Aaron Beck Theory – His Contribution To Psychology

By Stephanie Kirby|Updated April 14, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Melinda Santa, LCSW

If you're interested in the history of psychology, Aaron Beck is a name that you might recognize. So, who exactly is Aaron Beck, and what were his contributions to psychology as a field?

Wondering How Aaron Beck Influenced Modern Psychology?

Who Is Aaron Beck?

There are many individuals in history and today who have studied mental health and developed theories based on their studies. One of these individuals is Aaron T. Beck. Born in 1921, he is known as the father of Cognitive Therapy, which is now most commonly referred to as cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT.  Beck graduated from Brown University in Providence, RI (USA) in 1942 and obtained a degree from Yale Medical School in 1946. He started his work in the field of psychology with a psychoanalytic approach. However, after conducting research focused on depression, Beck discovered new theories and ideas that led to the eventual development of CBT. Nowadays, CBT is used for far more than depressive disorders and is one of the most widely known modalities of mental health therapy. In addition to his research, work with clients, and multiple awards, Beck has authored and contributed to many books on CBT, depression, and other topics. In 1994, Aaron T. Beck founded the 501(c)3 nonprofit Beck Institute with Judith S. Beck, his daughter. The latter is a psychologist and author, as well as the president of the organization.

Aaron Beck Psychology Contribution

The research of Aaron T. Beck opened the door for many new ideas in the world of psychology. Beck has been named one of the "Americans in history which shaped the face of American Psychiatry" as well as one of the "five most influential psychotherapists of all time." He has made a lasting impact on the mental health world through his work.  Before his research, the concepts of CBT were more or less unheard of. Now, research shows that it's among one of the most effective approaches for various mental health concerns and conditions.

What Is Cognitive Therapy?

Cognitive therapy is a modality and approach that focuses on thought patterns and behaviors. In CBT, you challenge maladaptive thoughts so that your thinking supports you, your goals, your mental health, and your life overall.

Prior to the emergence of CBT, individuals in the field focused primarily on a client's past experiences. When working with individuals living with depression, Beck noticed common thought patterns related to underlying negative beliefs or habitual maladaptive thoughts. These thoughts are called "automatic thoughts." In Aaron T. Beck's work, he discovered how automatic negative thoughts impact a person's behavior and how they feel.

Let's say that you don't hear from a few friends and think to yourself, "No one likes me. I don't matter." This could be an example of automatic thought. In CBT, you might challenge that thought by saying, "Not hearing from my friends is not concrete proof that they don't like me, nor is it proof that I don't matter. What else could be going on in their life? Perhaps, I could reach out to them."

Beck believed that if one challenges the thoughts that aren't serving them and replace them with thoughts that do,  it could positively impact their mental health. As with the example above, this process provides a more realistic and helpful view.

Time and time again, this has proven to be true in many cases. Although the concept of CBT was born out of Becks work with those living with depression, CBT is now used for the following concerns and more:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Insomnia
  • Stress
  • Anger

It isn't a one size fits all approach, either. There are different variations of CBT, such as CBT-I (short for cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia), that either focus on specific conditions or use cognitive therapy as a foundation but differ from standard CBT in some ways.

About Cognitive Distortions

We all have negative thoughts at times, often instinctual. Unrealistic negative thoughts - or maladaptive thoughts that aren't reflective of reality - are called cognitive distortions. Common cognitive distortions may include but aren't limited to:

  • Overgeneralization
  • Mental filtering
  • All or nothing thinking
  • Disqualifying the positive
  • Emotional reasoning
  • Mind reading
  • Fortune telling
  • "Should" statements
  • Catastrophizing

When we can identify something as a cognitive distortion, we can challenge it with the objective reality. For example, if your automatic thought is a should statement such as, "I should not be sad. I have no reason to be upset!" you could reframe that by saying, "there is no right or wrong way to feel." Although feelings are not facts, they are all valid and worthy of the experience.

Other Contributions Of Aaron T. Beck

Here are some of the other ideas or theories that Aaron T. Beck has contributed to psychology.

Dysfunctional Belief Themes

Beck hypothesized that there were three main types of dysfunctional beliefs, or thoughts, that occur when a person experiences depression:

  1. "I am defective or inadequate." When people experience depression, they may personalize events or actions. They believe that the reason that negative things happen to them is that they are inadequate or defective. So, instead of seeing that there may be an outside cause of a situation, they internalize the situation, believing that it happened because there is something wrong with them.
  2. "All of my experiences result in defeats or failure." This type of thinking keeps someone living with depression in the state for even longer. They may not want to try something new or get the help they need because they fail at everything they do. If they are going to fail anyway, then why even try would be a question they would ask themselves.
  3. "The future is hopeless." Feelings of hopelessness are a common symptom seen in those living with depression, so this is a common and well-known belief that can show up for those experiencing depression. That does not mean that the future is hopeless, where thought reframe and other tools can come in.

Beck called these three types of dysfunctional thoughts the Negative Cognitive Triad. His theory is that these are three hallmark beliefs that tend to present when someone experiences depression.

Beck Depression Inventory

In addition to Beck's recognition for cognitive therapy, he also created the Beck Depression Inventory. The inventory is a simple questionnaire with 21 items. These 21 items are used to determine scores of depression. The items within the inventory include things like guilt, work difficulty, insomnia, change in body image, loss of libido, pessimism, self-dislike, sense of failure, and mood.

A person goes through the questionnaire, chooses how they feel for each area, and receives a score after determining their answer to each question on a scale of 0 to 3.

Here is an example:

0 - I don't feel disappointed in myself

1 - I am disappointed in myself

2 - I am disgusted with myself

3 - I hate myself

After completing each section, they add up their points to see which range they fall into. The lower the score is, the less indicative of depression or depressive disorder is. The higher the score, the more indicative of depression or a depressive disorder is. We see screeners used like this all of the time in clinical settings, including the office of primary care providers, psychiatrist's offices, and in therapy.

Wondering How Aaron Beck Influenced Modern Psychology?

The Lasting Impact Of Aaron Beck

As of 2021, Aaron T. Beck is 100 years old. Without the work of Aaron Beck, many people might not have received the treatment that they needed to improve their quality of life. Neuroplasticity shows that we can indeed change our brains, and that's part of why theories surrounding cognitive therapy are as effective as they are. Nowadays, a wide range of studies shows the efficacy of cognitive-behavioral therapy across many groups. CBT is often a short-term form of treatment, and it gives you tools that you can use in your daily life to support your mental health and thought processes.

However, some criticize the ideas of Aaron T. Beck. Often, this criticism comes from the belief that cognitive therapy ignores real-life problems. However, this does not need to be the case; it is possible to use CBT concepts with the nuance of real-world issues in mind. It is possible to use CBT or CBT concepts in conjunction with other therapeutic modalities. A combination of approaches can, and often are, used to treat various conditions and concerns. Though the world of psychology continues to shift and change as time goes on, many of Beck's discoveries remain relevant and foundational to date.

Find Support

There are many different types of therapy or therapeutic modalities out there. Regardless of if you're seeking support for a mental health condition like depression, life stress, or something else that is impacting you, we all need help from time to time. To find support in the form of a counselor or therapist, you can ask your doctor for a referral, perform a search on the web, utilize an online directory, see what is covered by your insurance, or sign up for an online therapy platform with licensed providers like BetterHelp. Online therapy is a convenient way to get care, and BetterHelp makes it simple to get started. Regardless of how you decide to search for a counselor or therapist, don't hesitate to take the first step today.

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