Clinician's Digest

Clinician's Digest

Psychotherapy vs. Placebos * Frontline Psychotherapy

November/December 2013

Over the past 25 years in the typically low-key, conflict-avoidant world of academic psychology, University of Pennsylvania professor James Coyne has been no stranger to controversy and debate. Although a therapist himself and a proponent of psychotherapy, he specializes in debunking what he considers the hype and exaggerated claims for the efficacy of a range of treatment approaches, advocating for higher standards of scientific rigor than is generally accepted as evidence for therapy’s effectiveness. For example, he’s challenged the findings purporting to show that support groups and alternative psychological treatment extend the life of cancer patients, cast doubt on some of the positive findings in the field of behavioral medicine, and raised the provocative question of whether the benefits of positive psychology—an approach that often ignores the influence of class and social factors on behavior—are “mainly for rich white people.”

Coyne’s latest target is the influential work of psychologist Irving Kirsch, bestselling author of The Emperor’s New Drugs, an expose of the psycho-pharmaceutical industry, and author of two much-cited meta-analyses testing the effectiveness of antidepressants against placebos for treating depression. Rather than relying solely on published studies that rarely include reports of unsuccessful clinical drug trials, Kirsch…

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