Instead of trying to understand their guests, Schlessinger and McGraw are often confrontational and directive, authoritatively telling people what to do or not to do with relatively little input from the recipients of their instructions. For example, Dr. Phil told a 19-year-old man who was considering marrying a 30-year-old woman with two children after a very short courtship: “You absolutely, unequivocally should not do this!”
However much the viewer might agree, numerous studies reveal that a directive therapist style leads many people to dig in their heels and may even worsen a situation or psychological problem. In 1985 psychologists Gerald Patterson and Marion Forgatch of the Oregon Social Learning Center concluded that directives from therapists who were coaching mothers to deal with difficult children triggered more resistant responses from the mothers than did a supportive approach involving gentle encouragement and belief in a child’s ability to change. In a 1993 study psychologist William R. Miller of the University of New Mexico and his colleagues found that therapists who used more directive and confrontational statements elicited more opposition from patients who were problem drinkers. In addition, the more directive the therapists were, the more the clients drank a year after the therapy.
Most psychotherapists know that merely telling people to stop their problem behaviors is rarely helpful, and indeed no data exist to show that anyone has benefited from Schlessinger’s or McGraw’s advice. After a thorough search of the research literature and the Internet, we could not find a single follow-up study of the participants, formal or informal.
Because Schlessinger’s and McGraw’s practices are unsubstantiated, we believe that these well-known hosts need to demonstrate that they are not causing harm. Calling what they do “entertainment” or “education” does not exclude them from this requirement. Both shows inaccurately portray how mental health professionals understand and help people. Most psychological problems do not simply reflect a lack of self-control and cannot be changed by simple directives. Believing that they can could lead millions of people to ignore important biological or social causes of their troubles and fail to seek effective treatments for themselves or others.