Profile of quiet revolutionary Aaron Beck

Aaron Beck is the creator of one of the world’s most widely used and influential psychological treatments, cognitive behavioural therapy, and he’s profiled in an excellent article for The American Scholar.

While Beck is most associated with CBT, the article really nails why he is important in the development of psychological treatment, and its not just for the therapy he invented: from the very beginning he scientifically tested the effectiveness and principles his treatment meaning it has constantly changed and developed according to a solid research base.

If this seems obvious to you, you need to understand a little about the history of psychotherapy before Beck applied systematic testing to his own invention.

Previously, changes in psychotherapy were largely driven by the persuasiveness and personalities of the leading lights rather than systematic evidence for effectiveness.

In many forms of therapy, especially Freudian-inspired schools, the therapist’s own personality was considered to be intimately tied up with their methods, theories and techniques, meaning that rubbishing someone’s approach also meant you were rubbishing their skill as a therapist and, often, them personally.

In the early days of psychoanalysis, a common put-down used by Freud and his disciples was that a theory they didn’t like was bad because it was tainted by the unresolved conflicts of the author. The problem, in other words, was not with the idea, but with the author.

Beck approached psychological treatment with scientific tools and immediately distanced the practice from the personal. Ideas could be put forward, tested and it was expected that many of them would fail in the face of the data.

As a result, critical reviews of the evidence are considered the life blood of the treatment.

This research-led approach has not arrived without ruffling a few feathers. Recently, as health services have decided only to fund evidence-based treatments, CBT has become the treatment of choice and other therapies have been pushed out as they’ve traditionally not been interested in doing systematic studies.

As a result, critics have argued that CBT has been moulded to fit health economics rather than human nature. The debate continues and is likely to continue for some time.

The American Scholar article is an engaging piece looking at Beck himself, a famously reserved character in the flamboyant world of therapy, and the development of his treatment.

Incidentally, it’s written by Daniel Smith who wrote the wonderful book on hearing voices called Muses, Madmen and Prophets that I highly recommend.

Link to American Scholar article ‘The Doctor Is In’.

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