The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice

Objective Investigations of Controversial and Unorthodox Claims in Clinical Psychology, Psychiatry, and Social Work

MEDIA WATCH

Philadelphia Inquirer Features Article on Thought Field Therapy

On February 26, 2001, the Philadelphia Inquirer magazine featured an article entitled “Tap, tap . . . .” This article discussed the scientific status of Thought Field Therapy (TFT) and similar energy therapies, which have become increasingly popular in recent years. Like many newspaper and magazine articles on largely or entirely untested psychotherapies, the article attempted to incorporate a skeptical perspective into the coverage but was ultimately imbalanced. For example, Peter Mucha, the author of the article, presented the views of five mental health professionals supportive of the efficacy of TFT and three additional individuals who claimed to have been helped by TFT, but interviewed only two individuals skeptical of TFT, Drs. James Herbert of MCP Hahemann University (associate editor of the Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice) and Jeffrey Hecker of the University of Maine. Moreover, the majority of the article was devoted to discussing anecdotal reports and testimonials of TFT’s apparent effectiveness.

Mucha described the basic technique of one commonly used variant of TFT, which derives its rationale largely from acupuncture and similar healing methods, as follows. First, clients are asked to estimate their fear (e.g., fear of flying) on a 1 to 10 scale. Second, clients repeat a positive self-statement (e.g., “I know that I can get through this flight OK”) while either rubbing a spot on their chests or tapping a spot on the outside of their hands five times. Third, clients tap various “meridian points” on their body corresponding to acupuncture pressure points. As Mucha noted, individuals with social anxiety disorder (i.e., social phobia) would be asked to tap five times each under one eye, under one armpit, and under the collarbone. Fourth, clients are asked to reestimate their fear on a 1 to 10 scale. Fifth, once their fear ratings reach an acceptably low level, clients are asked to perform an “eye roll,” in which they tap the back of their hands while shifting their eye gaze from below to above. In some variants of energy therapies, including TFT, clients are also asked to hum several bars of a musical tune during treatment. According to Drs. Roger Callahan, Fred Gallo, and Gary Craig (the creator of the “Emotional Freedom Technique,” another popular energy therapy), who are among the primary developers of energy therapies, such techniques work by manipulating and readjusting the client’s energy systems.

The proponents of TFT and similar energy therapies have often made remarkably strong claims for the efficacy of these methods. In the Philadelphia Inquirer article, for example, Gallo was quoted as asserting that “[t]his approach is like light speed. When this works, it’s very fast, very thorough, and very lasting.” Dr. George Pratt, chairperson of psychology at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, California, reported that the “results [of this treatment] are stunning.” Moreover, the primary TFT Web site of Roger Callahan (www.tftrx.com), the major developer of this technique, asserts that TFT permits clients “to eliminate negative emotions within minutes.” One TFT therapist even claimed in a TFT newsletter to have cured her dog of acrophobia (fear of heights) using this method (Gaudiano & Herbert, 2000).

As Mucha observed, TFT and related energy methods have grown substantially in popularity over the past several years. Peter Lambrou, a California psychotherapist quoted in the article, estimated that between 1,500 and 2,500 clinicians have been trained in energy therapies, and this number is growing rapidly. The 2000 Energy Psychology Conference held in Las Vegas attracted approximately 500 mental health professionals, about twice the number who attended the previous year. Moreover, Lambrou and Pratt report having treated several thousand clients with such methods over the past 6 years. TFT has also received extensive media coverage. Callahan demonstrated TFT on the Leeza Gibbons Show, and Donny & Marie recently featured a demonstration in which actress Carmen Electra, an admitted spider phobic, permitted a tarantula to crawl on her hand following a brief TFT session.

Nevertheless, as Mucha noted, TFT has not been without its ardent critics. James Herbert pointed out that there have been no adequately controlled studies of TFT’s efficacy in peer-reviewed journals—a fact acknowledged by Pratt—and conjectured that nonspecific factors could account for much or all of TFT’s apparent efficacy (see Gaudiano & Herbert, 2000). For example, he pointed out that some of the components of TFT, including positive self-statements and imaginal exposure to anxiety-provoking memories, are part and parcel of many behavioral and cognitive-behavioral therapies that have already been demonstrated to be effective. In addition, Herbert argued that without adequate controls it is impossible to exclude the hypothesis that any potential positive effects of TFT are attributable to the placebo effect, i.e., the tendency of individuals to improve merely as a consequence of the expectation of improvement. In response, Gallo insisted that because the success rate of TFT is 80% or higher, its effects cannot be attributed to expectation. Nevertheless, this 80% estimate does not derive from controlled studies or well-quantified data, nor is it based on explicitly operationalized criteria for improvement.

Jeffrey Hecker, who heads up the American Psychological Association’s (APAs) committee on continuing education (CE) credit, which recently denied CE status for a course on TFT, was quoted as saying that “from our reading of it, they [the TFT proponents] don’t have their basis in psychology. The theory more draws from acupuncture and maybe Eastern views of medicine and not any kind of psychological science.” It is worth noting that APA has been criticized for granting CE credit to a variety of unsubstantiated mental health treatments (e.g., Jungian sandplay therapy, calligraphy therapy). The APA’s committee decision to deny CE status to courses in TFT may therefore mark an important change in direction.

Both Hecker and Herbert concur, however, that TFT might ultimately be proven to be efficacious in future research but that a demonstration of such efficacy awaits adequately controlled, randomized studies that take placebo effects and other nonspecific factors into account. Mucha correctly pointed that because “the claims of energy therapy are so clear and bold,” it should be relatively easy to subject these claims to the crucible of empirical testing. Time will tell whether the strong claims of TFT’s proponents stand up to such testing.

Reference

Gaudiano, B.A., & Herbert, J.D. (2000, July/August). Can we really tap our problems away: A critical analysis of Thought Field Therapy. Skeptical Inquirer, 24, 29–33, 36.


Scott O. Lilienfeld, Ph.D., Editor,
The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice

You can read this article in
The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2002).
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