Researcher & therapist
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Syntopics

 

Modeling and simulation in clinical psychology and psychotherapy research

 

Motives

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Processes of experience and behaviour that enable individuals to actively shape their environment are at the core of my research. The formative processes I am particularly interested in are aimed at the long-term satisfaction of psychological needs such as autonomy, affiliation and self-esteem as well as their protection against violation. I call these motivational processes — that organize experience and behavior — motives. Thus, in research and psychotherapy I emphasize that people have a motivated impact on their environment and are not (only) passively shaped by their environment.

Relationships as environment

The regions of the psychological environment that are central to many psychological needs, and therefore constitute the focus of my research, are relationships. On the one hand, I investigate interpersonal relationships, which an individual forms through motivated experience and behaviour with other people; examples are friendships, hierarchical relationships at work, and also therapist-patient relationships. On the other hand, I study intrapsychic relationships that an individual maintains with himself or herself, such as self-love, self-criticism or self-exploration. I adopt an ecological perspective in which relationships are seen as environmental niches in which psychological needs are satisfied but also violated. From this point of view, a friendship is conceputalized as a mutualistic relationship in which both individuals satisfy the other's need for affiliation. I use the term syntopics for this motivational, ecological approach to the dynamics of intrapsychic and interpersonal relationships (‘syn-’ = shared, ‘topos’ = space).

Mental disorders and their psychological treatment

Does the left individual give valuable advice, which the right individual accepts gratefully? Or is the right individual annoyed that the left individual imposes rules, but does not show the annoyance? Or is the left individual secretly frustrated that the right individual is still dependent and needs guidance? The syntopic perspective assumes that the answer to these questions depends on the motives of the viewer.

Does the left individual give valuable advice, which the right individual accepts gratefully? Or is the right individual annoyed that the left individual imposes rules, but does not show the annoyance? Or is the left individual secretly frustrated that the right individual is still dependent and needs guidance? The syntopic perspective assumes that the answer to these questions depends on the motives of the viewer.

In my research I apply the syntopic perspective to the understanding of mental disorders and their psychological treatment. Thus, for example, an online platform for Internet-based self-help program appears as an environment (niche) in which participants relate to the program in order to satisfy their needs but also to protect them from violation; the platform is thus not a psychologically ‘neutral’ technology. This view helps to realize that the necessity to schedule the order of self-help units is a need violation for some people — “The program makes no effort to consider which order would be personally optimal for me and leaves the responsibility on my shoulders” — and is a satisfaction of needs for other people — “I can decide freely and do not have to be careful if someone tries to impose something on me!” (⟶ research project). From a syntopic perspective, psychological problems can arise, for example, when the activity of one motive, such as affiliation, creates an interpersonal environment that threatens another motive, such as autonomy, which in turn attempts to counterregulate (⟶ research project, ⟶ conference contribution).

Methods of formal modeling and simulation

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In addition to theoretical and empirical research, simulation has emerged as a tool for gaining scientific knowledge. Formal modelling and simulation make it possible to check whether the hypothesized underlying mechanisms of a phenomenon are actually capable of generating the phenomenon. In clinical psychology and psychotherapy research, simulations are currently rarely used. In order to advance the investigation of the complex dynamics of motives, relationships, mental disorders, and psychotherapy, I use formal models and empirically informed simulations to contribute to the development of a computational clinical psychology. Following the motto: Don’t trust any explanation that you can’t simulate!

Integrative psychotherapy

One of the long-term goals of my research is to make mental disorders, psychotherapeutic interventions and the therapeutic relationship describable within a common frame of reference. I am convinced that theoretical knowledge is not sufficient to achieve this goal, but that practical experiences are also necessary. In order to make crossing the boundaries between the 'therapeutic schools' more and more a matter of course for me — regarding both practice and theory — after my training in (cognitive) behavioural therapy I continuously acquired skills and experiences in further approaches, such as emotion-focused therapy (EFT) according to Greenberg, or the basics of analytical psychology according to C. G. Jung. This helps me, for example, to formalize an ABC protocol, a two-chair dialogue, a therapy relationship and role-play as therapeutic vessels in which motives have the opportunity to create problematic patterns of experience and behaviour (problem activation), so that these can be reflected upon (motivational clarification) and can be changed (mastery). Whether a regularity in the experience and behaviour of patients is then called ‘self-critical automatic thought’ (CBT), ‘self-evaluative split’ (EFT), ‘punitive parent mode’ (schema therapy) or 'complex' (Jung), and whether the vessel is called 'protocol', 'chair dialogue' or 'alchemical furnace', is of secondary importance to me.

Influences

Crucial influences that shaped my scientific approach are:

  • Franz Caspar with the instrumental perspective of psychological functioning, Plan Analysis and motive-oriented relationship building, and Klaus Grawe with consistency theory

  • Tania Lincoln through her consistent dovetailing of experimental psychopathology and intervention research, as well as her courage not to shy away from new and stony paths in practice and research

  • Emotion-focused therapy of Leslie Greenberg and his colleagues, which helped me to realize the process character of psychological problems in the present moment

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy, with its scientific stance, its goal-oriented, pragmatic interventions and its transparent, self-efficacy-enhancing practical approach

  • Sven Banisch with his pleasure in formal modelling and simulation, and interdisciplinary collaboration