It seems incredible that a successful form of psychological therapy could be based on telling people their thoughts are mistaken. And yet that is partly how cognitive therapy works.
This type of therapy has easily overtaking Freudian-style psychotherapy in recent decades to become the most popular form of treatment for depression, phobias and many other common psychological problems. The founding father of cognitive therapy is Aaron T. Beck a psychologist not well known to the lay public, but widely revered amongst psychologists. One of his studies is the third nomination for the Top Ten Psychology Studies.
Cognitive therapy was originally developed for the treatment of depression. In his work with patients Beck developed the idea that at the heart of depression lay one or more irrational beliefs (Beck, 1963). Here are a few examples:
- Over-generalisation. Drawing general conclusions from a single (usually negative) event. E.g. thinking that failing to be promoted at work means a promotion will never come.
- Minimalisation and Maximisation. Getting things out of perspective: e.g. either grossly underestimating own performance or overestimating the importance of a negative event.
- Dichotomous thinking – Thinking that everything is either very good or very bad so that there are no gray areas. In reality, of course, life is one big gray area.
These irrational beliefs took the form of ‘automatic thoughts’ which seemed to be accessible to conscious introspection. Beck thought depressed patients could be helped if therapists could challenge these irrational beliefs. At heart cognitive therapy encourages people to see that some of their thoughts are mistaken. By adjusting these thoughts it has been found that people’s emotional distress can be lessened.
For many people he treated, and for the many more subsequently treated with his – and related techniques – his methods have turned out to be remarkably effective. It’s no exaggeration to state that the ideas and techniques that have flowed from Beck’s study and similar findings brought about a revolution in treatment for many psychological disorders.