Constructing and applying explanatory models in clinical psychology

Julia Pfeiff

In my dissertation project I investigate explanatory models of mental disorders in clinical psychology. One main goal is to understand how clinical psychological research and psychotherapeutic practice affect the construction and development of these models.
I am mainly interested in the influence of two factors on the explanations which are given by clinical psychologists: on the one hand, I want to understand the influence of explanatory demands which are rooted in psychotherapeutic practice on model construction. On the other hand, I investigate the role of theoretical demands from psychological research on the further development of these models.
I propose that, as a result of explanatory demands arising from psychotherapeutic practice, the models in question are set up in a way which primarily uses cognitive vocabulary. As has been suggested by Bolton (2007), psychological models of mental disorders usually normalize the individual’s cognitive and behavioral symptoms. It seems that, in most cases of psychological explanation, we can understand normalization as making the individual’s behavior appear more rational. One of my tasks will be to find out which model of rationality makes sense of this idea that explanatory models normalize the apparently irrational behaviors and thoughts of the patient.
Methodologically, I approach these questions in part by analyzing paradigmatic explanatory models (i.e., Beck’s model of Major Depressive Disorder) that are presented to students in psychology textbooks, and in part by conducting qualitative interviews with researchers working in clinical psychology as well as psychotherapists about their explanatory practices.
What I hope to achieve is a better understanding of the consequences of and the potential problems arising from the fact that explanatory models play a central role both in theoretical research and in therapeutic practice.