Power in numbers
Research is pinpointing the factors that
make group therapy successful.
BY AMY PATUREL
Group therapy appears to be gaining popularity for two reasons: More clients are seeking it out as a more affordable alternative to one-on-one psychotherapy,
and more research is demonstrating its effectiveness, say
psychologists who practice it.
“Group therapy is more popular than it has been in the past
because of the many studies that show its efficacy,” says Nina
W. Brown, EdD, a professor at Old Dominion University in
For many conditions, group therapy works as well as
individual therapy, says Gary Burlingame, PhD, a professor
of psychology at Brigham Young University. He points to the
results of more than 50 clinical trials that have compared
patients who were randomly assigned to individual or group
treatment. All of those studies “overwhelmingly support the
equivalence of the two formats in producing the same degree
of improvement for several disorders,” Burlingame says.
In addition, he notes, group therapy exceeds APA Div. 12
(Society of Clinical Psychology) standards for efficacy for
major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, panic disorder,
post-traumatic stress disorder, social phobia, obsessive-
compulsive disorder, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder,
substance use disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality
disorder and general personality disorder.
But what makes groups work? “Only recently have we been
able to demonstrate how the group influences individual group
members,” adds Dennis M. Kivlighan Jr., PhD, professor at the
College of Education at the University of Maryland, in College
Among that research is the finding that the most effective
groups have a common identity and a sense of shared purpose,
according to a meta-analysis of 40 studies by Burlingame
and others, published in the International Journal of Group
Psychotherapy in 2009.
When it comes to a group format, new research shows
two leaders are better than one. Members of co-led groups
experience greater benefits than those of individually led
groups. That second set of eyes and ears makes a big difference
when group leaders are trying to follow multiple interactions,
Kivlighan’s research has found (Group Dynamics: Theory,