By The Editors / November / December 2000
October 24th, 2007

Aaron Beck ’42

Perhaps more than any psychologist working today, Aaron Beck revolutionized psychotherapy. In his cognitive-behavioral approach, therapy is faster, more effective, and focused on changing maladaptive patterns of thinking rather than on marshalling those mysterious ids, egos, and superegos.

Beck studied medicine at Yale and graduated in 1958 from the Philadelphia Psychoanalytic Institute. Yet as a newly minted analyst trained to probe for hidden conflicts, Beck began noticing that the key to many of his patients’ problems lay not in the hidden realms of the unconscious, but in thinking patterns accessible to conscious awareness.

Beck found, for example, that depressed patients often develop irrational patterns of negative “automatic thoughts” into which they become trapped. In Beck’s cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy (CBT), patients are taught to identify such irrational thoughts and to subject them to logical scrutiny with the help of a therapist—a process that can disrupt the pattern in as few as eight sessions.

Although first developed for the treatment of depression, CBT has also worked with anxiety disorders as well. Beck and his colleagues are now exploring the use of CBT for treating more severe and pervasive mental illnesses, including personality disorders and even schizophrenia.

In 1994 Beck, a professor emeritus in the psychiatry department of the Penn medical school, cofounded the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research. He has taught at Harvard, Temple, and Oxford, and has received many awards for his pioneering research.

A prolific author, Beck has published more than 400 papers in psychiatric journals and has written fourteen books. His most recent book, Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence, which was published last year, argues that distorted thinking underlies all levels of anger, whether expressed by a bickering couple, a paranoid sociopath, an armed mob, or a warring nation.

Richard Solomon ’40, ’47 Ph.D.

Psychologists got a better understanding of motivation in 1980, when Richard Solomon, a professor at Penn, published his opponent-process theory. The theory postulates that people experience one emotion by suppressing its opposite. An encounter with a vicious dog, for example, is likely to trigger fear and suppress relief. But with repeated exposure to the dog, the fear gets diminished and the relief increases.

These observations help illuminate such complex behaviors as thrill-seeking and, most importantly, addiction, which is characterized by conflicting physical and emotional experiences. Solomon believes that understanding the interplay between physical pleasure and emotional duress that a drug addiction produces helps us see how people not only can accustom themselves to unpleasant experiences—they can learn to crave them.

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November / December 2000