Nonspecific Common Factors Theory Meets Memory Reconsolidation:

A Game-Changing Encounter?

Bruce Ecker

Nonspecific common factors theory asserts, based on 75 years of randomized controlled trials of different types of psychotherapy, that specific processes and procedures cannot contribute powerfully to therapeutic change. This assertion derives from finding essentially the same rather modest level of efficacy for all of the many therapies studied using randomized controlled trials, or RCTs. Advocacy of nonspecific common factors theory has been especially strong in the last decade (e.g., Duncan, Miller, Wampold & Hubble, 2009).

The fact that the efficacy measured by RCTs doesn’t change from therapy to therapy appears to imply that efficacy is due not to the specific methods and procedures used—which researchers call specific factors—but rather is due to the qualities of the client, the therapist, and the client-therapist relationship—which researchers call the nonspecific common factors, and which include qualities of trust, empathy, and therapeutic alliance, among other things.

Some Psychotherapy Process Studies Demonstrating Specific Factor Dominance

Baikie, K. A., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11, 338-346.

Elliott, R., Greenberg, L., & Lietaer, G. (2003). Research on experiential psychotherapy. In M. Lambert (Ed.), Bergin & Garfield’s handbook of psychotherapy & behavior change (pp. 493-539). New York: John Wiley.

Greenberg, L. S., Warwar, S. H., & Malcolm, W. M. (2008). Differential effects of emotion-focused therapy and psychoeducation in facilitating forgiveness and letting go of emotional injuries. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55, 185-196.

McCarthy, K. S. (2009). Specific, common, and unintended factors in psychotherapy: Descriptive and correlational approaches to what creates change. Doctoral dissertation, University of Pennsylvania. Available online:

Missirlian, T. M., Toukmanian, S. G., Warwar, S. H., & Greenberg, L. S. (2005). Emotional arousal, client perceptual processing, and the working alliance in experiential psychotherapy for depression. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73, 861-871.

Oei, T. P. S., & Shuttlewood, G. J. (1996). Specific and nonspecific factors in psychotherapy: A case of cognitive therapy for depression. Clinical Psychology Review, 16, 83-103.

Oei, T. P. S., & Shuttlewood, G. J. (1997). Comparison of specific and nonspecific factors in a group cognitive therapy for depression. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 28, 221-231.

Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Opening up: The healing power of expressing emotion. New York: Guilford Press.

Weinberger, J. (1995). Common factors aren’t so common: The common factors dilemma. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 2, 45-69.


Coughlin, P. A. (2012). The case for specific factors in psychotherapy outcome. Retrieved May 30, 2013 from

Duncan, B. L., Miller, S. D., Wampold, B. E., & Hubble, M. A. (Eds.)  (2009). The heart and soul of change: Delivering what works in therapy (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.

Ecker, B., Ticic, R., & Hulley, L. (2012). Unlocking the emotional brain: Eliminating symptoms at their roots using memory reconsolidation. New York: Routledge.

Ecker, B., Ticic, R., & Hulley, L. (2013). A primer on memory reconsolidation and its psychotherapeutic use as a core process of profound change. The Neuropsychotherapist, 1, 82-99. DOI: 10.12744/tnpt(1)082-099

Galluccio, L. (2005). Updating reactivated memories in infancy: I. Passive- and active-exposure effects. Developmental Psychobiology, 47, 1–17. doi: 10.1002/dev.20073

Oyarzún, J. P., Lopez-Barroso, D., Fuentemilla, L., Cucurell, D., Pedraza, C., et al. (2012). Updating fearful memories with extinction training during reconsolidation: A human study using auditory aversive stimuli. PLoS ONE 7(6): e38849. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0038849

Schiller, D., Monfils, M.-H., Raio, C. M., Johnson, D. C., LeDoux, J. E., & Phelps, E. A. (2010). Preventing the return of fear in humans using reconsolidation update mechanisms. Nature, 463, 49–53. DOI: 10.1038/nature08637

Xue, Y.-X., Luo, Y.-X., Wu, P., Shi, H.-S., Xue, L.-F., Chen, C., et al. (2012). A memory retrieval-extinction procedure to prevent drug craving and relapse. Science, 336, 241–245. DOI: 10.1126/science.1215070


Cite this article:

Ecker, B. (2013). Nonspecific common factors theory meets memory reconsolidation: A game-changing encounter? The Neuropsychotherapist, 2, 134-137. doi:

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x