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History of Cognitive Behavior Therapy

Cognitive Therapy (CT), or Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), was pioneered by Dr. Aaron T. Beck in the 1960s, while he was a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania. Having studied and practiced psychoanalysis, Dr. Beck designed and carried out several experiments to test psychoanalytic concepts of depression. Fully expecting the research would validate these fundamental concepts, he was surprised to find the opposite.

A new concept of depression: automatic thoughts

As a result of his findings, Dr. Beck began to look for other ways of conceptualizing depression. He found that depressed patients experienced streams of negative thoughts that seemed to arise spontaneously. He called these cognitions “automatic thoughts.” He found that the patients’ automatic thoughts fell into three categories. The patients had negative ideas about themselves, the world and/or the future.

A new clinical approach

Dr. Beck began helping patients identify and evaluate these automatic thoughts. He found that by doing so, patients were able to think more realistically. As a result, they felt better emotionally and were able to behave more functionally. When patients changed their underlying beliefs about themselves, their world and other people, therapy resulted in long-lasting change. Dr. Beck called this approach “cognitive therapy.” It has also become known as “cognitive behavior therapy,” or “CBT.”

The future of cognitive therapy

In the years since its introduction, CBT has been studied and demonstrated to be effective in treating a wide variety of disorders. More than 2,000 studies have demonstrated its efficacy for psychiatric disorders, psychological problems and medical problems with a psychiatric component.

At Beck Institute, we continually study, practice, and teach the latest innovations in CBT. We established the Beck Institute Center for Recovery-Oriented Cognitive Therapy in 2019 to extend the impact of the field to individuals given a diagnosis of a serious mental health condition.


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