Can a Computer Assess Quality of Therapy?

therapist comforting a person in therapyConfidentiality in therapy is vital to the therapeutic process. Confidentiality also means outside observers cannot weigh in on the quality of therapy. In search of a reliable way to evaluate therapy quality, a study published this month in PLOS One proposes one potential model: a computer that can evaluate therapists’ empathy.

Evaluating Empathy with a Computer

Researchers from University of Southern California, University of Washington, and University of Utah say methods for evaluating therapy that require an outside observer can potentially alter the therapeutic process and undermine confidentiality. As an alternative, they developed a program that listens to therapy sessions, then rates the therapist as either “high empathy” or “low empathy” based on a speech analysis.

Using therapist training sessions, the team taught the program to detect empathy cues in language. Phrases that signal the highest amounts of empathy include “it sounds like,” “do you think,” and “what I’m hearing.”

Kathy Hardie-Williams, MEd, MS, NCC, LPC, LMFT, said such phrases measure the extent to which a therapist hears and mirrors the emotions of people in therapy.

“Not to be confused with sympathy, empathy is a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another while seeing the situation from the other person’s perspective,” Hardie-Williams said. “Sympathy is a feeling of care or concern for another, but does not have the component of a shared perspective or shared emotions.”

The University of Southern California’s Signal Analysis and Interpretation Lab continues to improve upon the model. Researchers are now working to help the program analyze tone of voice, diction, and the extent to which a therapist mirrors the speech patterns of people in therapy.

The Role of Empathy in Therapy

Empathy is just one component of quality therapy, but Hardie-Williams said it is vital to people’s willingness to openly share with their therapists.

“I believe genuine empathy is important in therapy because in order to maintain the therapeutic alliance, [people] need to be able to perceive that the therapist can share [their] emotions and experiences,” Hardie-Williams said. “[People] who come in for therapy often have a deep shame core that gets in their way, and in order to process it, they need to share their shame with someone they feel emotionally safe with.”

Choosing a Therapist

Everyone may seek something different from a therapist, but in general it can be important to recognize some guidelines for effective therapy. People seeking a therapist should also be attuned to warning signs of bad or ineffective therapy.


Blumenthal, A. (2015, December 2). Can you tell if your therapist has empathy? Retrieved from

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Mickey

    December 9th, 2015 at 3:24 PM

    I really do hate the thought of things getting so impersonal.

  • Kendra

    December 10th, 2015 at 2:29 PM

    I know that this isn’t for everyone but think about how far technology is going to one day be able to take us. Just think about the changes that we have seen over the course of the past 20 years so think about how much there will be in another 20! I find all of this fascinating and exciting personally.

  • anna

    December 11th, 2015 at 10:18 AM

    so could this be used as a teaching tool for those in the therapy field?

    You know to maybe help improve their overall mannerisms and interactions with the people that they see on a professional basis?

  • Aida

    December 13th, 2015 at 11:05 AM

    THe ability and technology may be there but I would never want to trust this to a human.

  • Alene

    December 14th, 2015 at 10:39 AM

    Could there ever be a way that you would allow someone to observe your therapy sessions? Like if you could give consent for someone else to be in there and judging the efficacy of the treatment process? Would that ever be a possibility since if you consented then there should be no privacy violations?

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.


* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.