Who provides therapy in an office like this?

Therapists should bury their modesty and adorn the walls with their well-earned certificates and diplomas. That’s according to Ann Devlin and colleagues who asked 227 undergrads to look for one minute at a photo of a clinician’s office, furnished in a modern, minimalist style, and to give their impression of the therapist who worked there. All the photos were taken from the perspective of the client’s chair, but some students were shown a version with bare walls and no family photos on the desk, whereas other students were shown a version with a certificate-adorned wall and/or family photos on the desk. There was no therapist present.

The key finding was that students who saw an office with certificates on the wall rated the therapist not only as more skillful, experienced, better-trained, and more authoritative, but also as more friendly, kinder, welcoming, congenial and interested in clients. Indeed, the more certificates the better. Students who saw an office with four or nine certificates and diplomas rated the therapist as even more friendly and proficient than students who saw an office with just two or no certificates. And when it came to the perceived energy and dynamism of the therapist, nine certificates was better than four.

By contrast, the presence or absence of family photos on the therapist’s desk made no difference to the students’ judgements. However, in open-ended questioning afterwards, none of the students said anything negative about the presence of family photos.

That certificates on the walls should lead to ratings of greater competence is perhaps unsurprising, but the association with perceptions of friendliness is more difficult to explain. The researchers said it could be that the students interpreted the display of credentials as a form of self-disclosure, as if the therapist were revealing something of him or herself.

Devlin’s team said their results were important because prior research has shown that the success of therapy can depend on how clients view their therapist, including whether or not they believe in his or her credibility and expertise.

However, this study barely scratches the surface in terms of elucidating all the environmental effects at play in a therapist’s office, as acknowledged by the researchers. For example, what about the effect of the furniture and decor? In open-ended questioning several of the students said they found the blandness of the office featured in this study off-putting. Or what about the interaction between a therapist’s attire and their office style? There’s also the fact that this study featured university students – other people might respond differently. And of course a final caveat is that many therapists, especially those working in the NHS, simply don’t have their own, personal consulting rooms to work in.

ResearchBlogging.orgDevlin, A., Donovan, S., Nicolov, A., Nold, O., Packard, A., & Zandan, G. (2009). “Impressive?” Credentials, family photographs, and the perception of therapist qualities. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29 (4), 503-512 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2009.08.008

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.