Q&A: What's Behind Thought Field Therapy?

Scott O. Lilienfeld, a psychologist at Emory University, talks to NPR reporter Alix Spiegel about thought field therapy. Lilienfeld is co-editor of Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology (edited by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn and Jeffrey M. Lohr, Guilford Press, 2003). Dr. Lilienfeld's book describes many of the controversial psychological treatments currently practiced, and includes reviews of the published research.

Q: What's the theory behind thought field therapy?

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The theory behind thought field therapy is that each of us is surrounded, or has, various energy fields that occasionally get blocked up, or perturbed, as it's often called. And that those perturbances or blockages are responsible for various psychological disturbances, and that the best way to remove those perturbations or disturbances is by various manipulations, such as tapping on various bodily areas. You can think of thought field therapy almost as a kind of psychological acupuncture.

Q: How is thought field therapy regarded in the mental health community?

It is not taken seriously by psychological scientists or by people who do psychotherapy outcome research or who publish in mainstream journals. But it is, as is often the case, very popular among a small but apparently growing number of practitioners.

Q: Can you talk to me about what kind of research exists on thought field therapy?

That would be very quick, because there's virtually no research whatsoever in published journals. Almost all of the supposed research rests on anecdotes, case studies, testimonials, or, in a few cases, controlled studies that are so poorly done as to be almost not interpretable. So as far as I'm concerned, the research base for TFT is effectively nonexistent.

Q: Do you think thought field therapy has any possibility to hurt people?

Any time you have a treatment that has not been subjected to adequate experimental tests, there is always the possibility of harm.

Q: Do you think it's possible that thought field therapy can help people who believe that it helps them?

I think we have to remain open to the possibility that it's effective for a certain number of people, but without experimental tests, there is simply no way to know whether it is helping some people, harming some people, or perhaps both.

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