[This Blog is adapted from a previous blog posted on psychotherapy.net]
Solution-focused therapy is very popular. But is it effective?
Beginning in the 1980s, solution-focused therapy hit the mainstream and many mental health providers (and third-party payers) continue to sing the praises of its brevity and effectiveness. For example, in a 2009 book chapter Sara Smock claimed, “. . . there are numerous studies, several reviews of the research, and a few meta-analyses completed that showcase [solution-focused therapy’s] effectiveness.”
Solution-focused counseling and psychotherapy has deep roots in post-modern constructive theory. As Michael Hoyt once famously articulated, this perspective is based on “the construction that we are constructive.” In other words, solution-focused therapists believe clients and therapists build their own realities.
Ever since 2003, my personal construction of reality has been laced with skepticism. That was the year President George W. Bush included 63 references to “weapons of mass destruction” in his State of the Union address (I’m estimating here, using my own particular spin, but that’s the nature of a constructive perspective). As it turned out, there were no weapons of mass destruction, but President Bush’s “If I say it enough, it will become reality” message had a powerful effect on public perception.
From the constructive or solution-focused perspective, perception IS reality. Remember that. It applies to the solution-focused therapist’s view of solution-focused therapy effectiveness.
I recall hearing many presenters tell me that solution-focused therapy is powerful and effective. Or maybe it was powerfully effective. And I recall reading books and articles that similarly referred to the power and effectiveness of solution-focused therapy. Now we could just take their word for it, but I still can’t help but wonder: “What does the scientific research say about the efficacy of solution-focused therapy anyway?”
Here’s a quick historical tour of scientific reality.
- In 1996, Scott Miller and colleagues noted: “In spite of having been around for ten years, no well-controlled, scientifically sound outcome studies on solution-focused therapy have ever been conducted or published in any peer-reviewed professional journal.”
- In 2000, Gingerich & Eisengart identified 15 studies and after analyzing the research, they stated: “. . . we cannot conclude that [solution-focused brief therapy] has been shown to be efficacious.”
- In 2008, Johnny Kim reported on 22 solution-focused outcomes studies. He noted that the only studies to show statistical significance were 12 studies focusing on internalizing disorders. Kim reported an effect size of d = .26 for these 12 studies [this is a rather small effect size].
- In 2009, Jacqueline Corcoran and Vijayan Pillai concluded: “. . . practitioners should understand there is not a strong evidence basis for solution-focused therapy at this point in time.”
Now don’t get me wrong. As a mental health professional and professor, I believe solution-focused techniques and approaches can be very helpful . . . sometimes. However, my scientific training stops me from claiming that solution-focused approaches are highly effective. Although solution-focused techniques can be useful, psychotherapy often requires long term work that focuses not only on strengths, but problems as well.
So what’s the bottom line?
While in a heated argument with an umpire, Yogi Berra once said: “I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it!” This is, of course, an apt description of the powerful confirmation bias that affects everyone. We can’t help but look for evidence to support our pre-existing beliefs . . . which is one of the reasons why even modernist scientific research can’t always be trusted. But this is why we bother doing the research. We need to step back from our constructed and enthusiastic realities and try to see things as objectively as possible, recognizing that absolute objectivity is impossible.
Despite strong beliefs to the contrary, there were no weapons of mass destruction. And currently, the evidence indicates that solution-focused therapy is NOT powerfully effective.