Dr. Aaron T. Beck, Developer of Cognitive Therapy, Dies at 100

It was an answer to Freudian analysis: a pragmatic, thought-monitoring approach to treating anxiety, depression and other mental disorders, and it changed psychiatry.,


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Dr. Aaron T. Beck, whose brand of pragmatic, thought-monitoring psychotherapy became the centerpiece of a scientific transformation in the treatment of depression, anxiety and many related mental disorders, died on Monday at his home in Philadelphia. He was 100.

His death was confirmed by Alex Shortall, an executive assistant at the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., outside Philadelphia. Dr. Beck’s daughter Dr. Judith Beck is its president.

Dr. Beck was a young psychiatrist trained in Freudian analysis when, in the late 1950s, he began prompting patients to focus on distortions in their day-to-day thinking, rather than on conflicts buried in childhood, as therapists typically did. He discovered that many people generated what he called “automatic thoughts,” unexamined assumptions like “I’m just unlucky in love” or “I’ve always been socially inept,” which can give rise to self-criticism, despair and self-defeating attempts to compensate, like promiscuity or heavy drinking.

Dr. Beck found that he could undermine those assumptions by prompting people to test them out in the world — say, by socializing without alcohol to observe what happens — and to gather countervailing evidence from their own experience, like memories of healthy relationships. Practicing these techniques, in therapy sessions and in homework exercises, fostered an internal dialogue that gradually improved people’s mood, he showed.

Dr. Beck’s work, along with that of Albert Ellis, a psychologist working independently, provided the architecture for what is known as cognitive behavior therapy, or C.B.T. Over the past several decades, C.B.T. has become by far the world’s most extensively studied form of psychotherapy. In England, it forms the basis for a nationwide treatment program offering a number of related talk therapies.

“There is more to the surface than meets the eye,” Dr. Beck was fond of saying.

The influence of C.B.T. on the treatment of mental disorders is hard to exaggerate. Researchers have adapted the approach — originally developed for depression — to manage panic attacks, addictions, eating disorders, social anxiety, insomnia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Therapists teach a variation to help parents manage children’s outbursts at home, and some have used it, in combination with medication, to manage the delusions and hallucinations of schizophrenia. Sports psychologists have made use of the principles for performance anxiety.

Dr. Beck, who spent his career at the University of Pennsylvania, led the way.

“One by one, he took each condition in psychiatry and laid out his thinking about how it should be addressed — and others followed up,” said David Clark, a professor of psychology at Oxford University, who designed and helped institute England’s talk therapy program. “I’m not sure that that’s ever been done, in quite that way.”

Steven Hollon, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University, said of Dr. Beck: “He took a hundred years of dogma, found that it didn’t hold up, and invented something brief, lasting and effective to put in its place. He basically saved psychotherapy from itself.”

Aaron Temkin Beck, known to friends and colleagues as Tim, was born in Providence, R.I., on July 17, 1921, the youngest of four children of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father was a printer who had socialist leanings and wrote poetry; his mother ran the household.

As a child, Aaron was in perpetual motion. He was a Boy Scout who played basketball and football with friends until age 8, when he developed a serious infection after surgery for a broken arm. The month he spent in the hospital became a pivotal experience, turning him toward more intellectual pursuits, like reading and writing.

After high school, he entered Brown University, finishing summa cum laude in 1942. He went on to get a medical degree from Yale University and did his residency in psychiatry at the Cushing Veterans Administration Hospital in Framingham, Mass.

He was still in training at the Philadelphia Psychoanalytic Institute (now the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia) when he began to have doubts about the scientific basis of Freud’s open-ended talk therapy, which was then the gold standard of treatment in American psychiatry. Though Freudian analysts agreed that there were “deep factors at work” in many cases of mental distress, Dr. Beck told The New York Times in 2000, no one could agree on what they were.

After searching in vain to find some empirical basis for Freud’s ideas, he began to focus on patients’ thinking in the here and now. For years he worked in relative obscurity, unsure of his footing and supported primarily by his wife, Phyllis, whom he called his “reality tester.” (He and Phyllis Whitman married in 1950.) Judge Phyllis W. Beck, who is now retired and survives him, was the first woman to serve on the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

In addition to her and his daughter Judith, Dr. Beck is survived by another daughter, Alice Beck Dubow, a judge in the Pennsylvania courts; two sons, Roy and Daniel; 10 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

Dr. Beck openly cited the influence of other thinkers, like the German psychoanalyst Karen Horney (1885-1952), the American psychoanalyst George Kelly (1905-1967) and Dr. Ellis, in developing his ideas. Dr. Ellis’s “rational emotive behavior therapy,” as Dr. Ellis called it, shared many common-sense principles with Dr. Beck’s approach.

In contrast with Dr. Ellis, a flamboyant, tough-love father figure who died in 2007, Dr. Beck came across as an affectionate paterfamilias. Smiling softly beneath a rich sweep of white hair, wearing a bright bow tie and tailored suit, he engaged patients gently, chipping away at defeating beliefs with Socratic questions: Would you agree it is against your interests to have this belief? Do you think it’s possible to ignore these thoughts?

He had a different effect, however, on many of his contemporaries. When he first described his approach, Freudian analysts ventured that he “had not been well analyzed,” the ultimate insider’s put-down, implying that he was unequipped to understand others because he had not fully understood himself in his training therapy.

Later, in the 1980s, Dr. Beck was hit from the other side: So-called biological psychiatrists, who focused on drug treatments, questioned the strength of C.B.T. studies, saying that they were unimpressive compared with drug trials. To the extent that the therapy worked, argued Dr. Donald Klein, then director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, it was because of a general morale-boosting effect rather than a specific, targeted treatment.

Dr. Beck hardened with a blunt New England edge when challenged. But he typically responded with a pile of new data, and avoided being drawn into intellectual blood feuds with other theorists.

Cognitive therapy spread worldwide, in part because therapists found it useful and in part because its techniques could be summarized simply in manuals, making it easy to standardize, teach and use in research studies. Dr. Beck, patient, plain-spoken and persuasive, was its most effective ambassador.

In the first chapter of his classic 1967 book, “Depression: Causes and Treatment,” he observed: “There is an astonishing contrast between the depressed person’s image of himself and the objective facts. A wealthy man moans that he doesn’t have the financial resources to feed his children. A widely acclaimed beauty begs for plastic surgery in the belief that she is ugly. An eminent physicist berates himself ‘for being stupid.’”

He wrote or co-wrote 22 books in all, on technical psychiatric topics as well as love, anger and chronic pain, including three with his daughter Judith.

In his last years Dr. Beck applied cognitive techniques to help largely forgotten groups of people, like destitute drug addicts and people with late-stage schizophrenia. “These people have some capacity to do better, but they have all these defeatist attitudes and expectations; they assume they’re going to fail,” he said in an interview with The Times in 2009 in Bala Cynwyd.

He was also advising a friend who had terminal cancer. “He’s having mood problems, and who wouldn’t?” Dr. Beck said. “I’m having him spend 30 minutes every day, at the beginning of the day, to think about how important this day is — that it may be the most important day of his life, or one of richest.”

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