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Front Psychol. 2017 Apr 24;8:379. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00379. eCollection 2017.

Psychotherapy Is Chaotic-(Not Only) in a Computational World.

Author information

Institute of Synergetics and Psychotherapy Research, Paracelsus Medical UniversitySalzburg, Austria.
Department of Psychology, Ludwig Maximilians UniversityMunich, Germany.
Department of Psychosomatics and Inpatient Psychotherapy, University Hospital of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Paracelsus Medical UniversitySalzburg, Austria.
Department of Life Sciences and Chemistry, Jacobs University BremenBremen, Germany.
Department of Psychology, Chapman UniversityOrange, CA, USA.


Objective: The aim of this article is to outline the role of chaotic dynamics in psychotherapy. Besides some empirical findings of chaos at different time scales, the focus is on theoretical modeling of change processes explaining and simulating chaotic dynamics. It will be illustrated how some common factors of psychotherapeutic change and psychological hypotheses on motivation, emotion regulation, and information processing of the client's functioning can be integrated into a comprehensive nonlinear model of human change processes. Methods: The model combines 5 variables (intensity of emotions, problem intensity, motivation to change, insight and new perspectives, therapeutic success) and 4 parameters into a set of 5 coupled nonlinear difference equations. The results of these simulations are presented as time series, as phase space embedding of these time series (i.e., attractors), and as bifurcation diagrams. Results: The model creates chaotic dynamics, phase transition-like phenomena, bi- or multi-stability, and sensibility of the dynamic patterns on parameter drift. These features are predicted by chaos theory and by Synergetics and correspond to empirical findings. The spectrum of these behaviors illustrates the complexity of psychotherapeutic processes. Conclusion: The model contributes to the development of an integrative conceptualization of psychotherapy. It is consistent with the state of scientific knowledge of common factors, as well as other psychological topics, such as: motivation, emotion regulation, and cognitive processing. The role of chaos theory is underpinned, not only in the world of computer simulations, but also in practice. In practice, chaos demands technologies capable of real-time monitoring and reporting on the nonlinear features of the ongoing process (e.g., its stability or instability). Based on this monitoring, a client-centered, continuous, and cooperative process of feedback and control becomes possible. By contrast, restricted predictability and spontaneous changes challenge the usefulness of prescriptive treatment manuals or other predefined programs of psychotherapy.


common factors; complexity science; deterministic chaos; mathematical modeling; psychotherapy integration; psychotherapy processes

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