The cognitive psychology is a branch of psychology that deals with the processes through which the individual obtains knowledge of the world and becomes aware of his environment, as well as his results.

Cognitive models pay special attention to cognitions, understanding them in a broad sense as ideas, personal constructs, beliefs, images, attributions of meaning or significance, expectations… and therefore studies the basic processes such as memory, attention, concept formation, information processing, conflict resolution , etc.

Cognitive psychology and cognitive therapy in context

Modern cognitive psychology has been formed under the influence of related disciplines such as information processing, artificial intelligence and language science. But this branch of psychology is not only an experimental approach, but has been put into practice in different fields: learning, social psychology or psychotherapy. The latter is called cognitive therapy .

It is important to establish a difference between cognitive psychology and cognitive psychotherapy , because although both are related, the most prominent authors of cognitive psychology made their main developments far from psychotherapeutic centers. Instead, cognitive psychotherapy designed specific methods (treatments) from some developments of cognitive psychology (cognitive science), because clinical researchers soon saw the usefulness of these principles when applied to different people with different problems to improve their quality of life, solve human problems, and treat mental disorders.

The pioneers of cognitive therapy: Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis

The pioneers in using the foundations of cognitive science systematically for the treatment of psychological disorders were psychologists Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck . The former called his model of therapeutic application “Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy” (REBT) and the latter called his method of therapy ” Cognitive Therapy “.

It is important to note that there are different models of cognitive therapy, and these are two of the best known due to their great practical utility. Cognitive therapies are not “techniques” but applied science , so they usually consist of a more or less defined method to achieve objectives according to their theoretical starting point.

Aaron Beck’s model basically focuses on automatic thoughts and cognitive distortions, and Albert Ellis’ Rational Behavioral-Emotive Therapy focuses mainly on irrational beliefs. Between both there are similarities, but also differences, for example: Beck’s Cognitive Therapy is based on collaborative empiricism; on the other hand, Ellis uses Socratic dialogue or debate as his main therapeutic tool .

Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy

The main idea of Cognitive Therapy is that people suffer because of their interpretation of events and not because of them in themselves . Therefore, Aaron Beck, interested in the treatment of depression, developed a model for the treatment of this pathology that he later extended to other disorders.

Beck’s model, and also Ellis’s, are an important part of the strategies used within cognitive-behavioral therapy because, through cognitive restructuring , an individual is capable of modifying the mode of interpretation and subjective evaluation of the facts and situations he or she lives, and in this way is stimulated to alter disordered thought patterns and see himself or herself and the world more realistically and adaptively.

These types of cognitive (or cognitive-behavioral) therapies are called “relational or cognitive restructuring therapies,” but there are also other types of cognitive therapies such as coping skills training or problem-solving therapies.

Cognitive organization according to Beck’s model

The model proposed by Beck states that in the face of a situation, individuals do not respond automatically, but rather before emitting an emotional or behavioural response they perceive, classify, interpret, evaluate and assign meaning to the stimulus according to their previous assumptions or cognitive schemes (also called nuclear beliefs ).

Cognitive schemes

In Beck’s theory, c ognitive processes are the mechanisms of coding, storage and retrieval of information in cognitive structures ( schemas ). Therefore, the following are included among the cognitive processes: perception, attention, memory and interpretation. In the processing of information, errors can occur in any of its phases that result in an alteration or distortion in the assessment and interpretation of facts, which the author calls “cognitive distortions”.

The cognitive structures of information organization in memory are the schemes , which represent the set of previous experiences and act as moulds that direct attention, influence the interpretation of events and facilitate memory.

For Beck, “schemas are stable cognitive patterns that form the basis of regularity in interpretations of reality. People use their schemas to locate, code, differentiate and attribute meaning to data in the world. In other words, schemas are more or less stable, subjective mental constructs that act as filters when it comes to the individual’s perception of the world .

The patterns are largely derived from previous (usually early) learning experiences and can remain dormant until activated by a significant event that interacts with them. This is one of the most important concepts that cognitive psychology has contributed, and although it was originally introduced by Frederick Bartlett to refer to processes related to memory in the social context, and was also used, among others, by Jean Piaget in the educational field, Beck (together with Ellis) introduced it in the psychotherapeutic field.


The beliefs are the contents of the schemes, and are the direct result of the relationship between reality and the schemes. They are everything that one believes in, they are like internal maps that allow us to give meaning to the world, they are constructed and generalized through experience .

Beck distinguishes two types of beliefs:

  • Central or nuclear beliefs : They are presented as absolute, lasting and global propositions about oneself, others or the world. For example, “I am incompetent”. They represent the deepest cognitive level, are difficult to change, give the sense of identity and are idiosyncratic.
  • : Peripheral beliefs : Are influenced by nuclear ones, therefore, they are located between them and cognitive products or automatic thoughts. They consist of attitudes, rules and assumptions. Therefore, they influence the way in which an individual sees the situation, and that vision influences how an individual feels, acts or thinks.

Cognitive products

The cognitive products refer to the thoughts and images that result from the interaction of information provided by situation, patterns and beliefs and from cognitive processes . The contents of cognitive products are usually more easily accessible to the consciousness than the schemas and cognitive processes.

Beck’s Depression Explanation Model

For Beck, psychological disorders derive from cognitive distortions (errors in cognitive processes), which are mistaken ways of thinking that appear as automatic thoughts (cognitive products) in certain situations, and which cause negative emotional states and inappropriate behaviour.Therefore, these cognitive distortions are caused by irrational beliefs or personal assumptions learned in the past , which unconsciously condition the perception and interpretation of the past, present and future.

People who suffer from depression become vulnerable to certain situations, and it is important to understand that this theory does not claim that cognition is the cause of depression or other emotional disorder, what is really postulated is the primacy of symptoms: the activation of negative patterns and the consequent cognitive distortions, would be the first link in the chain of depressive symptoms.

The Cognitive Triad in People with Depression

When a person faces a certain situation, the schema is the basis for transforming data into cognitions. Since the patterns that are activated in a given situation will determine how that person responds, in people who suffer from a depressive disorder inappropriate patterns will be activated.

Therefore, the first depressive symptom is the activation of cognitive schemas related to the vision of oneself, the world and the future . People with negative patterns or a tendency to make processing errors will be more likely to suffer from depressive disorders.

The cognitive triad refers to three characteristic patterns that induce the depressed individual to perceive himself, the world and the future from a negative point of view. From these three cognitive patterns, the rest of the depressive symptoms he suffers are derived.

The characteristic pattern suffered by depressed people, and which Beck calls the depressive triad, consists of a negative view of:

  • Self : people suffering from depression are often considered to be deficient and useless. They attribute the mistakes they make to a physical, mental or moral defect of their own and think that others will reject them.
  • From the world : They feel socially defeated and are not up to the demands, nor do they have the capacity to overcome the obstacles.
  • From the future : The person suffering from depression thinks that this situation cannot be changed, so it will remain like that forever.

Cognitive Distortions

The negative patterns activated in depressive individuals lead them to make a series of errors in processing information that facilitate the biases and allow the depressive to maintain the validity of his/her beliefs. Beck listed a series of cognitive distortions, they are the following:

  • Selective abstraction : this is about paying attention to a single aspect or detail of the situation. The positive aspects are usually ignored, giving more importance to the negative aspects.
  • Dichotomous thinking : events are assessed in an extreme way: good/bad, black/white, all/nothing, etc.
  • Arbitrary inference : consists of drawing conclusions from a situation that are not supported by the facts, even when the evidence is contrary to the conclusion.
  • Overgeneralization : consists of drawing a general conclusion from a particular fact without sufficient basis.
  • Magnification and Minimization : tendency to exaggerate the negative of a situation, an event or a quality of one’s own and to minimize the positive.
  • Personalization : refers to the habit of relating the facts of the environment to oneself, showing oneself to be susceptible.
  • Catastrophic vision : anticipating events and, among the different options, thinking that the worst will always happen.
  • You should : consists of maintaining rigid and demanding rules about how things should happen.
  • Global tags : consists of putting global tags on ourselves or others without taking into account other nuances.
  • Guilt : consists in attributing to oneself or to others all responsibility for events, ignoring other factors that contribute to them.

Automatic thoughts

Therefore, when these characteristic patterns of depressive people are activated, the cognitive products will be maladaptive and negative .

The automatic thoughts are the internal dialogues, thoughts or images that appear before a given situation, and patients usually consider them true undistorted statements. They show a number of characteristics and are as follows:

  • They are specific messages or propositions referring to a concrete situation
  • They will always be believed, whether they are irrational or not
  • They are learned
  • They enter spontaneously into the consciousness, dramatizing and exaggerating the negative of the situation
  • They are not easy to detect or control, as they appear in the flow of internal dialogue