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Computerized Psychotherapy

As I insinuated on the Teaching Clinical Psychology Page, computers will never be able to replace humans as psychotherapists. Nevertheless, by interacting with computer-simulated psychotherapy, students can understand the facets of effective psychotherapy by witnessing where computer simulations go wrong. They learn to appreciate the truly human dimension of psychotherapy, as well as explore exactly what beneficial role computers might indeed play in basic counseling and assessment. In my courses, students worked with the classic Eliza program. Below are two papers that describe and evaluate the exercise. If you'd like me to send you reprints, contact me by snailmail (see my vita) or email:

Suler, J.R. (1989). Eliza helps students grasp therapy. APA Monitor, 2, 30.

Suler, J.R. (1987). Computer-simulated psychotherapy as an aid in teaching clinical psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 14, 37-39.

There are various versions of Eliza, some more sophisticated than others. One version you can try out for yourself on the web. If you want to download the program from the net, try entering "Eliza." (with the period) into Veronica at Yahoo. That will give you a list of sites where you can get various versions of the program (as well as other stuff unrelated to the Eliza program). Be patient, though. Getting into Veronica and these other busy servers is not always easy. There's also information on the Eliza program at Carnegie Mellon University's Artifical Intelligence Repository and on Mark Humphrey's page at Cambridge University. A good version of Eliza by Tom Bender is sometimes part of the software package that comes with a new Macintosh. For an extensive discussion about computers and humans, see my online hypertext book The Psychology of Cyberspace.

Below is the instructions handout I give to my students.

Handout for the Eliza Exercise (copyright notice)

John Suler, Ph.D.
Rider University

Computerized Psychotherapy? - Meet "Eliza"

Eliza is a computer program that simulates what a therapist might say to you if you came for psychotherapy. However, the program was never intended to actually be used for psychotherapy. Its creators at MIT in the 196O's considered it an experiment in "artificial intelligence." As you will see, Eliza easily makes mistakes and can be led into saying rather ridiculous things. Nevertheless, it is useful for our understanding something about how psychotherapy should and should not be done, and about how we react to being "clients."


For the first part of this exercise, try to get help for some problem you are experiencing in your life. Respond to Eliza seriously - be honest about yourself. Try to get the program to be helpful. Don't try to trick it. Eliza is going to make mistakes and say silly things. Pretend that Eliza is a psychologist who is famous and very skilled, but a little hard of hearing or eccentric. Really try to get help despite the fact that Eliza will sometimes act strange. Pretend that Eliza really does know what's going on with you and can help.

During the second part of this exercise, take a different strategy. Now try to trick Eliza into saying ridiculous things. Play with it. Say whatever you want. Be outrageous. Do this in order to figure out how the program works.

Some Other Guidelines:

1. Do this alone, not with a friend. Would you want a friend to be with you if you went to a real psychotherapist? If you're with a friend you're going to fool around and/or hold back on being honest with Eliza - and I'll know this when I read your paper.

2. During the first part of the exercise, if Eliza starts to say ridiculous things or you get into a "rut", go back to your original problem. Try to state in a different way what you think your problem is.

3. Take notes while you work with Eliza.

4. You can respond to Eliza with words, or one or more sentences.

Writing Your Paper:

There will be three sections to your paper. TYPE each section, and double-space all lines. Use the following three headings:


Write this section as if you were writing in a journal for yourself. Don't worry about grammar, punctuation, typos, etc. Just write whatever comes to mind - whatever seems important. Include the following:

- What did you talk about with Eliza?
- Do any of Eliza's comments stand out in your mind?
- Was Eliza helpful? How?
- Did you have any insights into yourself?
- How would you describe Eliza's personality?
- Did you perceive Eliza as male or female? Why?
- Did you like or dislike Eliza?
- What thoughts and feelings did you have about Eliza?

** Before handing your paper in, blacken out (with a marker pen) anything personal that you don't want me to read. Keep a copy of the original, uncensored version for yourself.

2. MY ADVICE TO A FELLOW STUDENT (approx 2 pages):

In this section, pretend you are writing a newspaper article for students who might be thinking about going for psychotherapy. Give information and advice about: (a) what it's like to be in psychotherapy, (b) what "good" psychotherapists are like, and (c) what "bad" psychotherapists are like. Don't mention Eliza specifically, but draw on your experience with Eliza to write the article - i.e., based on your talk with Eliza, what advice would you give about psychotherapy?

3. MY ADVICE TO A PSYCHOLOGIST (approx 2-3 pages):

In this section, pretend you are a consultant who has been asked by a fellow psychologist to evaluate Eliza as a form of psychotherapy. Here you must sound professional and sophisticated. Look through your notebook and use important terms and concepts we discussed in class. UNDERLINE THESE TERMS IN YOUR PAPER. In your report, include the following:

- What Eliza did "right" and "wrong"
- The advantages/disadvantages of computerized therapy
- For what types of clients would Eliza be helpful, and unhelpful? Why?
- Discuss what psychoanalytic, behavioral, and humanistic therapists might think about Eliza (here terms and concepts from class are very important!) Which of these 3 type of therapists might find Eliza useful? Why?
- How might psychologists effectively use computers?

Enjoy your talk with Eliza.... And remember, it's just a computer.

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