S2E34 Honoring the Father of Cognitive Therapy, Dr. Aaron T. Beck

On November 1, 2021 the world lost the father of cognitive therapy, Aaron T. Beck, MD, known as Tim by his loved ones. He noticed issues with interpretations in traditional psychoanalysis and introduced the world of psychology to automatic thoughts, cognitive distortions, the idea that psychological concepts could be scientifically studied, and everything related to what we now know as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In this episode, Dr. Rubin shares stories and autobiographical details, while Dr. Pete tries to hold on and learns a ton. Tune in to learn more about Dr. Beck and the impact he had and the legacy that will live forever.

Learn more about Dr. Beck's life and his work:

Dr. Beck discussing the similarities between CBT and Buddhism with the Dalai Lama

The Beck Institute, co-founded by Aaron Beck, M.D. and his daughter Judith Beck, Ph.D.

New York Times Obituary and the Washington Post Obituary




Nikki: We have a special episode today because we are honoring the passing of a great contributor or really the father of cognitive therapy referred to as Dr. Aaron Beck who just passed away at the age of 100 years old on November 1st, 2021. So we want to talk about him today, hi.


Pete: Hey. Yeah, thanks for bringing this up. This was a really good idea, especially for all the CBT that you and I do and God, a 100 years, like I don't know.


Nikki: Yeah, I know it’s pretty amazing.


Pete: And he was doing research still into his 90s.


Nikki: No up until like he died actually. 


Pete: I know.


Nikki: Yeah, Pete and I wanted to talk about Aaron Beck today for a lot of reasons. One, is we just mentioned, he's known as the father of cognitive therapy that's how he's known in the field. And just to kind of illustrate how much of a loss this is for the cognitive and behavioral therapy communities. You know, for us, it would be like if we were alive during the days of Freud and Freud died, like it's to that level, you know?


Pete:  Or like when Michael Jackson died or Whitney Houston. 


Nikki: Right, exactly for non-psychology example absolutely. Actually, when I learned of his passing, not only did I feel very sad, I also was like, I felt this gratitude that I was alive during the time that he was alive. And, you know I had the great fortune of getting to meet him briefly and watch him speak on a panel but that's how important he is. And so that's why Pete and I want to talk about this. Before I start that, I wanted to share one of the little obituaries about him to give readers a little bit of information about him. Is there anything else you wanted before I jump into that?


Pete: Yeah. Well, I like that you just said that it was good perspective to add about what it means for his passing and you and I both identify as cognitive behavioral therapists. And so for us, this is a huge impact in how we got to where we are today and he really committed his entire life. I mean, it's certainly his professional life to understanding thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. You know, so thankful and his legacy lives on which I'm sure. I didn't what you're about to read, but right here on the east coast, we have the Beck Institute in Pennsylvania, which his daughter runs and has been running. And so I guess we'll talk about that.


Nikki: Yeah  


Pete: You and I both have attended several of his stuff.


Nikki: Yeah, absolutely and we’ll give a little bit more information about sort of his history. We'll also, include in the description, there's some great articles about him and some things we'll include some more information. But just to start I wanted to read the obituary that was posted on by Dr. David Tolin, who's the current ABCT president, and yeah, ABCT for listeners it’s the association of behavioral and cognitive therapies. So it's a national organization that many, in this broader CBT community are members of.  So he posted this to say, he said “it is with great sadness that I inform you that Aaron T Beck MD has passed away at the age of 100, he died peacefully in his home, surrounded by his family. Dr. Beck widely considered the father of cognitive therapy was the driving force behind two major revolutions in psychotherapy, beginning in the 1960s. The first of these was the recognition that conscious cognitive processes can drive emotional and behavioral responses. And that a therapy overtly targeting those cognitive processes can result in diminished depression, anxiety, and other reactions. The second revolution was the insight that like pharmaceutical treatment, psychological treatments can be quantified and studied. This idea stood in contrast with the zeitgeist of the times where in psychological processes and by extension, the treatments thereof were thought to lie outside the domain of science.” That's a big deal you guys, so people before didn't even think; they thought you can't even study this stuff. So he was the first person to do this. “By conducting large randomized controlled trials of cognitive therapy for depression, Dr. Beck launched an unprecedented movement toward the identification of the empirically supported psychological treatments. In 1982 American psychologist named Dr. Beck is one of the most influential figures in the history of the field, Dr. Beck, along with his daughter; Judith founded the Beck Institute for cognitive therapy in 1994, with the aim of training CBT practitioners around the world. And then he goes on to say that his CBTC members so basically anyone who identifies in some form, practices in some form of CBT. most of us work in some combination of psychological treatment, clinical research and training. Dr. Beck's work is evident across all of these domains and the field owes him a debt of gratitude.”


Pete: Yeah. There's no doubt about that. Thanks for reading that, that was beautiful. Tolin's also, I mean, we use his text a lot in our courses. 


Nikki: Yes, yes. Yeah. 


Pete: I didn't realize he was president there now. 


Nikki: Yeah. 


Pete: And Aaron also wasn't that poorly educated, so Brown and Yale.


Nikki: Yes, right.


Pete: And I think for listeners, this could be helpful. He was a psychiatrist and so even though he's kind of been seen as one of the top influential psychotherapist too. As a psychiatrist in today's world, there tend to do a lot of medication management more so compared to the psychologist where we're doing the psychotherapy.


Nikki: Yeah, absolutely. And part of this, I think this is maybe where it's important to tell a little bit of like his story of how this came to pass. So, even as a funny thing, I'll just say, and by the way, I didn't know this until one of my, I, have as Pete does as well. Well, I didn't personally know him. I have a lot of colleagues that did and worked personally with him. And so his name was, Aaron Tim` Beck, Aaron T Beck. But apparently he goes by, Tim his friends call him Tim Beck. And I remember when I was training in grad school they kept going like Tim Beck. I'm like, who's Tim Beck? 


Pete: Who is Tim? 


Nikki: And they're like, Aaron Beck.


Nikki: I'm like, fascinating, cool. He's got a, oh.


Pete:  I never knew that.


Nikki:  Yeah. Tim Beck so anyway the story is, so basically, Aaron Beck he was a psychiatrist and at the time, so in the 50s and 60s, when he was training psychoanalysis was still that was the psychotherapy training. There was no cognitive behavioral therapy at the time. So he was going through psychoanalytic training and, you know, there's a number like of stories that are told, but one is basically, and again, this will be in that will link in the description is that he was talking to a patient and he, you know, psychoanalysis. And we talked about this in our, the problem with Floyd episode the analyst sits behind the patient, right?


Pete:  Yeah


Nikki: So it's not to influence the transference, right. Am I that am right? Okay. So they sit behind the patient, excuse me, behind patient, the patient's lying down and the patient was talking about something and Dr. Beck made an interpretation, which is one of the main sorts of interventions, which he said something you're feeling this way because of this. One thing I don't like about that is that interpretations are sort of stated as if they're truths, right, when interpretation in itself means opinion. So he said that, and the patient said, no, that's not right at all Dr. Beck.  I'm thinking that I'm probably boring you and this surprised him. And so basically, it was the one of the first times where he's like, what he was thinking the patient was thinking is not right. So over time as the story goes is that he eventually sat the patient up and sat them face to face and began to sort of assess what was going on in their minds. And what he found was they were having what he eventually termed automatic thoughts. 


Pete: Yeah.


Nikki: And he was having automatic thoughts and he started to notice that these thoughts were influencing moods. So also psych analysis there's, you know, a theme or a theory that like depression was caused by, I don’t know like hatred towards the self or, you know, anger towards himself. And what he found was he started to study it, that wasn't true.  In fact that it was that they were having sort of negative predictions about the future, things like that. So anyway, he began to study it and it's so important to emphasize this. He was basically like laughed at at the time that he was actually told by the people training that he wasn't analyzed well, enough, quote and quote, which is a real dig coming from [inaudible 09:19]. I can't emphasize that enough, which is basically saying he wasn't really doing the work on himself that when in reality he was, you know, you guys have to think about this. He was like, bucking the whole system, because he was saying, no, I see it a different way. And from what he did, everything that Pete and I do, my colleagues and I were talking about this, we were all getting emotional saying, it doesn't matter if you do CBT or act or any of this, all of it grows out of what this one person did by getting curious and saying, Hmm, I don't know if this makes sense.


Pete: My interpretation was just an automatic thought.


Nikki: An automatic thought and I think it's so, you know, and he was known as a very gentle and lovely man and very curious, right, very non-judgmental. I think that’s such a wonderful model for what we do in our field, because that's how we move science forward. We always talk about it, if tomorrow CBT said it didn't work we would stop doing, right?


Pete: Yeah, and what an incredible life? I mean, again, I can't emphasize that enough, like to live to a hundred, that's really incredible. And he had four children and I think his wife died this year too. 


Nikki: No she’s still alive. It’s a very interesting family. His wife was a judge. Well, cause I [crosstalk 10:35]


Pete: Well the two daughters were judges, I think. 


Nikki: So two daughters and two sons, one son, I believe is an epidemiologist.


Pete: No, three daughters and one son. 


Nikki: I think it's two sons and two daughters. 


Pete: I was just reading it. It's three, it’s okay. Anyway, you're right.


Nikki:  Oh my God, sorry my bad.


Pete: He had four children. Oh no. I think you're right. See, you're always right.  


Nikki: I was reading it. 


Pete: So Phyllis oh, his wife. That's what I was reading, is Phyllis his wife?


Nikki: Yeah. His wife was the first…


Pete: First woman judge.


Nikki: First woman judge in Pennsylvania.


Pete:  So you're right. It's two and two. I'm sorry. I am going to shut up and listen to you.


Nikki: No. 


Pete: Listeners, as I've always said, Nikki is way smarter than I can ever be.


Nikki: It's not true at all.


Pete: So the floor is yours. 


Nikki: No, It's not true. So his daughter Judith is a clinical psychologist so she runs the Beck Institute, they founded it together. His other daughter is also a judge, His wife was the first female judge the first bucketing superior court I think Appellate in Pennsylvania. One of his sons I believe is an epidemiologist and the other one's a social worker. 


Pete: Oh wow. 


Nikki: And so, you know lovely family. 


Pete: A family who doesn't dislike education. 


Nikki: Yeah doesn't,  but Pete, I think so I'm just curious about some of your thoughts,  again for me it  was emotion like I felt emotional about it. I felt like such a depth of gratitude that this one person, I felt very moved by it honestly. Again, we were so lucky to have that he lived this long, sometimes people want to do wonderful things, you know, it's like they die too soon we don't get them that long. And we had this amazing person who like, because of him millions and millions of people, you know have had. 


Pete: Because they say that he really influenced David Burns, which you and I both know and study well too so I think the influence he's had on others. You know, the thing I like about what we do, especially say at the university setting is we are mentoring, supervising. And I love that because that's just providing skills and knowledge to people that can then go provide this really amazing work. 


Nikki: I'm glad you're saying that because I think I can use some other examples of some big names in the field that he mentored.


Pete: Of course you can. 


Nikki: So Jeff Young is the creator of schema therapy, which is a type of CBT, and Aaron Beck was his mentor. 


Pete: Yeah.


Nikki: He also mentored my former boss Robert Lehi, Bob Lehi who wrote the book, ‘The Worry Cure,’ which is well known in our community. And actually on the list of for acceptance and commitment therapy act, which, you know, it's in the third wave it's behaviorally based. Steve Hayes, one of the creators of act wrote a lovely response about Aaron Beck saying, basically how kind Aaron Beck had always been to him and how supportive of the treatment. And he said something to the effect of never miss-interpret like scientific disagreements but not respecting one another, right. And so again, that's what I mean, even act, which is different we're not about challenging thoughts and act. Again, it's because of Aaron Beck that we are able to use randomized control trials to study psychology.


Pete: He’s the reason, yeah. And he published over 600 hundred articles, I think over 25 books. I mean, thankfully we'll have that for the rest of our careers.


Nikki: Yeah, absolutely. Well Pete and I are not sure if you're aware of this and if you're not, I’m going to be so excited if you watch it. But do you know that in 2006 and I can put a clip of this in there as well.  Aaron Beck did a talk with the Dolly Warner actually, do you know about this?


Pete: No, I don't. 


Nikki: Oh, this is going to be your favorite thing of all time when you watch it. 


Pete: See listeners, Nikki's definitely a bigger nerd than I am. 


Nikki: I do like minority stuff. So it was just a lovely talk because they talk about all the overlap between Buddhism and cognitive behavioral therapies. 


Pete: Sure. 


Nikki: You know, I don't know. We maybe know a little something about that on [inaudible 14:42].


Pete: We sure do. And also another one of your former supervisors published a book on Buddhist psychology, which was heavily influenced by Aaron Beck. 


Nikki: Yes Dr. Dennis Treece .Yeah, absolutely. So he was truly one of the great thinkers and scientists and therapists, you know? And like Dr. Tolin says, like, we owe him a debt of gratitude. And I think you know it was funny, I was sharing this with my mom. I was telling her about this, trying to explain what a big deal it was that he passed. And she was all saying, it was like moving to her when she heard about it and I was explaining about like what he's done. And, she was reminded, there's like a saying sometimes like in Judaism, you save one life, like you save a thousand kind of thing. And I think that's one thing that we can acknowledge about Aaron Beck that because one person was brave enough to listen to his own gut and be curious and challenge something that he didn't think was working. You know, he alleviated suffering for millions of people and his work will live on. This has been When East Meets West, I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin. 


Pete: And I'm Dr. Pete Economou.  Be present, be brave. This has been When East Meets West. All material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors, Pete Economou and Nikki Rubin


Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.