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Behavior Therapy 44 (2013) 580 – 591

The Importance of Theory in Cognitive Behavior Therapy:

A Perspective of Contextual Behavioral Science
James D. Herbert
Drexel University

Brandon A. Gaudiano
Butler Hospital/Alpert Medical School of Brown University

Evan M. Forman
Drexel University

cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) have been calling

For the past 30 years, generations of scholars of cognitive for an increased focus on the theories that underlie
behavior therapy (CBT) have expressed concern that clinical applied technologies. The common theme of these
practice has abandoned the close links with theory that appeals is that there has been a gradual erosion of the
characterized the earliest days of the field. There is also a strong connection between theory and technique that
widespread assumption that a greater working knowledge of characterized the field’s early days, and that a
theory will lead to better clinical outcomes, although there is renewed focus on such links will lead to more rapid
currently very little hard evidence to support this claim. We and reliable advances in our understanding, devel-
suggest that the rise of so-called “third generation” models of opment, testing, implementation, and dissemination
CBT over the past decade, along with the dissemination of of CBT approaches. In his 1984 presidential address
statistical innovations among psychotherapy researchers, have of the Association for Advancement of Behavior
given new life to this old issue. We argue that theory likely does Therapy (now the Association for Behavioral and
matter to clinical outcomes, and we outline the future research Cognitive Therapies; ABCT), Alan Ross lamented
that would be needed to address this conjecture. that “a reading of the current literature on behavior
therapy suggests that the field is at risk of losing its
momentum in a preoccupation with technological
Keywords: theory; cognitive behavior therapy; acceptance and refinements at the expense of theoretical develop-
commitment therapy; contextual behavioral science
ments” (Ross, 1985, p. 195). Wilson and Franks
(1982) similarly decried the rapid proliferation of
There is nothing so practical as a good theory. clinical techniques decoupled from theory, suggest-
— Lewin (1951, p. 169) ing that this trend could ultimately sow the seeds of
the field’s demise. More recently, Beck (2012) noted
For years, scholars of the family of psychotherapy
that ". . . the robustness of a therapy is based on the
approaches known under the broad umbrella of
complexity and richness of the underlying theory. A
robust theory, for example, can generate new
Address correspondence to James D. Herbert, Ph.D., Drexel therapies or can draw on existing therapies that are
University, Department of Psychology, 3141 Chestnut St., Stratton consistent with it" (p. 6). David and Montgomery
119, Philadelphia, PA 19104; e-mail:
(2011) proposed a new framework for defining
© 2013 Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. Published by evidence-based psychological practice that pri-
Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. oritizes the level of empirical support of the theory
theory in cbt 581

supporting a treatment. Recommendations that ison of the field’s early books and journals targeting
clinicians should develop better working knowledge clinicians relative to later works reveals a stark
of the theories underlying CBTs often are presented contrast in the degree of emphasis on theory.
during discussions of how to maximize treatment As the evidence base for CBTs expanded due to the
outcomes, prevent treatment failures, and ameliorate rapid accumulation of supportive efficacy research,
treatment resistance in complex cases (Foa & the problem of how best to implement and dissem-
Emmelkamp, 1983; McKay, Abramowitz, & Taylor, inate the treatments emerged as a pressing problem
2010; Whisman, 2008). An interorganizational task (Addis, 2006). Although novel psychotherapies
force led by the ABCT recently issued a report on typically begin in complex and sophisticated forms
doctoral training in cognitive behavioral psychology because they are created by experienced researchers
in which training in theory and even the philosophy of and clinicians, disseminating them to community
science underlying CBTs was emphasized (Klepac practitioners exerts pressure to simplify them as
et al., 2012). much as possible. It is easier to train nonexpert
The call for greater emphasis on theory within therapists to implement a set of standard techniques
CBT therefore spans the generations. In fact, if one than it is to train them to comprehend an underlying
were to mask the author and date, it would be hard to theory. Once standard techniques are mastered,
distinguish writings on this subject made by contem- clinicians well versed in theory can potentially
porary authors from those written over 30 years ago. apply their knowledge to unique cases in order to
There appears to exist a widespread assumption deduce tailored interventions.
among many clinicians and researchers alike that The picture is complicated further because there is
better knowledge of theory will bear fruit in terms of no single CBT model, nor single theory underlying it.
improved clinical outcomes across a number of con- CBT is a broad umbrella term that encompasses a
texts. Although this notion has considerable face range of distinct therapy models (Herbert & Forman,
validity, there is a paucity of research that has directly 2011). These models share certain features, while also
evaluated it. having distinct characteristics. The theories underlying
Historically, the desire for empirically supported these approaches likewise share certain commonalities
treatments led to testing psychotherapies in controlled (e.g., traditional respondent and operant conditioning
clinical trials to determine their efficacy, a procedure principles), while also positing unique features. More-
borrowed from other medical treatments. For over, key theoretical issues, such as the best way to
example, the seminal study known as the National understand the role of cognitive processes in treat-
Institute of Mental Health's Treatment of Depression ment, are currently the subject of intense professional
Collaborative Research Program (Elkin et al., 1995) debate (Hofmann, 2008; Longmore & Worrell, 2007;
randomized patients with major depression to cog- Worrell & Longmore, 2008), and have undergone
nitive therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy, or anti- considerable changes over the years (Beck, 2005).
depressant medication, and ushered in a new era of We believe that two developments over the past
evaluating psychotherapies in large-scale and meth- decade have added a new twist to the long-standing
odologically rigorous clinical trials. CBTs, given question about the role of theory in guiding
their empirical basis, inherent structure, and time- psychotherapy. First, the question has been reinvigo-
limited nature, were particularly well-suited for rated by the rise of the so-called “third wave” (also
testing in clinical trials. As a result, CBTs became known as “third generation”) models of CBT. These
highly manualized in an effort to ensure treatment newer CBT approaches such as Mindfulness-Based
fidelity, an important component of the internal Cognitive Therapy (Segal, Williams, & Teasdale,
validity of such trials (Addis & Krasnow, 2000). 2002), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (Linehan, 1993),
Originally CBTs were more principle-driven and and especially Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
theory-dependent in the way that they were concep- (ACT; Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 2011) eschew a
tualized and implemented (e.g., Goldfried & Davison, simplistic focus on specific techniques and strategies in
1994). With the growth of clinical trials during the favor of increased attention to the putative principles
1970s and 80s, however, treatment manuals began underlying behavior change, which are in turn linked
to focus more on how to implement specific CBT with basic psychological theories (Ablon, Levy, &
techniques and strategies and less on interventions Katenstein, 2006; Hayes, 2004; Rosen & Davison,
derived from case conceptualization based on the 2003). Second, psychotherapy treatment researchers
ideographic assessment of the patient guided by an have increasingly focused on therapy processes using
underlying theory. We are unaware of data directly component analysis studies (Borkovec & Sibrava,
comparing the level of theoretical knowledge of early 2005; Lohr, DeMaio, & McGlynn, 2003) and the
practitioners of behavior therapy relative to modern identification of treatment-related mediators and
CBT clinicians. Nevertheless, even a casual compar- moderators (Kraemer, Wilson, Fairburn, & Agras,
582 herbert et al.

2002). These two developments have had synergistic What Is “Theory”?

effects, further stimulating discussion of the role of The word “theory” derives from the Greek theoria,
theory in CBTs. For example, calls by proponents meaning looking at, viewing, beholding, or con-
of third-generation approaches to focus on psycho- templation (Oxford English Dictionary Online,
therapy processes, rather than merely techniques, has 2012). This sense of perspective is reflected in its
accelerated research on the mechanisms of action in modern use in the context of psychotherapy as a
CBTs more generally. Simultaneously, more accessi- set of basic concepts and principles, along with
ble and advanced statistical procedures have made it statements that describe their interactions, which
easier for researchers to investigate mechanisms of can be used to describe, predict, and guide
change, and have stimulated therapy innovators to intervention with respect to specific behavioral
evaluate the proposed theories underlying their and psychological phenomena. The concepts that
approaches. Although the argument that under- are the building blocks of theories can be general-
standing theory will improve clinical outcomes has izations directly derived from sensory experience
been a perennial theme in the field, innovations (e.g., “reinforcement”), or abstractions of these
associated with the development of third-generation generalizations that are linguistically coherent with
models of CBT, along with the development of new other concepts, but are farther removed from
statistical tools, have brought this issue back into the specific perceptual experiences (e.g., “recovery” or
forefront of discussion. “well-being”). Moreover, although some concepts
We should not lose sight of the fact that proponents fit the classical Aristotelian definition of meeting
of the utility of theory are often themselves theoreti- necessary and sufficient criteria, more commonly
cians and may thus overestimate the importance of psychological concepts have indistinct and over-
theory. The extent to which improving clinicians' lapping boundaries, as described by prototype
theoretical knowledge does, in fact, result in improved theory (Rosch, 1983). Psychological theories can
clinical outcomes is ultimately an empirical question. range from the very general and abstract to the
The best approach to evaluating this supposition is more focused and applied. In fact, one can think
itself complicated and will require clarification of a of theories along a continuum, linking basic
number of related issues. First and foremost, are there philosophical assumptions on the one hand with
compelling reasons to hypothesize that knowledge of specific assessment and intervention techniques on
theory will, in fact, improve outcomes? Second, what the other.
evidence, if any, currently supports the notion that For example, consider the theory underlying
gaining a better theoretical understanding of a Beck’s cognitive therapy (CT; Beck, 1979). 2 At the
psychotherapeutic approach enhances outcomes most abstract level are its philosophical roots which,
over and above mere technical knowledge of the like most mainstream psychology, are grounded in a
approach? Third, even if theoretical knowledge is philosophy of science known as elemental realism.
found to accrue incremental benefits, does it pass a From this perspective, the world exists independent
cost-benefit test? Fourth, if such efforts can indeed be of our senses, and comes predivided into units. The
demonstrated to be cost effective, how much theoret- purpose of science is to build increasingly more
ical knowledge and training is needed to improve accurate models that describe this world, that
outcomes? Fifth, which theory or theories should be effectively carve nature at its joints, and that describe
prioritized? Presumably, some theories have greater how these constituent pieces interact. In this sense,
breadth, depth, precision, explanatory power, and statements about the world can be objectively true or
incremental efficacy than others, making them more false in terms of how well they model underlying
useful guides. Sixth, to what degree is it necessary reality. Following from these philosophical assump-
simply to understand theory in abstract terms versus tions, CT theory posits various concepts such as
being able to apply it to individual cases? And seventh, schemas, conditional assumptions, and automatic
and perhaps most fundamentally, what exactly do we thoughts, which are believed to interact with current
mean by the term “theory”? We will briefly explore environmental conditions to result in emotions and
these and related questions regarding the role of behavior. In turn, models of specific clinical phe-
theory, using ACT in particular as a case in point. 1 nomena such as depression or panic disorder are
built from these more general concepts. Clinical
We focus on ACT as the prototypical “third-generation”
model of CBT for two reasons. First, it has received the most
research attention to date of these various approaches. Second, as A detailed analysis of the theory underlying CT and how it is
elaborated below, it is based on a well-developed theory, and it similar to and different from ACT theory is beyond the scope of
strongly emphasizes the link between theory and technique. The this analysis. Interested readers are referred to Dozois and Beck
emphasis on ACT is not meant to imply that other approaches are (2011), Forman and Herbert (2009), and Herbert and Forman
not also theoretically grounded. (2013).
theory in cbt 583

strategies and techniques, which may be derived as “contextual behavioral science” (CBS; Hayes,
from the basic theoretical concepts, are guided by Barnes-Holmes, & Wilson, 2012; Hayes, Levin,
these clinical models. Plumb, Villatte, & Pistorello, 2013; Ruiz, 2010).
ACT is similarly undergirded by philosophical Whether considering CT, ACT, or any other
assumptions. In fact, examining ACT’s philosophical variant of the CBT family, an appreciation of this
assumptions helps to bring into relief the assumptions continuum of levels of analysis from philosophy to
of CT described above, which are often overlooked or theory to technique brings into focus several
taken for granted. In contrast to CT, ACT is based on considerations. First, the precision gained by more
a pragmatic philosophy of science known as func- basic theoretical levels of analysis sacrifices accessi-
tional contextualism (Hayes, 1993). This perspective bility, and vice versa. Even if a thorough under-
sidesteps ontological questions about the ultimate standing of basic theories underlying the major
nature of reality in favor of a pragmatic focus on what models of CBT were deemed desirable, questions
works in a given context (Barnes-Holmes, 2000). immediately arise regarding how realistic it would be
There is no assumption that the world comes to train front-line clinicians in such theories. Second,
predivided into constituent parts. Rather, all classifi- although linked, concepts at one level of analysis do
cations, concepts, and descriptions of mechanisms are not directly dictate those at another. One can adopt
viewed as social constructions and are evaluated with the philosophical and theoretical perspectives asso-
respect to how well they work with respect to a ciated with ACT, for example, as a platform from
defined goal. A concept that is “true” (in the sense of which to understand the techniques of CT. Likewise,
being useful) in one context may therefore not be one can use the philosophy and theory associated
“true” in another. That is, the world is “textured” in with CT to understand the clinical application of
such a way that some theories work better than others ACT. Third, a point that is often unappreciated is
with regard to a given goal. This philosophy forms the that one cannot avoid theory and philosophy. All
basis of a behavioral theory of language and cognition psychological applications are inevitably grounded
known as relational frame theory (Barnes-Holmes, in some theory, which is in turn rooted in basic
Barnes-Holmes, McHugh & Hayes, 2004; Hayes, philosophical assumptions. However, these theoret-
Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001). RFT is a basic ical and philosophical assumptions often remain
theory that describes the powerful effects of implicit and unarticulated. When a cognitive thera-
language on human psychology. Like many pist guides her anxious patient to test irrational
basic scientific theories, RFT is not especially thoughts against data in order to correct systematic
accessible to nonexperts, and uses unfamiliar biases on the assumption that doing so will reduce
terms (e.g., “arbitrarily applicable derived rela- anxiety and lead to improved functioning, she is
tional responding”) in the name of precision. In making a host of theoretical assumptions, whether or
order to make these basic concepts more useful to not she realizes she is doing so. A corollary is that true
practicing clinicians, a more accessible model was theoretical eclecticism is impossible. One can borrow
developed, known variously as the “psychological concepts from different theories and combine them in
flexibility theory” or the “hexaflex model,” and a new ways, but one has then created yet a new theory,
separate body of research has examined this theory not an eclectic mix of the original ones. Similarly, one
(Levin, Hildebrandt, Lillis, & Hayes, 2012). can utilize one theory in some circumstances and
Psychological flexibility theory is composed of another at other times, but doing so requires a meta-
what Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, and Wilson (2012) call theory that guides, even if implicitly, the circum-
“middle-level terms,” which are defined as “looser stances under which each theory is to be applied;
functional abstractions” that serve to “orient prac- again, this is not true eclecticism. Thus, although
titioners to some features of a domain in functional clinicians can choose not to examine the (implicit)
contextual terms so as to produce better outcomes theories that underlie their work, they cannot truly
and to facilitate knowledge development” (p. 7). avoid theory altogether.
Intervention techniques and strategies, although This analysis raises the question of what level of
ultimately rooted in FC and RFT, can be conceptu- theory is necessary or desirable for clinicians to
alized from the perspective of this more accessible appreciate, as well as what specific theory or theories
“mid-level” model. should be prioritized. Calls for clinicians to have
Proponents of ACT, more than any other stronger theoretical grounding have generally failed
contemporary psychotherapy approach, have to specify the kind of theory in question. In terms of
stressed the interconnected nature of philosophy, analytic levels, should clinicians routinely appreciate
basic theory, applied clinical theory, and technique, the philosophical assumptions that underlie the
and have clearly articulated a vision of each of these major forms of CBT? Should they become fluent in
levels of analysis. This unified approach is known basic theories such as RFT? What about more
584 herbert et al.

specific theories such as particular cognitive models on linking philosophy, theory, and technology
or psychological flexibility theory? And once the (i.e., application), ACT represents a useful context
level of analysis is clarified, which specific theoretical for examining questions regarding the utility of a
approaches should be emphasized? There is no working knowledge of theory to effective clinical
reason to assume that all theories work equally practice. There are at least three ways in which one
well as guides to effective clinical practice. These are might practice ACT: (a) with familiarity of charac-
ultimately empirical questions. Testing them will teristic techniques but minimal knowledge of under-
require recognition of the different possible meanings lying theory; (b) with a working knowledge of both
of “theory,” and clear specification of the kind of technique and psychological flexibility theory; or
theoretical knowledge under consideration. (c) with knowledge of technique, psychological
The question of the proper role of theory in flexibility theory, as well as more basic behavioral
clinical practice shares similarities with the debate theoretical concepts, including RFT. Let us imagine
regarding the relative effectiveness of standardized three ACT therapists, each with these varying
interventions versus those based on a highly levels of theoretical understanding, facing the same
individualized case conceptualization. There is challenging case. The first clinician appreciates a few
currently strong support, particularly within the key ACT principles, such as the importance of
CBT community, for approaches that emphasize case embracing rather than fighting distressing thoughts
conceptualization (e.g., Kuyken, Padesky, & Dudley, and feelings, as well as many characteristic tech-
2009; Needleman, 1999; Norcross & Lambert, niques, including common metaphors and experien-
2011; Persons, 2008). However, there are surpris- tial exercises. She applies these techniques in a
ingly few data to support this position. In fact, there is standard order, first highlighting the futility of efforts
a paucity of research in this area, and what data do to control distressing experiences, then presenting
exist are not especially favorable. A number of studies psychological acceptance as an alternative, before
raise questions about the inter-assessor reliability of moving on to enhancing the ability to distance oneself
case conceptualizations (Caspar et al., 2000; Eells, from one’s experience, then on to values clarification,
2001; Persons & Bertagnolli, 1999). The few trials and so on. This approach will likely work well for
that have directly evaluated the relative utility of many patients. In fact, the success of ACT self-help
individualized treatment have generally not been interventions (e.g., Fledderus, Bohlmeijer, Pieterse, &
supportive. For example, two early studies random- Schreurs, 2012; Hesser et al., 2012; Muto, Hayes, &
ized patients to three conditions: a standardized Jeffcoat, 2011) and clinical trials following structured
intervention, one based on an individualized case treatment protocols (Arch, Eifert, et al., 2012;
conceptualization, and a third condition in which the Forman et al., in press; Hernández-López, 2009;
treatment was either yoked to another participant’s Westin et al., 2011; Wetherell et al., 2011) speak to
case conceptualization (Schulte, Kuenzel, Pepping, the power of such an approach.
& Schulte-Bahrenberg, 1992) or was explicitly But imagine a patient with severe generalized
mismatched to the assessment of the participant’s anxiety with panic attacks, comorbid depression,
specific problems (Nelson et al., 1989). In both cases, marital problems, and a history of heart disease and
there were no differences in outcomes between the other problems, including multiple heart attacks. The
two individualized conditions, and in fact some patient initially resonates with the idea that efforts to
evidence of the superiority of the standard interven- control his distress have not worked, but despite the
tion. It should be noted, however, that the case first ACT therapist’s use of multiple standard
conceptualizations used in these studies were quite interventions, he is unable to let go of the struggle
crude relative to modern standards, and were with his disturbing thoughts and feelings. Moreover,
certainly not well grounded in theory, and each he objects to exercises promoting psychological
study had other methodological limitations. Never- acceptance on the grounds that merely accepting
theless, these results underscore the importance of his catastrophic thoughts and his anxiety (and
empirical tests of the role of theory in practice. It is especially panic) sensations may lead him to ignore
not enough that the value of theoretically guided the impending signs of another heart attack,
practice is plausible; the burden of proof is on those precluding effective action. In fact, mindfulness
who propose that theoretical knowledge improves meditation exercises prescribed as homework have
practice to demonstrate that this is the case. precipitated panic attacks. He also finds the idea that
he should focus his efforts on changing his behavior
Why Theory Probably Matters: The Case rather than his subjective distress to reflect the
of ACT therapist’s lack of appreciation of the depth of his
Because of its relatively well-developed theoretical emotional pain. The first therapist continues to
basis and the emphasis placed by its proponents invoke metaphors and to enact more experiential
theory in cbt 585

exercises, in hopes of breaking through what has in ACT parlance) paradoxically—but predictably—
now become an increasingly deadlocked clash in result in greater anxiety. The therapist understands
perspectives. that learning is always additive, and that she cannot
The second ACT therapist, who has a strong erase the relationship between anxiety symptoms
working knowledge of psychological flexibility and heart attack. But she can intervene to expand
theory, is not tied to any particular sequence of the associations with the anxiety symptoms so that
interventions, nor even to any particular techniques. they also evoke additional, less ominous, responses,
After further assessment, the therapist tentatively while she also works to weaken the control of all of
concludes that the patient has become highly the patient’s subjective experience over his behav-
attached to an identity as a helpless victim of his ior. This conceptualization leads her to introduce
medical and psychological problems. He implements the idea that “reality testing” distressing thoughts,
interventions designed to undermine the literal truth in this case thoughts about having a heart attack, is
of, and limitations associated with, this particular in fact useful in a limited sense, provided the issue at
identity, as well as personal narratives more gener- hand is truly a question of information. She helps
ally. He also recognizes the very high level of the the patient carefully frame his questions, examine
patient’s “fusion” with his distressing thoughts and which of these are truly about needed information,
feelings, and so begins defusion exercises slowly, in and which function maladaptively to avoid anxiety
limited contexts, before gradually expanding them to through unnecessary reassurance seeking. For the
include longer time periods, more settings, and more former only, the therapist works with the patient to
psychological contexts. The therapist recognizes that obtain relevant data (e.g., by checking with his
the patient has become so focused on his distress that cardiologist about the differences between symptoms
he has lost touch with any larger purposes in his life. of anxiety and those of a heart attack). Once this is
The therapist judiciously introduces values clarifica- accomplished, the stage is then set for experiential
tion and goal-setting exercises, but is careful to avoid acceptance interventions, including—when theoreti-
doing so in a way that would come across as cally indicated—acceptance of the patient’s thoughts
dismissive of the patient’s distress. A functional that he is having a heart attack. There is no
analysis reveals that the depression and marital assumption that the information will eliminate the
problems appear to be secondary to the isolation distressing thoughts or feelings. But one can now
resulting from the patient’s extreme anxiety, thereby move beyond ongoing “reality testing” to begin
justifying focusing primarily on the latter, in antici- experiencing them from a more detached perspective,
pation that the depression will lift and marital issues eventually even welcoming them openly and non-
resolve as the anxiety improves. The patient begins defensively, thereby minimizing their negative effects.
making more progress. However, the issue of his fear Of course, it is possible that the first ACT therapist
of another heart attack continues to loom large, and with minimal theoretical grounding, or perhaps even
he continues to resist fully embracing the notion of a good clinician working from a different CBT
psychological acceptance for fear of dismissing signs framework, might make similar therapeutic moves
of an impending heart attack. This, in turn, keeps based on intuition and personal experience. Our
him from pursuing various goal-directed activities thesis, however, is that a well-developed theory
and limits his overall quality of life. provides a more reliable guide for conceptualizing
In addition to familiarity with standard ACT and intervening with complex cases. This is not to
techniques and psychological flexibility theory, the suggest that theory completely replaces judicious
third ACT therapist also has a thorough grounding clinical judgment. Applying theoretical concepts to
in basic behavioral theories, including RFT. She individual cases requires considerable clinical acu-
understands that the patient’s unique history has men. The question is not whether clinical judgment
resulted in the word “heart attack,” feelings of and skill are important, but whether practice that is
shortness of breath, and anxiety symptoms such as theoretically guided will be more effective than
tremulousness, sweaty palms, and racing thoughts, practice that is not.
all sharing functional properties. As a result of this
“stimulus equivalence,” common physiological Call for Research
arousal has automatically come to elicit the same As noted above, the larger CBT community has
emotional reaction that would occur from an actual recently increased attempts to link clinical interven-
heart attack. This has resulted not only in the tions to basic theories of behavior change and more
patient’s attempts to suppress any signs of arousal, specific models of psychopathology. This includes
but also in hypervigilance for the appearance of any renewed interest in the study of these theories in their
signs of arousal. Attempts to monitor and control own right. RFT, for example, has recently witnessed
his symptoms (known as “experiential avoidance” strong growth as evidenced in the number of
586 herbert et al.

manuscripts published. For example, one analysis 2007). Thus, it may be important to ensure that
observed an exponential growth in publications therapists not only understand theory in the abstract,
published on RFT from 1991 to 2008, totaling 62 but also can develop personal experiences that
empirical and 112 nonempirical manuscripts demonstrate to them the utility of using theory to
(Dymond et al., 2010). This body of research has inform their practice. In addition, there are a number
sought to empirically and theoretically define RFT of emotional barriers to learning new practices,
concepts and to test predictions derived from including the increased effort required and the
the theory (e.g., the effects of multiple-exemplar temporary discomfort involved when trying an
training). There is little question that such theoretical unfamiliar approach (Varra, Hayes, Roget, & Fisher,
development is critical to better understanding the 2008).
origins of psychopathology and other forms of Thus, it will be important to begin with national
human suffering, and to the continued development surveys of therapists and students to answer a
of more effective assessment, prevention, and inter- number of related questions:
vention technologies. The only alternative is a
piecemeal collection of observations and surrepti- 1. How do therapists currently view the role of
tious discoveries, which then must be individually theory in informing their practices? Therapists
evaluated for their utility in various contexts. tend to operate using tacit and idiosyncratic
So whereas theory may be indispensible for theories to guide their decisions, but their
psychotherapy innovators and researchers, ques- openness to learning and using specific theories
tions remain regarding the importance of theory to related to CBTs specifically is unknown.
practicing clinicians. Addressing these questions 2. How familiar are therapists already in various
will require a multipronged research program. theories underlying CBTs? Is it possible, for
example, that some therapists may be knowl-
therapist surveys edgeable about certain theories, but may not
One lesson learned from earlier efforts was that regularly use them to inform their practice?
attempting to disseminate CBTs to practicing clini- Similarly, the depth of understanding can
cians will not work as a completely “top-down” vary in ways that dramatically influence one’s
process (Addis, Wade, & Hatgis, 1999). Many practices. To what extent do therapists adopt
clinicians have been unwilling, for various reasons, simplified versions of therapies (help patients
to alter their practices based on emerging research to think more positively; help patients “get in
findings supporting specific approaches (Baker, touch” with/vocalize their emotions), and
McFall, & Shoham, 2008; Timbie, Fox, Van how does this play out in practice?
Busum, & Schneider, 2012). For example, Freiheit, 3. How can practicing clinicians best be taught
Vye, Swan, and Cady (2004) surveyed practicing to apply CBT theories to specific cases to
psychologists and found that the majority were not improve their evidence-based practice? For
using exposure when treating anxiety disorders, example, vignettes could be used to examine
despite the widespread consensus that exposure is therapists' ability to apply theory to treating
crucial to effective treatment. We would expect a hypothetical clinical cases in an effort to
similar response if research emerged that supported identify which areas require further training.
theoretical knowledge in guiding treatment. Re- 4. What are other practical barriers to learning
search on training clinicians in evidence-based CBT theories, and how can those be
practices suggests that a good values-intervention addressed? For example, timing and cost of
fit is essential for the adoption of new practices training are important barriers often cited by
(Aarons, Sommerfeld, Hecht, Silovsky, & Chaffin, clinicians that impede their ability to learn
2009). Thus, clinicians who already may be com- new practices.
fortable using CBT techniques but who still oper-
ate using largely opposing theoretical models
(e.g., psychodynamic) may not find replacing their The latter point underscores the importance of
theory readily acceptable. Similarly, those whose making theories as accessible as possible, if they are
theoretical knowledge is implicit, and who believe going to be useful to clinicians. For example, the
themselves to function atheoretically, may not original presentations of RFT (e.g., Hayes et al.,
readily appreciate the value of acquiring theoretical 2001) emphasized theoretical precision and, as a
knowledge. Research suggests that clinicians tend result, were difficult for nonexperts to follow.
to rely largely on their personal experiences and Recent strides have been made to make the theory
intuition when making clinical decisions (Gaudiano, more accessible (e.g., Törneke, 2010), but even these
Brown, & Miller, 2011; Stewart & Chambless, remain inappropriate for widespread dissemination
theory in cbt 587

among practicing clinicians. Clearly, a great deal experimental trials

more work is needed in this area. Ultimately, the best way to resolve questions
regarding the role of theory in clinical practice is
evaluation of theories themselves through controlled research. Practicing clinicians
Theoretically guided practice assumes the validity could be randomized to one group in which training
of the theory itself (where “validity” in this context and supervision is limited to technical and practical
refers both to a theory’s internal consistency and aspects of the treatment versus a comparison
coherence as well as its scientific support). Research condition in which a substantial portion of the
is needed to evaluate the theories underlying training is devoted to building theoretical knowl-
psychotherapies, and to guide their ongoing devel- edge. Patient outcomes would then be assessed and
opment. This research can include studies of compared across therapist groups. An aim of this
hypotheses derived from specific theories, as well type of study would be to determine whether training
as studies of competing hypotheses derived from time is more productively spent on technique or
different theories. As discussed above, in the case on theory. Variations on this basic design could be
of CBS there is a rapidly developing literature envisioned, including comparisons of training in
evaluating hypotheses derived from RFT. Levin different theories, parametric studies of varying
et al. (2012) conducted a meta-analysis of 66 amounts of theoretical training, and comparisons
laboratory-based component studies of the ACT’s of different training modalities, among others.
psychological flexibility model and found greater Moreover, cost-benefit analyses could be included
effects for values, acceptance, present moment, in all of these studies. Of course, in order to draw firm
mindfulness, and values components relative to conclusions it will be important to attend to
comparison conditions. methodological details, such as pre- and posttraining
In addition to empirical studies, conceptual tests of clinicians’ theoretical knowledge, highly
analyses are also needed to evaluate various aspects knowledgeable and competent trainers, etc., in the
of theories, including their internal consistency, design and execution of such studies.
explanatory power, parsimony, and degree of An early prototype of this kind of research was
connection with actual intervention techniques. For conducted by Strosahl, Hayes, Bergan, and Romano
instance, Hofmann and Asmundson (2008) used (1998). In that study, practicing master’s-level
Gross’s (2001) theory of emotion regulation in an clinicians working in a community health mainte-
attempt to explain the differences between charac- nance organization were assigned to receive training
teristic CT and ACT interventions. They suggested in ACT theory and technique (n = 8) or no addi-
that cognitive restructuring (characteristic of CT) tional training (n = 10). At follow-up assessment,
and psychological acceptance (characteristic of ACT) patients of the therapists who underwent training
could be considered as antecedent-focused versus had significantly better outcomes on a number of
response-focused emotion regulation strategies, re- measures relative to patients of therapists who did
spectively. However, as we have noted elsewhere not receive the training. This study suffers from a
(Gaudiano, 2011; Herbert & Forman, 2013), this number of methodological weaknesses, including the
analysis fails on both conceptual and empirical lack of random assignment of therapists to condi-
grounds. Most centrally, the antecedent-response dis- tions and the absence of control conditions to rule
tinction does not map well onto the restructuring- out that receiving training in any CBT model would
acceptance distinction. Cognitive restructuring often have resulted in better outcomes. Nevertheless, it
takes place after the emotional response has been represents an early version of the kind of study that
activated, and in this sense would be a form of can examine the practical impact of training in theory
response-focused emotion regulation. The ACT on clinical outcomes.
strategies aimed at developing nonjudgmental
acceptance of distressing experience may lead over examination of
time to a change in the way events themselves are mediators/moderators
experienced and to decreased emotional arousal, Researchers and clinicians are increasingly aware of
so in that sense would be considered an antecedent- the limitations in knowledge gained from so-called
focused process. Thus, both CT and ACT interven- “horse race” trials in which two therapies are tested
tions operate both before and following emotional against each other and differences in outcomes
activation. This example illustrates the important alone are examined. First, many such trials have
role of critical analyses of theoretical concepts, in this failed to show clear differences in outcomes among
case with regard to the theory-technology link. Such competing psychotherapies. Second, even when
analyses can help clarify the best targets for fruitful differences are found, these trials fail to provide
empirical research. clear evidence for which aspects of the treatments
588 herbert et al.

are responsible for those differences. It was over program, which will in turn depend on first
50 years ago that Gordon Paul (1967) famously addressing a number of conceptual issues regarding
asked, “What treatment, by whom, is most effective the nature of theories to be examined.
for this individual with that specific problem, and The importance of examining the role of theory in
under which set of circumstances?” (p. 111). In clinical practice is underscored by recent initiatives to
modern parlance, Paul is referring to questions disseminate CBTs widely to front-line practitioners.
related to moderation and mediation of treatment Beginning in 2006 the U.K. governments have been
effects. Moderation refers to who is more likely to implementing the Improving Access to Psychological
respond to treatment or under what conditions a Therapies program (Department of Health, 2011),
treatment is likely to be effective. Mediation refers which has committed hundreds of millions of dollars
to how a treatment works or the mechanisms to training thousands of therapists to provide
through which a treatment produces its response. CBT to over 600,000 people with disorders such as
Historically, it has been difficult to examine depression and anxiety. In the U.S., the VA is
systematically these types of empirical questions. implementing a similar initiative to train clinicians
Although procedures for exploring questions of in CBT to improve access to effective treatment
moderation and mediation in psychotherapy trials among military veterans (Ruzek, Karlin, & Zeiss, in
were pioneered by Baron and Kenny (1986), many press). Taking full advantage of these efforts will
improvements have been made over recent years. The require not only further theoretical developments,
ease of use and power of these techniques, especially in but also a better understanding of the role of theory in
smaller psychotherapy samples, have grown dramat- clinical practice.
ically (Kraemer, Kiernan, Essex, & Kupfer, 2008;
Kraemer et al., 2002; Preacher & Hayes, 2008).
A recent study of ACT versus traditional CBT for References
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