Psychologist Aaron Beck Biography

Founder of Cognitive Therapy

Dr Aaron Beck At Work
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Aaron Temkin Beck was born on July 18, 1921, in Providence, Rhode Island. He was the youngest of five children. Beck went on to graduate from Brown University in 1942 where he majored in English and Political Science. He then earned his M.D. from Yale University in 1946. In 1950, Beck married Phyllis W. Beck and the couple went on to have four children. His daughter, Judith S. Beck, is also an influential ​cognitive-behavior therapist who serves as the President of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy.

Best Known For

  • Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)
  • Beck Depression Inventory
  • Beck Hopelessness Scale
  • Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy


Beck entered Yale intent on studying psychiatry, but became discouraged after taking his first course in psychoanalysis, which he initially viewed as "nonsense." Eventually, after completing a psychiatric rotation, he became fascinated with the psychoanalytic approach and what he believed was its ease in answering questions about psychological disorders. “I have come to the conclusion,” Beck wrote in a 1958 letter to a colleague, “that there is one conceptual system that is peculiarly suitable for the needs of the medical student and physician-to-be: Psychoanalysis.”

Beck spent much of the early part of his career studying and researching psychoanalysis, particularly in the use of the treatment of depression. After a few years of practicing psychoanalytic therapy, Beck began to find that the approach lacked the scientific rigor, structure, and empirical evidence that he desired. His interests shifted to the cognitive approach, and his research in this area intensified after taking a job in the psychiatry department at the University of Pennsylvania where he established a depression research clinic.

Beck discovered that his depressed patients often experienced spontaneous negative thoughts about themselves, the world, and others. Patients who ruminated on these thoughts then began to treat them as valid and accurate.

His focus soon shifted to helping patients identify these negative automatic thoughts and replace them with more realistic and accurate thoughts in order to minimize distorted thinking patterns that contribute to depression. Successfully treating any disorder, Beck found, involved making patients aware of these negative thought patterns. This approach to treatment eventually became known as cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT).

Contributions to Psychology

In addition to his widely used assessment scales, Beck has published more than 600 professional papers and 24 books over the course of his career. Beck has also received numerous honors for his work including five honorary degrees, the Lienhard Award from the Institute of Medicine for his development of cognitive therapy, and the Kennedy Community Health Award.

Beck is widely recognized as the father of cognitive therapy. American Psychologist named him as one of their five most influential psychologists of all time. He has also been called one of the most influential people in mental health and one of the ten most influential people to shape the course of psychiatry in America.

Today, Beck continues to serve as Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. His work has influenced numerous psychologists including Martin Seligman and his daughter Judith S. Beck.

Select Publications

Beck, A.T. (1967). The diagnosis and management of depression. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Beck, A.T. (1970). Depression: Causes and treatment. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Beck, A.T. (1975). Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. New York, NY: Meridian.

Beck, A.T., Rush, A.J., Shaw, B.F., & Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive therapy of depression. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Beck, A.T., Freeman, A., & Davis, D.D. (2003). Cognitive therapy of personality disorders. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Beck, A.T., Emery, G., & Greenberg, R.L. (2005). Anxiety disorders and phobias: A cognitive perspective. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Clark, D.A., & Beck, A.T. (2010). Cognitive therapy of anxiety disorders: Science and practice. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Beck AT. A 60-year evolution of cognitive theory and therapy. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2019;14(1):16-20. doi:10.1177/1745691618804187

  2. Fenn K, Byrne M. The key principles of cognitive behavioural therapy. InnovAiT. 2013;6(9):579-585. doi:10.1177/1755738012471029

Additional Reading
  • Spicher, A. R. (2008). Beck, Aaron Temkin. Pennsylvania Center for the Book. 

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."