Cognitive Theory and Associated Therapies

Brindusa Vanta, MD, DHMHS
Medical editor

Ad Disclosure: Some of our recommendations, including BetterHelp, are also affiliates, and as such we may receive compensation from them if you choose to purchase products or services through the links provided

Cognitive theory marks a significant shift in the field of psychology, emphasizing the crucial role of internal thought processes in shaping human behavior and emotions. Moving away from the strictly observable focus of behaviorism, cognitive theorists highlight how thoughts, beliefs, motivations, feelings, and perceptions—collectively known as cognitions—play a pivotal role in actions and psychological health. This approach acknowledges the complexity of the human mind, proposing that mental interpretations and narratives influence behavior as much as, if not more than, external stimuli.


The development of cognitive therapy reflects a broader recognition of the power of the mind than some more limited schools of thought. The popularity and effectiveness of cognitive therapies today, including those founded by Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck in the 1950s, underscore the importance of addressing the mental narratives people construct and how they affect emotional and behavioral responses.

What Is Cognitive Therapy?

Cognitive Therapy is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on identifying and challenging negative thought patterns, beliefs, and attitudes to alter unwanted behavior and emotions. It applies to mental health treatment, helping with issues like depression and anxiety, and to improving everyday decision-making by promoting more rational, positive thinking.

Origins and Core Concepts of Cognitive Theory

In the 1950s, a psychologist named Albert Ellis and a psychiatrist named Aaron Beck independently developed two similar theories. Both theories resulted in effective forms of cognitive therapy. These therapies continue to be widely practiced today. 

Therapists are Standing By to Treat Your Depression, Anxiety or Other Mental Health Needs

Explore Your Options Today


While behavioral learning theory emphasizes the role of the environment, cognitive theory emphasizes the role of the mind's cognitions in determining behavior. According to cognitive theory, our dysfunctional thoughts lead to extreme emotions. These extreme emotions, in turn, lead to maladaptive behaviors. 

To illustrate the powerful effect of these thoughts, consider the following example. Suppose you're preparing to take a difficult test. While doing so, you think, "I can't do anything right. I'll probably fail this test." This thought can create apprehension about the test. When you eventually take the test, this degree of anxiety impacts your ability to concentrate and earn a good grade. 

In addition, these negative thoughts affect the amount of effort you put forth when studying for the test. When you incorrectly believe you'll certainly fail, it seems futile to invest energy in attempting to succeed. As a result, you may fail, simply because you didn't invest much time and energy in preparing for the exam. 

Ironically, this failure serves to strengthen the faulty belief—the poor test score seems to prove the belief that you're a failure. However, the true reason for failure was lack of effort and preparation—not because you're inherently a failure. 

Quite a different outcome could occur if you were to think, "Yes, this test is going to be quite difficult, but I have succeeded before. I will study hard and put forth my best effort. Besides, I am just as competent as any of the other students in the class." 

These thoughts can cause you to feel confident and ready to face the challenge. Clearly, these two different ways of thinking about the same event result in different behaviors and outcomes.

Albert Ellis's cognitive therapy is called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). He believed peoples' intense suffering from negative emotions was caused by their irrational core beliefs. Core beliefs refer to the basic beliefs people have about themselves and the world around them. For instance, in the previous example, the thought, "I'll probably fail this test," may stem from a core belief, such as, "I must always achieve complete success, or I am a complete failure." Irrational core beliefs cause negative emotions that lead to dysfunctional behaviors.

Albert Ellis defined irrational core beliefs as beliefs for which there was no evidence. According to REBT, teaching therapy participants to think in a more rational, balanced manner eliminates the extreme emotions that result from these irrational beliefs. In so doing, this rational thinking eliminates dysfunctional behavior. 

Ellis identified common, irrational core beliefs such as: 

  • I must do well and win the approval of others, or else I am no good.
  • Everybody should treat me kindly.
  • Life must be fair. 

Ellis noticed that irrational beliefs often contained words like "must," "should," and "can't." REBT involves a systematic and direct way of teaching therapy participants to identify, challenge, and replace these irrational core beliefs with more rational and balanced ones.

Also in the 1950s, Aaron Beck was practicing as a psychoanalyst. He realized that people's internal thoughts and perceptions had a big influence on their emotions. He also believed that a more active and directive approach to modifying thoughts would positively influence behavioral change.  

According to Beck, problems occur when distorted thinking patterns influence our interpretation of environmental events. In other words, behavior is not really determined by what is actually happening in the environment. Instead, it's determined by thoughts about what is happening. Therefore, behavior is significantly influenced by perceptions and interpretations of the environment. 

Consider an example to illustrate this important distinction. Suppose someone walks past you and steps on your foot. You could interpret this as an accidental act. Or, you could interpret it as an intentional, hostile act. Each interpretation likely elicits a different emotional and behavioral response.

According to Beck, the way you interpret environmental events is a function of your core schema. A core schema is a central assumption about oneself, others, and the world. These assumptions influence feelings and behavior. 

Examples of core schema include: 

  • The world is a dangerous place.
  • I am unlovable. 
  • I am inadequate. 

Notice how similar Ellis's concept of core beliefs is to Beck's concept of core schema. According to cognitive theory, when cognitive distortions and core beliefs are modified, behavioral change naturally follows. This principle forms the foundation for cognitive therapy techniques.

Fundamental Principles of Cognitive Theory

Cognitive theory explores the complexities of the human mind, examining processes like perception, attention, and memory and how they influence behavior and development. This theory covers Piaget's stages of cognitive development, the information-processing model, and REBT. 


Perception is the process by which you interpret and organize sensory information to understand your environment. Cognitive theory posits that perception is not a passive receipt of information but an active process influenced by past experiences, expectations, and the context in which information is received. This implies that how you perceive the world around you shapes your understanding and interaction with it, highlighting the subjective nature of experiences.


Attention refers to the cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things. Cognitive theory suggests that attention is limited in capacity, which means you can only focus on a limited amount of information at any given time. This selective attention is crucial for the effective processing of information, as it allows you to prioritize stimuli that are most relevant to your goals or needs at any moment.


Memory is the process of encoding, storing, and retrieving information. Cognitive theory breaks memory down into three main components:

  • Sensory memory, which holds information from the senses for a very brief period
  • Short-term memory, which retains information temporarily for manipulation
  • Long-term memory, which stores information indefinitely for future retrieval

Cognitive processes influence how information transitions between these stages and how it's ultimately recalled.

Piaget's Stages of Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget proposed that children progress through four stages of cognitive development, each characterized by different ways of thinking and understanding the world:

  • Sensorimotor Stage (Birth to 2 years): Children experience the world through movements and sensory experiences. They develop object permanence and understand that things continue to exist even when not seen.
  • Preoperational Stage (2 to 7 years): Children begin to think symbolically and use words and pictures to represent objects. They struggle with understanding others' perspectives and are egocentric.
  • Concrete Operational Stage (7 to 11 years): Children start to think logically about concrete events. They gain a better understanding of the concept of conservation and can perform operations if they can see or physically interact with the objects involved.
  • Formal Operational Stage (12 years and up): Adolescents begin to think abstractly and reason about hypothetical problems. They can conceptualize future possibilities and systematically solve problems.

Dr. Brindusa Vanta, MD, says, "Piaget's theory of cognitive development emphasizes the importance of play in children's cognitive development. During play, children actively challenge their understanding, leading to the development of new mental frameworks."

Information-Processing Model

The information-processing model likens the human mind to a computer. This model outlines how humans encode information from the environment, process it with various cognitive operations—such as perception and attention—store it in memory, and retrieve it when necessary. It provides a framework for understanding the sequential and complex nature of cognitive processing.

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)

Ellis's REBT focuses on identifying and changing irrational beliefs that lead to emotional and behavioral issues. REBT posits that by challenging and replacing these irrational beliefs with more rational and adaptive ones, individuals can alter their emotional responses and behavior. This therapeutic approach emphasizes the active role of cognition in determining emotional and behavioral outcomes, offering strategies for cognitive restructuring.

Dr. Vanta notes, "REBT is applied in practice in various domains, including clinical psychology and education. REBT was also researched in scientific studies and was found effective in managing  conditions like obsessive‐compulsive disorder, social phobia, depression, psychotic symptoms, and parental distress." 

Together, these components form the bedrock of cognitive theory, illustrating the intricate processes through which we interpret, understand, and interact with the world. Cognitive theory's focus on the internal workings of the mind offers valuable insights into human behavior and development, providing a comprehensive framework for psychological research and practice.

Cognitive Theory vs. Behavioral Theory

Aspect Cognitive Theory Behavioral Theory
Focus Internal mental processes (thoughts, beliefs, attitudes) Observable behavior and external stimuli
Key Concepts Cognitions, including thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, and attitudes Reinforcement, punishment, stimulus-response relationships
Role of the Mind Central; cognitions shape behavior and emotions Peripheral or irrelevant; behavior shaped by external factors
Behavior Change Through changing thought patterns and cognitive restructuring Through changing external factors, like reinforcement and punishment
Therapeutic Approach Cognitive therapy, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Classical conditioning, Operant conditioning, Behavior modification
View on Human Nature Emphasizes rationality, the capacity for self-reflection, and the active role of the mind in behavior Views behavior as largely the product of learned responses to the environment
Treatment Focus Identifying and correcting dysfunctional thoughts and beliefs Modifying observable behavior through environmental changes
Empirical Support Strong, particularly for depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders Strong, particularly for behaviors that can be directly observed and measured
Philosophical Foundation Rooted in the belief in the power of self-awareness and introspection Rooted in empiricism and the observable

Cognitive theory introduces a profound shift in understanding human behavior by prioritizing the internal landscape of the mind. It asserts that our actions and emotional responses are directly influenced by how we process and interpret the world around us. This perspective recognizes individuals as active processors of information and not only passive responders to environmental stimuli.

Unlike behavioral theory, which posits that external factors primarily shape behavior, cognitive theory illuminates the complex interplay between internal cognitions and external events. It suggests that by altering our thought patterns, we can change our emotional states and behaviors, offering a pathway to psychological health that empowers individuals with the tools for self-reflection and change.

This emphasis on the subjective experience and the power of the mind to construct and reconstruct reality offers a unique approach to therapy, focusing on understanding and transforming the cognitive processes that underlie distressing emotions and maladaptive behaviors.

The Impact of Cognitive Theory: A Concise Overview

Cognitive theory has fundamentally transformed the approach to understanding human thought and behavior, supporting significant strides in mental health treatment, educational methods, and everyday decision-making. Its core premise—that internal processes like thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions shape emotions and actions—underpins effective therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, enhancing emotional well-being and behavior. In education, it informs strategies that align with cognitive development and learning processes, improving student outcomes.

This theory provides a scientific basis for treating psychological disorders. Also, it empowers individuals to understand better and manage their cognitive processes, leading to improved problem-solving skills, emotional regulation, and overall quality of life.

As cognitive theory continues to evolve, it encourages a lifelong commitment to learning and applying its principles. This ongoing exploration promises to deepen understanding of the mind, offering tools for personal growth and the potential to further refine therapeutic and educational practices. Embracing cognitive theory's insights enables individuals to navigate the complexities of human behavior more effectively, highlighting its enduring impact on both individual and societal levels.

Additional Resources

As advocates of mental health and wellness, we take great pride in educating our readers on the various online therapy providers available. MentalHelp has partnered with several thought leaders in the mental health and wellness space, so we can help you make informed decisions on your wellness journey. MentalHelp may receive marketing compensation from these companies should you choose to use their services.

MentalHelp may receive marketing compensation from the above-listed companies should you choose to use their services.