Your Computer Therapist Will See You Now

Computer-based cognitive-bias modification therapy appears to work with some patients with a drinking problem.

To boost treatment success, his team developed cognitive-bias modification, or CBM, which, for the first time, “tries to turn around those impulsive responses.” This newly developed CBM variety employs video-game-like “approach-avoidance tasks”: pushing or pulling a joystick in response to images on a screen. Pulling zooms in on the image, as if the participant were “approaching” it. Pushing zooms out, in “avoidance.”

The team’s earlier studies found that heavier drinkers, shown images of alcoholic beverages or soft drinks, are faster to “pull” the alcohol than lighter drinkers – but CBM can turn this “approach bias” into an “avoidance bias.”

Could CBM help serious alcoholics? In this study Wiers and his collaborators – Carolin Eberl and Johannes Lindenmeyer of the Salus Clinic in Lindow, Germany, and Mike Rinck and Eni S. Becker of Radboud University – recruited 214 inpatients at the Salus Clinic. Three weeks after detoxification, the patients were assessed for their craving for alcohol, as well as their attraction to it, indicated by joystick and word-association tasks.

One group of patients then received CBM: they were trained to push away pictures of alcoholic drinks. The control groups either received “sham” training or none at all. Four 15-minute sessions were conducted on four consecutive days.

When retested a week later, the CBM participants’ “approach bias for alcohol had changed to an avoidance bias, on a variety of tests,” said Wiers. The control groups showed no such changes.

Science fiction readers have had plenty of sessions with computer therapists; consider the Sigfrid von Shrink from Frederik Pohl's 1970 novel Gateway, Dr. Smile from Philip K. Dick's 1965 novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and the machine psychologists from James Blish's 1957 novel Cities in Flight.

Via The Behavioral Medicine Report.

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