Updated 23 January 2017

History of CBT

The fundamental theoretical positions underlying the cognitive-behavioural model are derived partly from ancient philosophical traditions.


This article is part of our introductory series on cognitive-behaviour therapy.

The fundamental theoretical positions underlying the cognitive-behavioural model are derived partly from ancient philosophical traditions.

Albert Ellis and his theoretical model of REBT, which arguably provided the foundation upon which modern-day CBT evolved, regularly cited Epictetus, an ancient, Greek, stoic philosopher. Aaron (Tim) Beck has also made reference to the insightful ideas of the stoic philosophers. Epictetus (AD 55 - AD 135) suggested that “men are disturbed not by things, but by the view they take of them”. This ultimately points toward what we now know to be true; that the way in which we think essentially determines the way that we feel and react.

Behaviourism or the behavioural model can be traced back to the nineteenth century where behavioural theory began to take shape. Behaviourism proposes that all things that organisms do can be considered behaviours that can be observed, measured and scientifically described. Behavioural theory thus focused only on measurable phenomena such as behaviour, and sought to intervene with psychological disturbance by shaping healthier behavioural patterns.

Behavioural theory and intervention initially included concepts such as classical (i.e. Pavlov) and operant (i.e. Skinner) conditioning and typically proposed that behaviour can be learned or unlearned depending on the consequences associated with it. Behaviour therapy became widely utilised throughout the first half of the 20th century and was influenced by the work of individuals such as  Pavlov, Thorndike, Watson and subsequently Skinner. Wolpe, originally South African, utilised scientific findings derived mainly from animal research in his development of what then became known as “systematic desensitisation”. This approach acted as the precursor to current day fear reduction techniques, commonly now known as ‘exposure therapy’.

It was not until the 1960s that the cognitive model began to gain momentum. The therapeutic approaches of Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy (CT) provided the foundation for the cognitive aspects of CBT as we know it today. Both Ellis and Beck emphasised the role of cognitions or beliefs as underlying emotional and behavioural disturbance. CBT, as it is known today, essentially refers to a broad range of cognitive and behavioural theories and associated theory-driven intervention strategies that have co-occurred under the umbrella of CBT since the 1980s and 1990s.

Written by Bradley Drake and Jaco Rossouw, Centre for Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy, Cape Town, South-Africa. For further details visit:

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