Founder of Cognitive Therapy Dies at 100, Prompting Look at Field

developer of influential field of psychotherapy passes away

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Cognitive behavioral therapy revolutionized treating issues like anxiety and depression. Evolving from Freud’s primary focus on childhood problems, cognitive therapy centers on daily thought processes. Its founder, Dr. Aaron T. Beck, has died.

Man receiving cognitive therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy provides for a collaborative approach to therapy between the patient and the therapist. Photo By UfaBizPhoto / Shutterstock

Dr. Aaron T. Beck, the prominent psychotherapist who developed cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), died on November 1 at the age of 100. Dr. Beck began rethinking Freud’s brand of psychotherapy in the late 1950s and helped establish CBT, which focuses on the day-to-day lives of patients and their thought patterns—and how to change them. It’s become a wildly influential method of treatment in recent decades.

What makes it such a popular and effective field? In his video series Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Techniques for Retraining Your Brain, Dr. Jason M. Satterfield, Professor of Clinical Medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, explained some of the characteristics of CBT that differentiate it from other kinds of psychotherapy.

We’ve All Wondered What’s on That Notepad

“CBT is collaborative and transparent, and by ‘collaborative’ I mean that the patient and the therapist join together in a partnership,” Dr. Satterfield said. “They roll up their sleeves together; they begin collecting data on the problem from the individual’s real-world situations; they create a formulation; and then they develop a treatment plan together. It’s all done together as a team.”

According to Dr. Satterfield, it earns its reputation for transparency because each of those steps, as well as the reasons behind them, are explicitly told to the patient from the beginning. One of the most negative stereotypes about therapy is that the therapist keeps secretive notes and collects information on the patient while the patient metaphorically stumbles around in the dark.

CBT eschews that by including the patient every step of the way.

The Scientific Method Comes to Therapy

Another feature of CBT is that it’s empirical. In fact, this branch of psychotherapy is often described with the term “collaborative empiricism” to describe its method of treatment.

“We’ve talked about the collaborative part, but the empirical part is that we’ll come up with a hypothesis, an idea, of what makes Michael angry, or what makes Maria depressed, or what makes Carol socially anxious,” Dr. Satterfield said. “But it’s only a hypothesis. We then have to test out that hypothesis in the real world, usually by giving homework assignments.”

Much like the traditional use of the scientific method, the CBT patient does their homework and tests the hypothesis in practice. If it works, the patient goes to the next step. If not, the patient and therapist go back and repeat the process with a different hypothesis. However, it doesn’t go on forever: CBT has a time limit.

“There is an end point,” Dr. Satterfield said. “It varies on the individual—sometimes on the insurance company—but it usually ranges from 12 to, say, 24 sessions, depending on resources, severity, and what the treatment goals might be. It is skills-focused: We’re going to teach an individual skills that they can practice in the real world, come back and talk about obstacles or challenges, they will hone those skills and continue practicing until they feel that they have mastered those skills.”

Again, this goes against another longstanding stereotype of therapy—namely, that therapists want to keep a patient in treatment as long as possible.

For better or for worse, CBT is a major shift from previous schools of psychology. It’s made its mark on the industry and continues to influence other fields.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily