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What is Provocative Therapy?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Provocative therapy is a relatively uncommon form of therapy that tends to fly in the face of most therapeutic conventions. Developed by social worker Frank Farrelly, who at one time studied with Carl Rogers, the method could almost be called anti-therapy, since it does not primarily rely on accepted methods of interacting and communicating with clients in a supportive manner. Farrelly and others who practice this form of therapy would contend that they offer support, but they do it in a way that is very different. Instead of calmly listening, supporting the "good" impulses clients have, and helping them overcome the bad, they adopt a humorous devil’s advocate stance that specifically supports the "negative" impulses of their clients, so that clients must try to defend against these impulses when voiced.

It would be hard to describe exactly what provocative therapy might involve, but it would certainly encompass the devil’s advocate stance. It also incorporates elements of the absurd, with therapists sometimes making bizarre suggestions on how to solve things. Therapists could use vast amounts of exaggeration and essentially encourage clients to remain locked in their present mindsets, and this really has the specific goal of letting clients fight the negatives brought to light, while often shocking them with statements so absurd, they begin to abandon their usual patterns of thinking and set off in new directions.

Farrelly and others claim that provocative therapy leads to a variety of desired goals. Clients learn to defend, assert and affirm their better selves. They become less fearful and more likely to take risks or attach to others. Perception changes for the better, with greater experiments and testing of what is real.

These claims have not been studied with any degree of significance, and though people who practice provocative therapy claim success, it is difficult to imagine the therapy working under certain scenarios. The severely suicidal client who is told to “go ahead,” is one potential area of concern, though it would be hoped that even the most committed provocative therapist would understand the potential ramifications of such a statement and avoid it.

Mostly provocative therapy has caught on in parts of Europe, and in the US, it may be hard to find people fully trained in this method. Farrelly’s work suggests that some people respond well to the treatment. On a wide scale, there’s little evaluation of how effective this form of therapy could be, or whether it would be likely to suit all clients. Those unappreciative of humor or tongue in cheek statements might find this form of therapy challenging and counterproductive.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

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Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia...
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