profile: Aaron Beck - Disordered Minds

30-Second Psychology: The 50 Most Thought-provoking Psychology Theories, Each Explained in Half a Minute - Christian Jarrett 2011

profile: Aaron Beck
Disordered Minds

Who killed Sigmund Freud? The short answer, metaphorically speaking, must be Aaron Beck. When Beck qualified in psychiatry in 1946, psychoanalysis was in its heyday, and the profession was dominated by persuasive characters who ruled the roost through ’eminence’ rather than ’evidence’. The only reliable measure was a rule of thumb, which said that about a third of patients would get better, a third would get worse and a third would stay the same.

Beck changed all that. He devised a series of clinical trials that put psychoanalytical theories to the test. In each case, the theories failed to match the experience of real-life patients. Subsequent trials lead him to develop his own approach which, allied to the ideas of the behaviourists, would become known as cognitive behavioural therapy (or CBT). Crucially, however, Beck didn’t merely prove Freud wrong and offer an alternative, he created tests to measure the effectiveness of treatments, and backed his ideas up with empirical data. As a result, many of the tests used in psychotherapy today have his name attached to them, such as the Beck Depression Inventory, the Beck Hopelessness Scale, the Beck Scale for Suicidal Ideation and the Beck Anxiety Inventory. Almost single-handedly, Beck transformed psychotherapy from an art into a science.

Not surprisingly, the psychoanalytic community shunned him. Even after he qualified as a psychoanalyst, the American Psychoanalytic Institute turned down his application for membership because, in their view, his desire to carry out tests proved he had been incorrectly analyzed. But Beck’s approach chimed with the larger society, with its desire for scientific evidence and pragmatic solutions rather than the long, quasi-mysterious explorations of psychoanalysis. Within a few decades, Freud’s ideas would be almost completely superseded by Beck’s. The king was dead; long live the king.


Born, Providence, Rhode Island


Ph.D. in Psychiatry from Yale Medical School


Marries Phyllis Whitman


Works at Austen Riggs Center, Massachusetts


Joins University of Philadelphia


Professor of Psychology at University of Philadelphia


Publishes Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders


Establishes the Beck Institute of Cognitive Therapy


Wins Lasker Clinical Research Award


Short-listed for Nobel Prize in Medicine