Over the last 20 years the cognitive approach (often referred to as the cognitive-behavioural approach) has become perhaps the most popular of the psychological approaches to understanding and treating behavioural disorders. It is unusual in that it uses elements derived from other approaches.
Pioneers of the cognitive approach, such as Aaron Beck (1963) and Albert Ellis (1962), were heavily influenced by their backgrounds as therapists. Disappointed in what they saw as the ineffectiveness of psychodynamic and humanistic approaches, they were also influenced by the behavioural approach and the cognitive revolution in psychology that occurred in the 1960s.
Up to about 1960 psychology was dominated by the behavioural approach of Skinner, with an emphasis on observed behaviour. Cognitive processes such as attention, perception and thought were largely ignored by experimental psychologists. Then during the 1960s the pendulum swung towards these critical cognitive processes. It was fuelled by the development of computers as information processors, providing a model of how the human brain might work.
While acknowledging the success of therapies based on the behavioural approach in treating some psychological disorders, Beck and Ellis were concerned that little attention was paid to underlying cognitive processes. Therefore they developed the cognitive approach to abnormality as a combination of behaviourism (eg: the role of conditioning principles in changing behaviour) and cognitive models of psychopathology. The approach makes several basic assumptions:
- Human behaviour is heavily influenced by schemata. Many of these schemata relate to how we see ourselves, for instance, 'I am confident and self-assertive', 'I am good at relationships', 'I am generally a happy person'.
- Schemata develop on the basis of early experience. Traumatic or unhappy experiences early in life may lead to the development of negative schemata, e.g. insecure attachment may lead to the schemata of 'I am not loved and will always be alone', while early failure at school may produce the schemata 'I will always be unseccessful'.
- Negative schemata, or core beliefs as they are sometimes called, when activated lead to negative automatic thoughts (or NATs). In the cognitive approach negative automatic thoughts are misplaced and dysfunctional; no one need always be alone, no one is unsuccessful at everything.