Reactivity and stability in facial expressions as an indicator of therapeutic alliance strength

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Objective: Aspects of our emotional state are constantly being broadcast via our facial expressions. Psychotherapeutic theories highlight the importance of emotional dynamics between patients and therapists for an effective therapeutic relationship. Two emotional dynamics suggested by the literature are emotional reactivity (i.e., when one person is reacting to the other) and emotional stability (i.e., when a person has a tendency to remain in a given emotional state). Yet, little is known empirically about the association between these dynamics and the therapeutic alliance. This study investigates the association between the therapeutic alliance and the emotional dynamics of reactivity and stability, as manifested in the facial expressions of patients and therapists within the session. Methods: Ninety-four patients with major depressive disorder underwent short-term treatment for depression (N = 1256 sessions). Results: Both therapist reactivity and stability were associated with the alliance, across all time spans. Patient reactivity was associated with the alliance only in a short time span (1 s). Conclusions: These findings may potentially guide therapists in the field to attenuate not only their emotional reaction to their patients, but also their own unique presence in the therapy room.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages15
JournalPsychotherapy Research
Early online date5 Mar 2024
StateE-pub ahead of print - 5 Mar 2024

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2024 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • emotional reactivity
  • emotional stability
  • facial expressions
  • therapeutic alliance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology


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