Aaron Beck

Aaron Beck (1921-) combined Rogers and Freud to create Cognitive Therapy. 

From Rogers, he takes the importance of developing a relationship with the client, and Roger’s emphasis on how you see the world (phenomenology). From Freud, Beck takes the importance of treating severe conditions, the value of a good medical education (Beck got his MD from Yale), and the great impact that internal processing has on external behavior.

But instead of Freudian conflicts, the heart of Beck’s approach is the impact of beliefs on behavior. What we believe impacts what we do. Just as our perceptual processes can be distorted, our thinking can be biased.

If we have an internal representation of ourselves as hopeless or unlovable, that cognitive bias will impact our behavior. We can make ourselves miserable by over-generalizing a bad day as all life being bad. We might magnify a small issue into a big issue, make everything all about us, or jump to conclusions before we have any evidence. All of these are problems of thinking. Beck’s approach, then, is to fix behavior by fixing the thinking and its underlying assumptions.

These assumptions are called schemas. They are assumptions about how the world operates. We generate rules about ourselves, other people, and the world in general. We decide whether we are good, whether others can be trusted, and whether the world is neutral, on our side or against us.

Some of these schemas are very general but many are specific to our experience and unique to us. We might have a general rule of life (be kind to others) and a very specific rule of how to act at home (never ask for advice from your mother unless you want to be criticized).

Schema and values are interchangeable. Values that are at the center of who we are. Think of them as super-schema or super-rules. A schema influences some behavior but values influence a lot of behaviors. If these core values are healthy, they are beneficial to us. But if our core beliefs are based on distortions of reality, we will systematically make errors of reasoning throughout our lives.

If our belief is that we are incapable of making good decisions, this cognitive bias will result in our being indecisive. Similarly, if we believe we are incompetent, we might expect failure and try to get other people to run our lives for us. If we believe we can’t make it through life without help, we might over-value our relationships. Alternatively, if we believe we must make it on our own, we might underestimate the value of intimacy.

The good news is that our personality is not fixed. For Beck, we are what we think. We construct our view of the world from our past experiences and internal processes. If our past twists our thinking, our challenge is to untwist it. Since our thinking causes a lot of our misery, we can make our lives better by examining our assumptions, testing reality and straightening out our thinking.

Despite his emphasis of cognition, Beck is surprisingly behavior oriented. In therapy, clients are taught to specify their behaviors, track them, and modify them. For Beck, thinking and doing are closely tied. Systematic cognitive distortions don’t really matter if they don’t show up in behavior. And teaching people to identify their dichotomous thinking (it has to be this or that; nothing in between) is of little value unless it produces a change of behavior. For Beck, it’s a thinking-doing combo.

Here is an intro to Beck’s logical thinking approach.


One Response to “Aaron Beck”

  1. Counseling Psychology : PsychNut on July 3rd, 2010 7:36 pm

    […] Adler, Alfred Beck, Aaron Ellis, Albert Frankl, Viktor Freud, Sigmund Jung, Karl Perls, Fritz Rogers, Carl Skinner, B.F. […]

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