As It Happens

Dr. Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive behavioural therapy, dies at 100

When Allen Miller first walked into Dr. Aaron Beck's class at the eponymous Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy in 1994, he was filled with awe and dread. But the kind, jovial professor in his signature red bowtie soon put his new student at ease.

When Beck 1st proposed CBT for as an alternative to psychoanalysis, his peers rejected him

Dr. Aaron Beck, the pioneer of cognitive behavioural therapy, has died at the age of 100. (Joe del Tufo/2016 Moonloop Photography/Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy)

Story Transcript

Allen Miller was filled with awe and dread when he first walked into Dr. Aaron Beck's class at the eponymous Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy in 1994.

After all, this was the man who pioneered the concept of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in the 1960s, and in doing so, revolutionized the field of psychology. 

"I wanted to make a good impression on him," Dr. Miller, who is now the CBT program director of the Beck Institute, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

But the kind, jovial professor in his signature red bowtie soon put his new student at ease with his humble, down-to-earth personality — traits Miller continued to admire over years as he and Beck became colleagues and friends. 

Beck, considered the father of CBT, died on Monday at his Philadelphia home. He was 100 years old. The following is an excerpt from Allen's conversation with Off about his late professor and mentor. 

Dr. Beck is known for creating cognitive behavioural therapy … and so maybe you can just give us a sense of this enormous contribution that Aaron Beck made.

The cognitive model, simply put, says that the way that we think about things is correlated with the way that we feel and our actions in response to situations and things that occur in life.

Cognitive therapy tells us that if we are able to help a person to change the way that they think about something, even to the slightest degree, that that will also affect their mood and their behaviour.

It can work in reverse as well, so that if we can help somebody to learn a new behaviour and they feel competent and or get pleasure from that, then they will feel better and that they will begin to think differently about themselves or the situation.

This is a quote from what he said about depression in people. He said that there is "an astonishing contrast between the depressed person's image of himself and the objective facts." That a wealthy man thinks he can't feed his children. A beautiful person thinks they should have plastic surgery. Very, very bright people think they're stupid. And so he observed this disconnect. And then, what was he trying to do? 

To help you to recognize all of the facts. 

When a brilliant person who thinks of himself or herself as being stupid may have one time in an elementary school gotten a C on a test and think that because they don't have a perfect record, that that somehow is indicative of their overall level of intelligence. And they disregard all of the accomplishments that they might have had since that time. 

And so rather than telling people to think differently about themselves, we use a Socratic method or guided discovery to help them to look at all of the evidence — not just that evidence that supports that belief that they're stupid or that they're ugly or that they're incompetent in some way.

Dr. Aaron Beck, left, during a panel discussion featuring his student-turned-colleague Dr. Allen Miller, second from the right, and Beck Institute president Dr. Judith Beck, right. (Joe del Tufo/2018 Moonloop Photography/Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy)

This is just so common a practice now. But it was revolutionary when Dr. Beck was trying to introduce this, because it went sort of against the Freudian idea of therapy. This was actually the opposite of Freudian theory, isn't it?

I won't say the opposite, but certainly very, very different.

Dr. Beck was a trained psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and what he set out to do through research was to prove the psychoanalytic model was correct.

The psychoanalytic model … believes that people had a need to suffer, and that was what their depression was related to. Dr. Beck set up experiments and set out to validate that idea that people who had depression had a need to suffer.

But his results didn't support that. And his results really, over time, showed that people who had depression really suffered loss and had [a] fear of failure, or thought of themselves as being failures.

So he presented his results to his colleagues who were psychoanalysts at the time. He was not well received. 

But over time, by building research, by training psychiatric residents and psychologists and other mental health professionals, the idea became more acceptable. And perhaps the main reason it became more acceptable is because it worked. People got better. And so it's really hard to argue against success.

He believed [in] those forgotten people, or people who were considered to be too disordered to be able to be helped.- Dr. Allen Miller, Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy

I understand that in his latter years, Dr. Beck was pursuing giving help to forgotten groups of people, like people who had drug addictions and late-stage schizophrenia — people who were not getting the kind of attention they needed. That he was, until quite late in his life, trying to improve other people's lives. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Actually, he was working until just a few days ago on it. Because despite being 100 years of age, he was still working on a regular basis. He was just a phenomenal person in that way. Someone to be admired.

He believed [in] those forgotten people, or people who were considered to be too disordered to be able to be helped. The thing that he saw in them was the strength, the abilities, the positive characteristics that they had. And when he started working with them, rather than focusing just on the negative aspects of the problems that they were having, he worked on identifying their values and their aspirations in life.

One story that he would often tell was that he worked with a patient … who believed that he was Jesus Christ. And the average person being told that by another person might begin to think about descriptive terms of that person, and then might write them off and say, you know, "This person is just obviously not in touch with reality."

Dr. Beck had a whole different way of thinking. And he was the most inquisitive person that, perhaps, I've ever met. And so when meeting this person ... Dr. Beck asked him, "What is it about being Jesus that you liked so much?"

And what that did was open a door of conversation with the patient, who then said, "Well, because I get to help people."

And Dr. Beck then took that and said, "Well, what ways can you help people?" 

And through a series of conversations and work with the patient, the patient learned to begin to develop and act in a more adaptive mode.

Is there any anecdote, any story about Dr. Beck, that you're cherishing that you would share with us?

In recent years, the things that I enjoy doing most with him is when he would come into the institute, we would sit around and eat lunch and we would be meeting with a group … and the thing that he would always ask is: "What are you working on now?" 

Because despite who he was and what he had accomplished, he thought of himself as just like everybody else. And we're all sitting around eating our sandwiches and talking, and he's interested in knowing what other people are doing and learning from them.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Ashley Fraser. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


  • An earlier version of this story called Dr. Allen Miller the director of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy. In fact, he is the institute's CBT program director.
    Nov 05, 2021 5:50 PM ET

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