Timeline: How results of a flawed study became embraced as new truth

One scientist's persistence may reverse course

For grief counselors, psychosocial investigators in psychology and loss, there has been a stunning turnaround in public perception of grief therapy due to one widely quoted study.

Due to one paper on the topic, grief counseling is viewed pessimistically as a possibly harmful therapy for people who have experienced a major loss. The truth is that there is no peer-reviewed, replicated research to support that pessimism, says Dale G. Larson, PhD, a professor in the department of psychology at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, CA. Larson also is the interim dean in the school of education, counseling psychology, and pastoral ministries.

Larson and several colleagues who are experts in research methodology closely examined the original data and found it empirically flawed, Larson says.

No scientist who carefully reviews the data could conclude that anything is wrong with grief counseling, he says.

Even more amazing is the fact that despite solid evidence that the initial studies are inaccurate in their interpretation of the data, the misperception continues to make its way into national media reports about grief counseling.

The initial dissertation with inaccurate methodology is no longer cited in most of the scholarly publications that continue to cite the dissertation's findings, Larson says.

"People cite the later articles," Larson says. "It's like the children's phone game where one person says one thing and another one whispers it to someone else, and we get further and further from the actual data."

The peer-review process was broken down to the point where researchers weren't checking to see whether authors were citing original research, he adds.

Here's the timeline of how one paper reshaped public perception and policy with regard to grief counseling:

1999: A dissertation, which is never peer-reviewed, called "The effectiveness of grief counseling and therapy: A quantitative review," claimed that 38% of grief counseling clients deteriorated due to treatment and 50% of clients experiencing normal grief are likely to be harmed by counseling.1,2

2000: Robert Neimeyer publishes a paper about grief counseling in Death Studies, which captures national media attention. It cites the 1999 dissertation's data and refers to a technique called treatment-induced deterioration effects (TIDE).1,3

2001-2006: More studies that are pessimistic about grief counseling are published; some cite the Death Studies paper and some cite the 1999 dissertation.1

2003: The 2003 Report on Bereavement and Grief Research, published by the Center for Advancement of Health, concludes that grief intervention studies challenge the effectiveness of these interventions.1

June 18, 2007: Newsweek magazine published an article by Sharon Begley, titled, "Begley: Get shrunk at your own risk," that quotes from the inaccurate studies about grief counseling and paints a pessimistic view of the intervention. The news magazine article states, "A 2000 study found that four in 10 people who lost a loved one would have been better off without grief counseling (based on a comparison with people who were randomly assigned to a no-therapy group)."4

August 2007: Larson and William T. Hoyt publish a paper on the inaccuracies of previous studies on grief counseling, disproving the original data from the 1999 dissertation.1

References

  1. Larson DG, Hoyt WT. What has become of grief counseling? An evaluation of the empirical foundations of the new pessimism. Prof Psych Res Pract 2007;38:347-355.
  2. Fortner BV. The Effectiveness of Grief Counseling and Therapy: A Quantitative Review. Memphis, TN: University of Memphis; 1999.
  3. Neimeyer RA. Searching for the meaning of meaning: Grief therapy and the process of reconstruction. Death Studies 2000;24:541-558.
  4. Begley S. Begley: Get shrunk at your own risk. Newsweek June 18, 2007.