The omnipotence of voices. A cognitive approach to auditory hallucinations.

P Chadwick , M Birchwood


We offer provisional support for a new cognitive approach to understanding and treating drug-resistant auditory hallucinations in people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Study 1 emphasises the relevance of the cognitive model by detailing the behavioural, cognitive and affective responses to persistent voices in 26 patients, demonstrating that highly disparate relationships with voices-fear, reassurance, engagement and resistance-reflect vital differences in beliefs about the voices. All patients viewed their voices as omnipotent and omniscient. However, beliefs about the voice's identity and meaning led to voices being construed as either 'benevolent' or 'malevolent'. Patients provided cogent reasons (evidence) for these beliefs which were not always linked to voice content; indeed in 31% of cases beliefs were incongruous with content, as would be anticipated by a cognitive model. Without fail, voices believed to be malevolent provoked fear and were resisted and those perceived as benevolent were courted. However, in the case of imperative voices, the primary influence on whether commands were obeyed was the severity of the command. Study 2 illustrates how these core beliefs about voices may become a new target for treatment. We describe the application of an adapted version of cognitive therapy (CT) to the treatment of four patients' drug-resistant voices. Where patients were on medication, this was held constant while beliefs about the voices' omnipotence, identity, and purpose were systematically disputed and tested. Large and stable reductions in conviction in these beliefs were reported, and these were associated with reduced distress, increased adaptive behaviour, and unexpectedly, a fall in voice activity. These changes were corroborated by the responsible psychiatrists. Collectively, the cases attest to the promise of CT as a treatment for auditory hallucinations.