Paradox in Therapy: Playing Both Good Cop and Bad Cop

It’s a client’s mostly subconscious ambivalence that thwarts change.

Posted Feb 17, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

Artist's name omitted/Pixabay free image
Source: Artist's name omitted/Pixabay free image

Dramatizing a police procedural by including a good cop/bad cop scenario has become almost commonplace. Unfortunately, played for laughs (i.e., exaggerated), such scenesundercut the fact that used judiciously this approach can be surprisingly effective. It can convince someone to offer information or agree to something that otherwise they might not even consider.

Briefly, in such a manipulative scheme, the so-designated ”bad cop” interrogates the suspect aggressively, as part of a calculated design to agitate, intimidate, and antagonize him (or her). And such hostile interviewing naturally breeds in the one questioned both increased fear and counter-hostility.

Contrariwise, the far more ingratiating “good cop,” who generally participates actively in the investigation only after the bad cop has succeeded in alienating the defendant, projects a far calmer demeanor and demonstrates a more sympathetic understanding toward him. Moreover, the good cop, presumably advocating for the defendant, suggests the possibility of a lesser punishment if he’s cooperative.

What the alleged culprit doesn’t recognize is that it’s all a ruse: neither cop is on his side, and this is all a game plan devised to get him to provide additional data needed for his prosecution. On the contrary, their interest in getting him convicted has led them to cooperate with each other, through deceptively pretending to be at odds. Their supposedly conflicting stance is merely a clever way, especially if the accused hasn’t been responsive to preliminary questioning, of having him incriminate himself.

Such a surreptitious procedure has come under attack as unethical—and, in most instances, unnecessary. But with resistant, withholding individuals, it definitely has a place in an officer’s repertoire for obtaining information vital to a case. Moreover, this technique has long been employed in various contexts beyond law enforcement, most often in complex business negotiations. And ironically, it can be effectively administered by a single person playing dual roles.

It’s worth noting that some disgruntled parents have learned to adopt related negative or reverse psychology maneuvers with stubborn, defiant teenagers. Many therapists, too—particularly those inclined to implement what’s called therapeutic paradox—turn to these admittedly devious devices when, intuitively, they see them as offering a way out of treatment impasses.

And, it can hardly be overemphasized, such usage is emotionally advantageous not to themselves but to the client, since therapists can’t legitimately be seen as manipulative if their techniques are employed essentially for the welfare of the client.

What’s key to understanding the effectiveness of good cop/bad cop interventions is grasping the psychology underlying them. Obviously, almost anyone who’s addressed cordially and caringly will respond more favorably than when they’re approached roughly, or rudely. There’s also a strong inclination to respond in ways commensurate to how one has been addressed, returning warmth with warmth, coldness with reciprocal coldness.

Combining good cop with bad cop accentuates this inborn tendency, increasing the likelihood that a more benign, relaxed overture will prompt the recipient to enter into a collaborative (vs. combative) relationship with whomever might be attempting to alter their behavior.

It’s well known that regardless of how motivated clients may seem in making changes in their life, they invariably bring with them a certain ambivalence to the task. Even in supposedly simple situations, such as giving up smoking or becoming more assertive, thinking seriously about modifying or eliminating such entrenched behaviors can significantly raise their anxiety levels, which eventuates in counter-therapeutic reactions—like procrastination, avoidance, projection, and distraction.

For a therapist to condescendingly pontificate about, or challenge, the client’s resistance is both naive and insensitive in that the client probably has good reason (though largely unconscious) not to relinquish that which has become habitual. And if their resistance is now more or less “fixed,” it’s because it typically reduces still-haunting feelings of fear or shame.

After all, assuming their dysfunctional behavior enables them to feel less powerless and helps them manage their everyday life with less distress, then even though consciously they may desire change, subconsciously they may feel compelled to wage war against it. And being “of two minds” about something generally means that the internal battle is between the unconscious, feeling part of their brain and the conscious, rational (or neo-cortical) part.

Taking this emotional bias into account suggests the practicality of a therapist’s embracing an attitude that reflects (without strengthening) the client’s ambivalence. Besides paradoxical therapeutic orientations, the theory behind what’s known as Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET) is also broadly paradoxical in its sympathizing with client resistance and not (directly, at least) purposely advocating for change.

This highly respected approach, originally designed for treatment-resistant alcoholics, is currently utilized with a large variety of difficult-to-change behaviors. In operates in conjunction with the client’s ambivalence, matching it through the therapist’s own humble, scrupulously crafted indecisiveness. For the therapist conscientiously inquires about what might be inconvenient or downright harmful about the proposed change, and whether this really is a tenable time to be pursuing it.

So therapists, for example, are instructed to avoid any argumentation, to empathically roll with the client’s denials or pushbacks, and to search for underused and undervalued assets that they can both compliment a client for and encourage them to make greater use of.

In a sense, through accommodation and normalization (i.e., pathological labeling is prohibited), they “take over” the negative part of clients’ burdensome ambivalence, so the client can experience a new freedom, even liberation, in identifying more with the positive part and, autonomously, develop a more assured sense of self-efficacy.
Motivation from within—rather from without—increases the likelihood that the client will “own” any change taking place, experiencing a self-determination that eluded them earlier. For the therapist deliberately leaves things up to the client, vs. deciding on their own authority what’s best for them (though the therapist does regularly, though cautiously, point out what they might wish to consider).

The pivotal text for therapists using this change-inducing method notes:

[The] goal of the therapist is to get the client to more accurately grasp the consequences of his dysfunctional behavior and to begin devaluing its perceived positive aspects. When MET is conducted properly, the client and not the therapist voices the argument for change. . . . This strategy can be particularly useful with clients who present in a highly oppositional manner and who seem to reject every idea or suggestion. (from Motivational Enhancement Therapy Manual, 1992)

Beyond MET, many paradoxical methods exist that strategically confuse and surprise clients, curiously inviting them to go deeper and re-examine ingrained but self-defeating behaviors. Still, these therapists appreciate that such negative behaviors have favorable aspects to them as well.

My own book on this subject (Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy, 1986), delineates a plethora of these counter-intuitive methods—and how and why they work. Here I’ll simply suggest that most are designed to promote change by joining the client in therapeutically doubting them. Although the therapist’s words to the client are benign (“good cop”) vs. biting (“bad cop”), their remarks might, immediately, seem almost to downgrade change.

And this takes us right back to where we started—that it’s a client’s largely subconscious ambivalence that thwarts change. So therapists can increase their chances of success by honoring this adverse side of a client’s indecision.

It’s as though therapists contrive to subsume, or soften, the bad cop’s hard-hearted approach through integrating it with the good cop’s understanding and compassionate support. By bringing to light and paying sympathetic homage to the client’s subconscious reluctance toward change, they prompt the client—independently—to identify more energetically and committedly to the positive part of their ambivalence.  

The therapist’s kindly hesitation in reflecting aloud that “maybe this could just be too difficult for you”—even as they’re emphasizing the client’s resources to effectively handle such change—can prompt the client to respond: “No, I think I can start doing the things we’ve been talking about. And this time I’ll have more guidance and backing than I did before.”

© 2021 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.