After Freud, CBT offers hope

Two of the pioneers of CBT were Jews – Pittsburgh-born psychologist Albert Ellis and University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist Dr. Aaron Beck. The long-lived Ellis (1913 to 2007) developed six decades ago what he called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.

Ellis is regarded as one of the founders of the cognitive paradigm shift in psychotherapy and the founder of cognitive-behavioral therapies.

His psychologist wife, Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis (who was much younger than him) was born and raised in Melbourne and became a mental health and adjunct professor at New York’s Columbia University. She worked with her husband until his death and is connected with a number of psychological associations in the US and Australia that are involved in CBT.

Beck independently carried out a number of clinical trials to test psychoanalytic concepts of depression. While he was certain that his studies would provide backing for Freudian ideas, he was amazed to find that they didn’t. Looking for other ways to deal with depression, Beck believed people suffering from clinical depression had “automatic streams of negative thoughts” about themselves, the world and/or the future; by helping them identify and evaluate these automatic thoughts, Beck said, they felt better and were able to function much better; surprisingly, these changes were not evanescent but lasting.

One of the forerunners of CBT – before cognitive theory was combined with behaviorism – was the noted Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, who was famous for his work on animal learning, digestion and salivation in dogs and his theories of classical conditioning. In his experiments, he found that if a buzzer was sounded when food was brought to them, eventually dogs learned to connect the noise to the food and would salivate reflexively even without the arrival of the food. Classical conditioning eventually served as a basis for some CBT treatment.

Another early forerunner was US psychologist B. F. Skinner, famous for his utopian novel Walden Two, who described his theories as “radical behaviorism” and believed that reinforcement shapes and controls behavior. Positive reinforcement, he said, was bolstering behavior with an event such as praise, while negative reinforcement is the strengthening of behavior via some unpleasant stimuli, such as punishment. These ideas too have been incorporated into CBT.