Aaron Beck was a contemporary psychiatrist who played a seminal role in the development of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Personal Life

Aaron T. Beck was the youngest of five children, born on July 18, 1921, in Rhode Island. He graduated from Brown University in 1942 and was an exemplary student, achieving magna cum laude and earning the William Gaston Prize for Excellence in Oratory and the Francis Wayland Scholarship. He continued his studies at Yale Medical School, where he earned his medical degree in 1946.

His daughter, Dr. Judith Beck, is a cognitive therapy researcher and president of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

On November 1, 2021, at the age of 100, Dr. Aaron Beck passed away. 

Professional Life

Although Beck spent most of his career studying psychoanalysis, in the 1960s, Beck's research deviated significantly from traditional psychoanalytic methods, focusing instead on distorted thoughts that led to problematic behaviors. While working as a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania, Beck struggled to find a way to help his depressed clients better capture their emotions. He realized that many of his depressed clients experienced recurring negative thoughts and that as long as they believed these thoughts to be true, they would continue to have symptoms of depression. He theorized that in order to change the symptoms, he must change their distorted thinking. This belief led to the development of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Beck was the recipient of the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for his creation of cognitive therapy. In addition, he was an Honorary President of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Beck spent much of his career at the University of Pennsylvania and advocated for the application of cognitive behavioral therapy in the treatment of depression and other mood problems. He also served as the President Emeritus of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research and the director of the Psychopathology Research Unit at the University of Pennsylvania.

Contribution to Psychology

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy that focuses on changing negative thought patterns to effect changes in behavior. This goal-oriented approach is an effective treatment for many psychological issues, including mood problems, eating issues, substance use problems, anxiety, and depression. CBT can be delivered individually and in group settings that allow clients to collaborate with each other and their therapists for their own treatment.

Over the years, CBT has evolved to encompass a wide variety of disciplines, including exposure therapy, art therapy, brief therapy, and others. CBT strives to keep the client aware of the present while enlightened to the past. Rather than reliving past traumas or exploring childhood issues, CBT encourages a client to understand how the past affects present behaviors and thoughts. Armed with this knowledge, clients are then able to begin to transform learned reactions that cause problems in their present lives. CBT works on changing negative thought patterns into healthy ones that result in positive, constructive behaviors. Consequently, CBT doesn't necessarily require that a person discover why a certain negative thought pattern exists. Instead, the key is recognizing and understanding the thought process and stopping it before it starts. 

A person's core beliefs, according to Beck, can affect mood and overall mental health. Automatic thoughts—such as “I'll fail at that,” or “This will go poorly”—reveal negative core beliefs that can lead to depression. CBT helps to educate depressed people about their habitual thought patterns and helps them develop alternative thought patterns, as well as strategies for eliminating unhealthy, automatic thoughts.

Beck developed the Beck Hopelessness Scale, which consists of twenty statements with which a person can agree or disagree. The scale measures feelings about the future and is sometimes used to evaluate suicide risk. The Beck Depression Inventory, which is often used in conjunction with the Hopelessness Scale, consists of 21 multiple-choice questions that evaluate depression. It remains one of the most widely used diagnostic tests for depression. It measures both affective states, such as a depressed mood, and somatic states, such as loss of appetite or aches and pains. 

Books by Aaron Beck

  • The Diagnosis and Management of Depression (1967)
  • Depression: Causes and Treatment (1972)
  • Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders (1975)
  • Cognitive Therapy of Depression (with John Rush, Brian Shaw, & Gary Emery, 1979)
  • Cognitive Therapy in Clinical Practice: An Illustrative Casebook (with Jan Scott & Mark Williams, 1989)
  • The Integrative Power of Cognitive Therapy (with Brad Alfred, 1998)
  • Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence (1999)
  • Scientific Foundations of Cognitive Theory and Therapy of Depression (with David Clark, 1999)
  • Cognitive Therapy of Personality Disorders (with Arthur Freeman, 2003)
  • Cognitive Therapy with Inpatients: Developing A Cognitive Milieu (with Jesse Wright, Michael Thase, & John Ludgate, 2003)
  • Cognitive Therapy With Chronic Pain Patients (with Carrie Winterowd & Daniel Gruener, 2003)
  • Anxiety Disorders And Phobias: A Cognitive Perspective (with Gary Emergy & Ruth Greenberg, 2005)
  • Schizophrenia: Cognitive Theory, Research, and Therapy (with Neil Rector, Neal Stolar, & Paul Grant, 2008)
  • Cognitive Therapy of Anxiety Disorders: Science and Practice (with David Clark, 2010)