Aaron Beck, Albert Ellis and Cognitive Psychology

by M. Kathleen Holmes, M.S.

Cognitive therapy helps you feel better by helping you change your beliefs or expectations about yourself, the world, and about other people. Changing your thoughts and beliefs results in changes in your emotions.

Although ideas associated with cognitive psychology can be traced back to philosophers of fourth century B.C., it is Albert Ellis’s (1913-2007 ) who is said to be the grandfather of cognitive-behavioral therapy. His Rational-Emotive approach (established in 1955) is often viewed as the basis of the contemporary cognitive model. In his “A-B-C” model, the Activating event is linked through the Belief to the emotional Consequences. Our beliefs are often too extreme, such as the belief “Everyone should treat me with respect.” The aim of Rational-Emotive psychotherapy is to bring to light these irrational and maladaptive beliefs and their connection to the inappropriate emotional consequences. Replacing these beliefs with more rational attributions of situations (such as “I like for people to treat me with respect, but I realize that some people may not.”) leads to a reduction in negative emotions. Ellis’ approach is more recently referred to as Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT). He founded and currently serves as President Emeritus of the Albert Ellis Institute in New York City. For more information on Albert Ellis and his institute, see the official website.

Aaron Beck (1921- ) is considered by many to be the father of cognitive therapy. The cognitive model put forth by Beck assumes that a person’s experiences are active processes that result in cognitions (thoughts). These cognitions are intimately linked with schemas (assumptions, the way in which the patient appraises or interprets his/her environment). Cognitions reflect the patient’s appraisal of a situation, their “stream of consciousness”, and their conceptualization of self. It is these cognitions that ultimately determine their emotional states and behaviors. Disorders, therefore, are maintained by faulty assumptions or attitudes that are often grossly distorted. Therapy is focused on facilitating awareness of “cognitive distortions” (similar to Ellis’s “irrational beliefs”) and replacing these with more adaptive cognitions, ultimately leading to clinical improvement. In this time limited, directive therapy, the patient works collaboratively with the therapist to set treatment goals and assign homework. Eventually the patient is encouraged to use the skills learned in therapy to challenge maladaptive beliefs and attributions using objective evidence. As such, cognitive therapy can have enduring effects after formal treatment has terminated.

Aaron Beck is credited with the establishment of the efficacy of cognitive therapy in the treatment of depression. He and his students have also adapted cognitive therapy for the treatment of panic disorder, bulimia nervosa, hypochondriasis, social phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance abuse, body dysmorphic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Among Beck’s writings include a coauthored book (with John Rush, Brian Shaw, and Gary Emery) “Cognitive Therapy of Depression”, which was published in 1979. He is currently the Principle Investigator of several research studies and is Director of the Center for the Treatment and Prevention of Suicide and the Psychopathology Research Unit at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also serves as a professor in the Department of Psychiatry.