Which Methodological Practice(s) for Psychotherapy Science? A Systematic Review and a Proposal


Three main methodological practices have been employed in psychotherapy science: the empirical-quantitative, empirical-qualitative, and theoretical one. Some scholars have argued for a monopoly of the empirical-quantitative methodological practice, sustained by scientific monism. This systematic review aims at exploring the contribution of each methodological practice to the field. Fifteen journals were searched from 2003 to 2013. A total of 9796 publications and 9915 studies met inclusion criteria and were coded for the methodological practice employed. Empirical-quantitative studies were the most published overall, over time, and in most of the journals considered. This overwhelming prevalence increased when considering the citation rates of the publications. We argue that these results are indicative of a quantitative monopoly, which in turn is due to a lack of critical thinking sustaining scientific monism. We call for disciplinary critical thinking and the consequent scientific pluralism valuing the plurality, diversity, and multiplicity of all the existing methodological practices.

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Fig. 1

Change history

  • 05 August 2019

    We would like to note the following corrections to the original version of Zhang, Sun, Lin and Ren.


  1. 1.

    It should be noted that, usually, a publication comprising more than one study can be the case for empirical papers – more often for quantitative than for qualitative ones – but not for theoretical papers.

  2. 2.

    It should be noted that Alan Kazdin, authoritative methodologist and representative of the empirical-quantitative approach, has stated that “. . . after decades of psychotherapy research and thousands of studies, there is no evidence-based explanation of how or why even the most well-studied interventions produce change” (Kazdin 2009, p. 426).


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We would like to thank the following SPR past presidents who replied to our survey: Lynne Angus, Lorna Smith Benjamin, Larry E. Beutler, Louis G. Castonguay, John Clarkin, Paul Crits-Christoph, Guillermo de la Parra, Irene Elkin, Robert Elliot, Marvin R. Goldfried, Leslie S. Greenberg, Alan S. Gurman, Clara E. Hill, Mardi J. Horowitz, Horst Kächele, Michael J. Lambert, Erhard Mergenthaler, David E. Orlinksy, William E. Piper, George Silberschatz, William B. Stiles, Bernhard Strauß, Jeanne Watson, Hadas Wiseman.

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Correspondence to Omar Carlo Gioacchino Gelo.

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Omar C. G. Gelo declares that he has no conflict of interest. Gloria Lagetto declares that she has no conflict of interest. Chiara Dinoi declares that she has no conflict of interest. Erika Belfiore declares that she has no conflict of interest. Elisa Lombi declares that she has no conflict of interest. Stefano Blasi declares that she has no conflict of interest. Massimo Aria declares that she has no conflict of interest. Enrico Ciavolino declares that she has no conflict of interest.

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Gelo, O.C.G., Lagetto, G., Dinoi, C. et al. Which Methodological Practice(s) for Psychotherapy Science? A Systematic Review and a Proposal. Integr. psych. behav. 54, 215–248 (2020).

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  • Psychotherapy science
  • Methodological practice
  • Research methods
  • Scientific method
  • Methodological pluralism
  • Scientific pluralism
  • Scientific monism
  • Quantitative monopoly