Although behavior therapists tend to focus attention on external stimuli and consequences as causes of maladaptive behavior, they also recognize that many disorders, including depression and anxiety, can be rooted in how clients perceive themselves and the world around them. As cognition (thinking) is a form of behavior, it should be possible to alter problematic thoughts just as it is possible to change other kinds of behavior by manipulating stimuli and consequences. Cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) focuses on using learning principles to change the way clients think and, consequently, how they behave as a result of that thinking.
Aaron Beck, a hugely inﬂuential cognitive therapist, has had great success in the treatment of depression via cognitive restructuring. His approach assumes that mental disorders originate in false beliefs and errors of logic, called cognitive distortions (not to be confused with cognitive dissonance). Over time, these false beliefs (such things as “I can’t do anything right,” “I’m a total loser,” “If I say anything, they’ll all think I’m an idiot”) begin to occur automatically, so that the client never stops to consider whether they are even true. Therapy therefore consists of identifying the false beliefs and distortions, and then treating them as hypotheses to be tested. In addition to helping people examine their false beliefs through gentle questioning, therapy therefore often also involves designing empirical tests of these beliefs. As homework, a client who fears meeting new people may be required to introduce himself to a stranger. Success at this task without any negative consequences will help to reduce his anxiety in such situations, and further success may eventually eliminate the fear and anxiety entirely, or at least to a sufﬁcient extent that the anxiety is no longer a problem.
Another inﬂuential approach to cognitive-behavior therapy is Albert Ellis’s rational-emotive behavior therapy (REBT). In Ellis’s view, mental distress is produced not so much by upsetting events as it is caused by rigid and maladaptive ways in which we interpret those events. The person with depression, for example, may interpret a suggestion as criticism, friendliness as pity, or enter all situations with the belief that “I must be perfect at everything I do.” Like Beck’s approach, REBT consists of helping the client zero in on these irrational beliefs and then challenging them. Unlike Beck’s relatively gentle approach, however, REBT involves a rather blunt, confrontational approach. Beck has expressed his ultimate goal with a client as “making him work his ass off, cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally, to profoundly change.” Like Beck’s therapy, this approach involves homework. A very shy client, for example, may be encouraged to sing loudly in a subway or ﬂirt with men she ﬁnds attractive, so that she may come to realize that her life does not fall apart as a result. Success in challenging false beliefs ultimately eliminates them, perhaps eliminating the resultant psychological disorder as well. Research on both Ellis’s and Beck’s therapy has generally shown positive results.
- Beck, J. S., and Beck, A. T. Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond. New York: Guilford Press, 1995;
- Ellis, A. “Reﬂections on Rational-Emotive Therapy.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61 (1993): 199–201.
Leon Festinger (1919–1990) believed that individuals strive for internal consistency, with thoughts, beliefs, and feelings matching one’s actions. In everyone’s life, however, there will inevitably be occasions when actions are not consistent with beliefs. On these occasions, according to Festinger, an individual experiences cognitive dissonance, or discomfort, caused by the inconsistency between beliefs and actions. The greater the personal responsibility felt for a troubling action, the greater the dissonance felt. This tension can only be relieved by making changes to bring the actions and beliefs into line with each other. This discomfort will often lead to a change in beliefs rather than changing actions, explaining it away: “Since I did that, I must believe that it’s acceptable.”
Cognitive dissonance has been conﬁrmed in many experiments that follow a common pattern: make people feel responsible for behavior that violates their attitudes or beliefs and for which no clear justiﬁcation is at hand, and then measure their attitudes again. A classic example (which has been replicated dozens of times, with minor variations) involves paying research participants to write a short essay, or participate in a short debate, arguing for a position that they personally oppose, and for which there will be foreseeable consequences. In one variation on this theme, subjects are asked to write a short essay favoring a change in university policy that they oppose and are told that the resulting essay will be seen by university administrators.
As it turns out, the amount of cognitive dissonance (and, consequently, attitude change) that emerges appears to depend directly on the amount of money paid to subjects. If they are well compensated, little attitude change occurs. If they receive a mere pittance, they come around to genuinely supporting the position they have argued for. Subjects who have been well paid can easily justify the dissonance between their views and the position being presented (“I did it for the money”), whereas those who have received the smaller payment cannot use the same justiﬁcation and are thus confronted by real discomfort regarding the argument they’ve just made. They often reduce the uncomfortable dissonance by starting to believe their own disingenuous words.
The idea of cognitive dissonance has had a broad impact in social psychology, inﬂuencing opinion and research on everything from advertising to the Stockholm syndrome. Into a world in which we tend to assume (or at least tell ourselves) that our actions are ﬁrmly grounded in our beliefs and values, Festinger introduced the notion that in fact the reverse is frequently true: our actions and behaviors inﬂuence our beliefs and attitudes far more than we are usually willing to admit.
Festinger, L. Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957.
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