Psychological Treatments For Alcoholism Are Ineffective

AlcoholicReanalysis of data collected from the most expensive research into the treatment of alcoholism has found little support for the use of psychological therapies.

The research compared a number of psychosocial treatments (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Motivational Enhancement Therapy and Twelve Step Facilitation – based on the method used by Alcoholics Anonymous) and found that they accounted for only 3% of the variability in the patient’s outcome. In other words, psychological therapies hardly had any beneficial effect in treating alcoholics.

The failure of current methods of treatment is particularly highlighted by the fact that this study found that, in clinical trials, untreated alcoholics showed significant improvements – almost as much as those who received treatment.

How is it that new therapies are often adopted before they have been properly tested? Part of the problem for psychology, despite the lip-service paid to the importance of the evidence base, is the relative ease of introducing new treatments. Unlike pharmaceutical treatments, psychological treatments are unlikely to have damaging side-effects. Combine this with the problem for much scientific research that negative results often go unreported, and the seeds are there for a proliferation of ineffective therapies.

Despite this seeming like bad news for psychological approaches to alcoholism, it shows the importance of the scientific method in psychology. The strength of any science is founded on its ability to admit when the evidence does not support the treatment methods currently used. And for alcoholism this evidence shows little support for psychological treatments.

This kind of evidence, however, does not show that psychological therapies are never going to be any use in the treatment of alcoholism, only that the correct method has not yet been found. Admitting failure is the first step towards finding a better way. This is why, sometimes a negative result is actually a positive one.
Are alcoholism treatments effective? The Project MATCH data. [Abstract + link to free PDF of study]
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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 22 July 2005

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