“A Dynamic Systems Approach to Psychotherapy: A Meta-theoretical Framework for Explaining Psychotherapy Change Processes” by Omar Gelo and Sergio Salvatore


Notwithstanding the many methodological advances made in the field of psychotherapy research, at present a metatheoretical, school-independent framework to explain psychotherapy change processes taking into account their dynamic and complex nature is still lacking. Over the last years, several authors have suggested that a dynamic systems (DS) approach might provide such a framework. In the present paper, we review the main characteristics of a DS approach to psychotherapy. After an overview of the general principles of the DS approach, we describe the extent to which psychotherapy can be considered as a self-organizing open complex system, whose developmental change processes are described in terms of a dialectic dynamics between stability and change over time. Empirical evidence in support of this conceptualization is provided and discussed. Finally, we propose a research design strategy for the empirical investigation of psychotherapy from a DS approach, together with a research case example. We conclude that a DS approach may provide a meta-theoretical, school-independent framework allowing us to constructively rethink and enhance the way we conceptualize and empirically investigate psychotherapy.

Gelo, O. C. G., & Salvatore, S. (2016). A dynamic systems approach to psychotherapy: A meta-theoretical framework for explaining psychotherapy change processes. Journal of Counselling Psychology, 63, 379-395. Link

“Looking at the Psychotherapy Process as an Intersubjective Dynamic of Meaning-Making: A Case Study with Discourse Flow Analysis” by Sergio Salvatore, Omar Gelo et al.

Constructivist Psychology journal cover

This work presents a dialogic model of psychotherapy (the Two-Stage Semiotic Model, TSSM) with discourse flow analysis (DFA) and a low-inferential method of analysis based on it. TSSM claims that in good-outcome psychotherapy, the patient’s system of meanings follows a U-shaped trend: First, it decreases, and then the dialog promotes new meanings. DFA represents a session’s dialog as a “discourse network” made by the associations for temporal adjacency between contents; then it studies the network’s dynamic properties. DFA has been applied to the textual corpus obtained from the verbatim transcript of a 15-session psy- chotherapy course. Findings are consistent with the hypotheses.

Salvatore, S., Gelo, O., Gennaro, A., Manzo, S., Radaideh, A. (2010). Looking at the psychotherapy process as an intersubjective dynamic of meaning-making: A case study with discourse flow analysis. Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 23, 195-230. Link

Prof Wolfgang Tschacher

Wolfgang Tschacher

Affiliation: University Bern

Wolfgang Tschacher was born in Stuttgart, Germany, studied psychology at Tübingen University where he received his Ph.D. in 1990. Psychotherapy training in systemic therapy at the Institute of Family Therapy, Munich. Habilitation in psychology and Venia legendi 1996 at University of Bern, Switzerland, professorship in 2002. He currently works at the University Hospital of Psychiatry, where he founded the department of psychotherapy research. His main interests are in quantitative psychotherapy research, time-series methods and experimental psychopathology, with an emphasis on dynamical systems, complexity science, embodied cognition, and phenomena of cognitive self-organization. Organizer of the series of ‘Herbstakademie’ conferences on systems theory in psychology. For a list of publications and conference information see www.upd.unibe.ch or www.embodiment.ch

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Dr Omar Gelo

Omar Gelo

Affiliation: Sigmund Freud University Vienna and Università del Salento

Dr. Omar Gelo graduated in Psychology at the University of Urbino (Italy) in 2000. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Ulm (Germany) in 2007, where he also worked as a research assistant. In 2007 he begun to work as assistant professor at the Department of Psychotherapy Science of the Sigmund Freud University Vienna (Austria). In 2008 he became Assistant Professor for Dynamic Psychology at the Department of History, Society and Human Studies of the University of Salento (Italy). Since 2014 he is Associate Professor for Dynamic Psychology at the same department where he since then director of the Bachelor and Master Program in Psychology. Since 2008 he works as consultant of the Sigmund Freud University Vienna (Austria), where he also the director of the International Ph.D. Program in Psychotherapy Science at the Sigmund Freud University Vienna (Austria).

His research interests concern: (a) the epistemological reflection on the scientific status of psychotherapy and psychological intervention; (b) the methodological reflection on the application of quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods in psychotherapy and clinical research; (c) the empirical investigation of the psychotherapeutic process in different therapeutic schools (comparative process-outcome research); (d) psychotherapy integration; and (e) the application of dynamic systems theory to the study of psychotherapy; (e) the investigation of psychotherapeutic development. He recently co-edited the volume “Psychotherapy Research: Foundations, Process, and Outcome” (Springer, Vienna).

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