeutic relationship highly are very likely to be successful. Therapy needs to be sensitive to the client's readiness or reluctance to make changes in their lives, both inside and outside therapy.

Response to therapy in the first few sessions is highly predictive of the eventual outcome
The client's perception of some early improvement - within the first few sessions - is one of the best predictors of an eventual good outcome. Conversely, therapies in which little or no improvement (or even worsening) occurs early on are at significant risk of a poor outcome.

Process and outcome are not the same
Clients can be satisfied with the way therapy is conducted and their relationship with the therapist, but fail to show much, if any, improvement in the presenting difficulty. Also, therapists who are not getting positive results often believe that their therapy is effective. For these reasons, satisfaction with the process of therapy and assessment of outcome each need to be considered in their own right. Several valid measures for these have been developed. It is also interesting to note that the client's perceptions of progress are generally more accurate than the therapist's.

Psychotherapy can provide more lasting benefit than medication
For many common psychological problems, even when severe, psychotherapy has been shown to be equal or superior to psychoactive medication, with fewer side effects and lower relapse rates. The benefits of medication have been found to be often overstated and drawbacks downplayed, for commercial or political reasons. Psychotherapy has also been shown to be generally cost-effective in the long run.

6-Es principles of practice

Based on our knowledge of ethics and research, we suggest that the following principles, the 6-Es, provide a sound foundation for ethical best practice in psychotherapy. They apply primarily to the client and secondarily to others concerned with, or affected by, the therapy:

  1. Ethical
    • To do good
    • Not to harm
    • To respect the right to make one's own decisions
    • To be fair
  2. Effective
    • To achieve the desired outcome
  3. Efficient
    • To use no more time or resources than necessary
  4. Essential
    • To keep to what really matters
  5. Evidenced
    • To be guided by the current best knowledge from research
  6. Educational
    • To extend knowledge and skills

useful resources

TopicLink to resourceTarget readership
Looking for a therapy or a therapistTips for clientsclients
"State of the art" information about what really matters in therapyHeart and Soul of Change Project and ScottDMiller.comall
Let's face facts: Common factors are more potent than specific therapy ingredients (2002) by Stanley Messer & Bruce Wampold (PDF format, 69 kB)all therapy professionals
Animated graphs of psychotherapeutic effects
Graphs showing that psychotherapy is not like medicine (based on data from Wampold, 2001)
Charlatans and 'Gold Standards': Traversing the minefield of psychiatric psychotherapy training (1999) by Ron Morstyn (PDF format, 91 kB)
What Really Matters: The foundation of effective counselling and psychotherapy (2000). Monograph digest of research findings by Douglas McFadzean (PDF format, 159 kB)
Concern about ineffective, harmful or pseudo therapiesReview of Crazy Therapiesall
Skeptic's Dictionary
Quackwatch Mental Help: Procedures to Avoid
Why Bogus Therapies Seem to Work
Concern about psychoactive medication or psychiatric treatments

Important: Although the research shows that psychotherapy can be equal or superior to medication, improperly stopping a legally prescribed medication can be dangerous and even fatal. A prescribed dosage should be altered or stopped only after consulting a medical professional
British Medical Journal - Efficacy of antidepressants in adults (PDF format, 113 kB)all
Peter Breggin's Psychiatric Drug Facts
The Guardian - Brainwashed - tranquillisers - antidepressants
Heart and Soul of Change Project resources and articles
Critical Psychiatry Network
Duncan Double's publications and blogs
Concern about the psychotherapy and counselling professionsThe Case Against Psychotherapy Registration (1995) by Richard Mowbray (seminal book in PDF format, 1.6 MB)all
Models of Self-Regulation (1999) by the National Consumer Council (PDF format, 137 kB)
Old warning about the UK government's defunct plans for statutory regulation via the HPC
Do more of the same or change for the better? by Douglas McFadzean (PDF format, 69 kB)
Essential reference booksThe Heroic Client (2004) (Revised edition) by Barry Duncan, Scott Miller & Jacqueline Sparksall
The Great Psychotherapy Debate (2001) by Bruce Wampoldall therapy professionals
The Heart and Soul of Change (1999) by Mark Hubble, Barry Duncan & Scott Miller (Eds)
How Clients Make Therapy Work (1999) by Arthur Bohart & Karen Tallman
Persuasion and Healing (1991) (Third edition) by Jerome & Julia Frank
Implementing client-directed and outcome-informed therapyHeart and Soul of Change Projectservice providers & trainers
Subscribe to the Heroicagency List
Heroic Clients, Heroic Agencies: Partners for Change (2001) by Barry Duncan & Jacqueline Sparks
Assessment of therapy process and outcomeOutcome Rating Scale (ORS) and Session Rating Scale (SRS) articlesall therapy professionals
CORE System Outcome Measure
OQ outcome measures: OQ®-45 and OQ®-10
Achieving success with intractable casesTherapeutic Alchemy: Turning heartsinks into heroes by Douglas McFadzeantherapists
Concern about therapist supervisionSupervision: Is it time to think again? by Douglas McFadzeanall therapy professionals
Working outside your usual comfort zoneYou are now entering ... the Twilight Zone by Douglas McFadzeantherapists
Recommended books and other worksBibliography and reviewsall
Recommended portable softwareApps To Goall
Quotations to inspire therapeutic changeTherapeutic quotationsall
MiscellaneousMind Map® of therapist identityall

feedback and contact

Please note that this website is no longer being regularly maintained and monitored for messages.

With regret it is not possible to answer individual queries about careers, employment, training courses, or recommended practitioners. Please consult the Frequently asked questions and Tips for clients pages for general guidance on these issues.


about us

This website was set up by Dr Douglas McFadzean and associates, who had been involved with the fields of psychotherapy, counselling and personal development for several decades. Douglas was one of NHS Scotland's most experienced counsellors in primary care, and was formerly the Executive Director of COSCA and Chairman of the PPS Trust.


Disclaimer: This website only provides general information derived from research findings. It is not a substitute for a consultation with a mental health professional about an individual case. While every effort is made to ensure the accuracy and objectivity of information on this site, the authors accept no responsibility for the consequences of errors or omissions. Information about the practice of psychotherapy and counselling in the United Kingdom and/or Scotland may not be applicable in other countries. External websites are linked in good faith, but their contents cannot be vouched for.

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