Toward Better Psychological Research: The Waitlist Problem

It has often been pointed out that in the field of psychology, it can be difficult to conduct controlled science. The number of mitigating factors, from the varying skill of each individual therapist to the difficulty of quantifying things like emotional improvement, work against perfecting a research process. But there is one mainstay of psychological research that creates predictable problems time and again: the waitlist control group. One recent commentary defined it this way:

In psychotherapy research, there is no pill. So a long time ago, some researchers developed what they believed to be a similar control group as those receiving a placebo — the waitlist control group. The waitlist control group is simply a group of subjects randomized to be placed on a fake “waitlist” — waiting for the active treatment intervention.

The idea here is sound: If you want to take a baseline reading of how people are progressing without any psychological help at all, tell some people that the study hasn’t yet begun. Yet the problems with this approach are manifold, including the possible placebo effect of knowing that help is on the way, and the very real possibility that many people on the list will engage in self-help remedies while the clock ticks. One solution from Psych Central: replace the waitlist with something that more closely approximates therapy, minus the training:

The best way to do this is to throw out the waitlist control group and replace it with a group of participants randomized to receive weekly check-ins with the equivalent of someone showing concern for the individual. This can be an individual one-on-one session, or a small group of participants.

The goal here is to separate the well-known value of generic concern from the putative added value of psychoanalytic psychotherapy – or another modality – conducted by a trained professional. It is an intriguing idea, and of course at PPSC we welcome any chance to demonstrate the lasting benefits of analytic therapy over various alternatives.

Can’t wait for the next study? Find a therapist today by clicking here.