Associate Professor of Psychology


Why do some people relate to others in dysfunctional ways even though this leads to disappointments and distress? In my current research, I am addressing this issue based on a model I have developed about "interpersonal defense." My approach to defense shifts the focus away from the traditional emphasis on intrapsychic mechanisms regulating a person’s inner state. Instead, it calls for (1) viewing defense primarily as interpersonal behavior, (2) conceptualizing and operationalizing defensive interpersonal behavior as a special type of problematic interaction pattern characterized by breaches in how discourse is organized over time, that is, failures in what I call "coordination" (e.g., unmarked shifts of topic, rejecting accurate paraphrases), and (3) focusing on the role defensive interpersonal behavior plays in social interactions as a way of impacting subsequent interaction events.

The last point is probably the most important. People behave defensively because in some respects this leads to desired outcomes. Unfortunately, it is also true that the "feed forward effects” of interpersonal defense include unintended negative consequences. Among other things, the part of the theory that concerns these feed forward effects includes a novel formulation of the self-fulfilling prophesy idea.

My current work on the theory focuses on patients with personality disorders treated as part of the Brief Psychotherapy Research Program at Beth Israel Medical Center. I am employing a case formulation approach based on the theory to carefully examine defensive interpersonal behavior and its consequences in the context of therapy sessions.

My work on interpersonal defense grows out of an ongoing line of psychotherapy process research I have been pursuing for some time. In that line of research, I have developed an approach to studying patients’ contribution to the alliance based on my interests in coordination. I have found that assessments of patient interpersonal behavior in terms of processes of coordination are essentially orthogonal to the types of processes investigated in most other studies in this area and that coordination measures predict a large percentage of variance in treatment outcome over and above more commonly studied variables. This work has also led to interesting findings about the mechanisms of therapeutic change.

My research on interpersonal defense extends this work on patient coordination. It may provide answers to key questions raised by the research on patient coordination such as why patients behave in noncoordinating ways (with a therapist and in other relationships as well) and just how these problematic processes work against successful outcome. I hope to be able to build upon my research on coordination and interpersonal defense with studies aimed at discovering especially helpful ways for therapists to intervene when patients take a defensive stance in the treatment context.

Philosophical Psychology

In addition to empirical research activities, I am actively involved in theoretical projects in which I consider links between philosophical matters on the one hand and, on the other hand, (a) basic questions about methods for studying human behavior, and (b) fundamental issues about how to formulate theories in psychology. The philosophical perspective that informs my approach to these theoretical projects (and my empirical research as well) is based on Merleau-Ponty, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and also the pragmatists. My theory of interpersonal defense is closely linked to my interests in philosophy. The theory reflects a fundamental perspective that takes as its cornerstone notion the idea that a person is situated in the world. Many features of the theory, including its focus on the role played by defensive behavior as a way of influencing relationship events, follow from this general perspective.

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- A.B., Philosophy, Harvard University, 1971
- Ph.D., Clinical Psychology, University of Southern California, 1980

Additional Appointment:

Consulting Faculty, Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Beth Israel Medical Center (2006-present)


- American Psychological Association
- Association for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry
- New York State Psychological Association
- Society for the Exploration of Psychotherapy Integration
- Society for Psychotherapy Research
- Society for Interpersonal Theory and Research


- Phi Beta Kappa
- Sigma Xi
- Social Science Research Council Research Training Fellowship
- Honorary Appointment: Associate Clinical Professor, Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies, Adelphi University
- University of Southern California Beaumont Fellowship
- National Institute of Mental Health Postdoctoral Fellowship

Editorial Board:

- Psychotherapy Research (1996 – 2004, 2010 – present)
- Journal of Counseling Psychology (2005 - present)
- Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology (2008 - present)

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Selected Publications

Westerman, M. A., & Yanchar, S. C. (Eds.) (2011). Quantitative research in an interpretive vein (Special Issue). Theory & Psychology. 21, 139-274.

Westerman, M. A., & Yanchar, S. C. (2011). Changing the terms of the debate: Quantitative methods in explicitly interpretive research. Theory & Psychology, 21,139-154.

Westerman, M A. (2011). Conversation analysis and interpretive quantitative research on psychotherapy process and problematic interpersonal behavior. Theory & Psychology, 21, 155-178.

Westerman, M. A. (2009). What can we learn from case studies? More than most psychologists realize. Pragmatic Case Studies in Psychotherapy, Vol. 5(3), Article 5, 53-70. Available:

Westerman, M. A., & Steen, E. M. (2009). Revisiting conflict and defense from an interpersonal perspective: Using structured role plays to investigate the effects of conflict on defensive interpersonal behavior. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 26, 379-401.

Westerman, M. A., & Steen, E. M. (2007). Going beyond the internal-external dichotomy in clinical psychology: The theory of interpersonal defense as an example of the participatory approach. Theory & Psychology, 17, 323-351.

Dahmen, B., A., & Westerman, M. A. (2007). Expectations about the long-term consequences of recurring defensive interpersonal behavior. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 1073-1090.

Yanchar, S. Y., & Westerman, M. A. (Eds.) (2006). Reconsidering quantitative research approaches: New interpretations and future possibilities (Special Issue). New Ideas in Psychology, 24(3).

Westerman, M. A. (2006). Quantitative research as an interpretive enterprise: The mostly unacknowledged role of interpretation in research efforts and suggestions for explicitly interpretive quantitative investigations. New Ideas in Psychology, 24, 189-211.

Westerman, M. A., & Prieto, D. M. (2006). Expectations about the short-term functional role played by defensive behavior in interpersonal interactions. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 1015-1037.

Westerman, M. A. (2005). What is interpersonal behavior? A post-Cartesian approach to problematic interpersonal patterns and psychotherapy process. Review of General Psychology, 9, 16-34 .

Westerman, M. A. (2004). Theory and research on practices, theory and research as practices: Hermeneutics and psychological inquiry. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 24, 123-156.

Westerman, M. A. (1998). Reconceptualizing defense as a special type of problematic interpersonal behavior pattern: A fundamental breach by an agent-in-a-situation. The Journal of Mind and Behavior, 19, 257-302.

Westerman, M. A., Foote, J. P., & Winston, A. (1995). Change in coordination across phases of psychotherapy and outcome: Two mechanisms for the role played by patients' contribution to the alliance. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 63, 672-675.

Westerman, M. A., & Foote, J. P. (1995). Patient coordination: Contrasts with other conceptualizations of patients' contribution to the alliance and validity in insight-oriented psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, 32, 222-232.

Westerman, M. A. (1993). A hermeneutic approach to integration: Psychotherapy within the circle of practical activity. In G. Stricker & J. Gold (Eds.), The comprehensive handbook of psychotherapy integration (pp. 187-216). New York: Plenum Press.

Westerman, M. A. (1990). Coordination of maternal directives with preschoolers' behavior in compliance problem and healthy dyads. Developmental Psychology, 26, 621-630.

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Michael A. Westerman
Associate Professor of Psychology

Department of Psychology
New York University
244 Greene Street, Room 508
New York, NY 10003
Phone: (212) 998-7936
Fax: (212) 995-4687

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