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Misjudging the Effects of Psychotherapy

Study Shows Inaccurate Memories of Pre-Therapy Distress May Exaggerate Benefits of Counseling


Memories of difficult emotions can darken with time, according to a new study by Catholic University researchers, published in the June 2002 issue of the journal Emotion.


Catholic University of America psychologist Martin Safer and his former doctoral student David Keuler asked 101 clients who were ending psychotherapy to to remember how distressed they were prior to receiving counseling. 


They were surprised to find two-thirds remembered and rated their pre-therapy distress as worse than what they rated it before going into therapy. 


“By exaggerating their pre-therapy distress, clients apparently perceived even greater positive change than what actually occurred with therapy,” said Safer, an associate professor of psychology at CUA.


Clients who showed relatively little objective improvement after therapy — on a standard psychological measure of distress — were particularly likely to exaggerate when recalling their pre-therapy distress. Thirty-four of those studied fit this profile, Safer said.


 “Perceiving improvement may be an important part of the therapy process,” Safer said. “Although some have claimed that memories for one’s emotions are especially long lasting and vivid, our results demonstrate that such memories aren’t always accurate.”


Personality also played a part.  “Clients who described themselves as depressed, anxious or neurotic were particularly likely to overestimate their pre-therapy condition,” Safer said.


“Personality affects how we misremember the past,” Safer said, “and how we misremember may, in turn, affect personality.” 


The research paper by Safer and Keuler appears in the most current edition of Emotion, a quarterly, peer-reviewed journal published by the American Psychological Association. 



Martin Safer is an associate professor of psychology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. To request an interview, a copy of the research paper or additional information, contact Chris Harrison in the Office of Public Affairs at 202-319-5600.





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Revised: Feb. 18, 2002

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