The current state of the empirical evidence for psychoanalysis: a meta-analytic approach

Harv Rev Psychiatry. May-Jun 2013;21(3):107-37. doi: 10.1097/HRP.0b013e318294f5fd.


Learning objectives: After participating in this educational activity, the reader should be better able to evaluate the empirical evidence for pre/post changes in psychoanalysis patients with complex mental disorders, and assess the limitations of the meta-analysis.

Background: The effectiveness of psychoanalysis is still a controversial issue, despite increasing research efforts.

Objective: To investigate the empirical evidence for psychoanalysis by means of a systematic review of the literature and a meta-analysis of the research data.

Method: A systematic literature search was undertaken to find studies regarding the effectiveness of psychoanalysis, published between 1970 and 2011. A meta-analysis was performed.

Results: Fourteen studies (total n = 603) were included in the meta-analysis. All but one were pre/post cohort studies. At treatment termination, the mean pre/post effect size across all outcome measures was 1.27 (95% confidence interval [CI], 1.03-1.50; p < .01). The mean pre/post effect size for symptom improvement was 1.52 (95% CI, 1.20-1.84; p < .01), and for improvement in personality characteristics 1.08 (95% CI, 0.89-1.26; p < .01). At follow-up the mean pre/follow-up effect size was 1.46 across all outcome measures (95% CI, 1.08-1.83; p < .01), 1.65 for symptom change (95% CI, 1.24-2.06; p < .01), and 1.31 for personality change (95% CI, 1.00-1.62; p < .01).

Conclusions: A limited number of mainly pre/post studies, presenting mostly completers analyses, provide empirical evidence for pre/post changes in psychoanalysis patients with complex mental disorders, but the lack of comparisons with control treatments is a serious limitation in interpreting the results. Further controlled studies are urgently needed.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / therapy*
  • Psychoanalytic Therapy*
  • Treatment Outcome