Using person-specific networks in psychotherapy: challenges, limitations, and how we could use them anyway

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)
48 Downloads (Pure)


The complexity of psychopathology is evident from its multifactorial etiology and diversity of symptom profiles and hampers effective treatment. In psychotherapy, therapists approach this complexity by using case conceptualization. During this process, patients and therapists closely collaborate on a personalized working theory of the patient’s psychopathology. This is a challenging process and shows low reliability between therapists. With the experience sampling method (ESM), time-series data—valuable for case conceptualization—can be systematically gathered in a patient’s normal daily life. These data can be analyzed and visualized in person-specific networks (PSNs). PSNs may support case conceptualization by providing a schematic representation of association patterns between affective, cognitive, behavioral, and context variables.

Main text
We adopt a clinical perspective in considering how PSNs might be implemented to serve case conceptualization and what their role could be in psychotherapy. We suggest PSNs to be based on personalized ESM assessment to capture the unique constellation of variables in each patient. We reflect on the lack of a gold standard for creating PSNs, which may result in substantially different PSNs and thereby disparate information for case conceptualization. Moreover, even if PSNs are created in a consistent manner, results remain ambiguous as they are subject to multiple interpretations. Therefore, associations in PSNs do not allow for firm conclusions about a patient’s psychopathology, but they may nevertheless be valuable in the process of case conceptualization. PSNs are based on systematically gathered, ecologically valid ESM data and provide a unique personalized perspective. When used responsibly, PSNs may be able to support case conceptualization by generating questions that serve as a starting point for a dialog between therapists and patients. Well-targeted questions are an essential tool for therapists to gain insight into the patients’ psychopathology patterns and improve the quality of case conceptualization.

PSNs have limitations in terms of the reliability of the insights they provide directly. However, taking these challenges into account, we believe they have potential as a tool to help therapists and patients in their collaborative exploration of a patient’s psychopathology. Clearly, this would need to be validated in future clinical research.
Original languageEnglish
Article number345
Number of pages8
JournalBMC Medicine
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 23-Dec-2020


  • Person-specific networks
  • Case conceptualization
  • Experience sampling method
  • Idiographic models

Cite this