San Francisco Psychotherapy Research Group and Control-Mastery Theory

views updated


The San Francisco Psychotherapy Research Group (formerly called the Mount Zion Psychotherapy Research Group) was founded in the early 1970s by Joseph Weiss, M.D., and Harold Sampson, Ph.D., both analysts at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute. A large number of professionals have been associated with the group, which is one of the few in the United States engaged in programmatic research of the therapeutic process and development of a full-scale psychoanalytic theory. The theory is informally known as Control-Mastery Theory, from two of its assumptions: (1) people exercise considerable unconscious control of their mental lives (an assumption that contrasts with the view that the unconscious serves only as a repository of drives, blindly seeking expression), and (2) patients enter treatment seeking to master their difficulties, although they may be unaware of significant parts of their treatment goals (an assumption that contrasts with the perspective that sees patients as seeking to continue infantile gratifications and resisting modification even of partial symptomatic expression of such impulses). Symptoms stem from "unconscious pathogenic beliefs," which are inferences about traumatic events, often involving fear of harm to a loved one as a consequence of trying to meet a normal developmental goal (Weiss, 1990; 1993).

These assumptions and several others have been articulated in many publications, in case examples, and especially in formal research. An early phase of the research examined psychoanalytic cases, especially the case of Mrs. C (see Weiss, Sampson, et al., 1986). Among other things, it was shown that patients test their therapists, often unconsciously, by (1) transferring (acting toward the therapist as they had acted toward a parent earlier in life) and (2) turning passive into active (acting toward the therapist as a parent had acted toward them earlier). In both cases, the patient unconsciously hopes that the therapist will not be traumatized as the patient was earlier. When the therapist responds in a way that passes the test, the patient improves immediately (as measured by standard psychotherapy progress measures, as well as several measures developed specifically by the researchers). Other research has investigated short-term psychodynamically oriented psychotherapy, short-term therapy conducted from other theoretical frameworks (for example, cognitive-behavioral therapy), and therapy with elderly clients and several other patient populations. It has been shown that explicit plan formulations can be developed for patients. The more congruent that a therapist's interventions are with this plan, the greater the improvement (Silberschatz, Fretter and Curtis, 1986).

Robert Shilkret


Sampson, Harold. (1992). A new psychoanalytic theory and its testing in formal research. In James W. Barron, Morris N. Eagle and David L. Wolitzky (Eds.), Interface of psychoanalysis and psychology (pp. 586-604). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Silberschatz, G., Fretter, P., and Curtis, J. (1986). How do interpretations influence the process of psychotherapy? Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 54, 646-652.

Weiss, Joseph. (1990, March). Unconscious mental functioning. Scientific American, 103-109.

. (1993). How psychotherapy works: Process and technique. New York: Guilford.

Weiss, Joseph; Sampson, Harold; and The Mount Zion Psychotherapy Research Group. (1986). The psychoanalytic process: Theory, clinical observation, and empirical research. New York: Guilford.

About this article

San Francisco Psychotherapy Research Group and Control-Mastery Theory

Updated About content Print Article


San Francisco Psychotherapy Research Group and Control-Mastery Theory