iStock_000013214595Small Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest.”  Simon and Garfunkel, “The Boxer”

It’s called confirmation bias. The tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of our existing beliefs or theories.

Translation: As new evidence appears, we see it as supporting our fondly held notions, even if in objective terms, it’s not clear that it does.

Trained counselors are no exception.

Example: Barbara wants to become a professional counselor. She gets her degree in a university program where the instructors emphasize cognitive-behavioral therapy. Her exposure to other approaches may be minimal. After graduation she goes to work in an addictions clinic and quite naturally puts her training to use. She may find herself reacting unfavorably to other approaches, such as Twelve Step, because they’re “unprofessional”. She’s unaware of the natural bias that influences her feelings.

It works the other way, too. Mark recovers in NA and in an effort to give back, pursues a counseling career. He will almost certainly study other approaches, but his own experience means he may always see the Twelve Steps as the best and perhaps only way to lasting recovery. After all, it worked for him. And like Barbara, he’ll probably interpret new information about treatment in the light of his experience.

Scientific research by its nature tends to produce findings that can be interpreted in different ways, depending on who’s listening. The massive Project Match study has long been held up as demonstrating the efficacy of three very different approaches. But as none of the approaches was anywhere near 100% successful, it’s also been interpreted as evidence of their relative ineffectiveness.

Besides, the approaches as studied weren’t all that typical of modern practice: Three months of weekly sessions led by a licensed therapist. That may be common enough in cognitive-behavioral therapy, but it’s certainly not the way 12 Step programs work. And the Motivational Interviewing people only wanted four sessions instead of twelve (their decision, for reasons I’ve never entirely understood).

Nonetheless, advocates for all three managed to interpret the findings as proof of their superiority. And in some cases, as evidence of the failure of the others.

What’s at work here? Confirmation bias.

We’re none of us immune.

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