Psychologist Albert Ellis developed rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) in the mid-1950s. This form of therapy was designed to be an active-directive psychotherapy with the goal of resolving emotional and behavioral problems and helping people build more fulfilling lives.2
Around the same time, Aaron Beck was using free association in his psychoanalytic practices, an idea put forth by Sigmund Freud to help patients express their unconscious thoughts.3 Free association refers to uncensored communications – either written or verbal – of anything and everything that comes to mind. There is no linear structure to free association: practitioners will explore ideas as they appear. However, Beck noticed that thoughts weren’t as “unconscious” as Freud originally believed, and that certain types of thinking might be antecedents for emotional distress. Beck developed cognitive therapy in the 1960s, proposing that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors were all connected.
Ellis’s REBT and Beck’s cognitive therapy are intertwined and considered the roots of modern CBT. Both targeted beliefs as a fundamental course of treatment.3 As cognitive therapy combined with behavior therapy to become CBT as we know it today, REBT is considered the original form. The ABC model comes to play as a common method used in modern CBT.
In creating the ABC model, Ellis was influenced by several ancient philosophers and the stimulus-organism-response theory (S-O-R theory). S-O-R theory holds that the environment is a stimulus consisting of signs that cause someone to hold internal evaluation of beliefs, subsequently producing a response.1 Ellis believed that people held common irrational assumptions that, if addressed, could alleviate their distressing responses to negative events. Some of these include:
- The idea that people should be completely competent at everything
- The idea that it’s a disaster when things aren’t exactly how we want them to be
- The idea that we have no control over our happiness
- The idea that we need someone stronger than ourselves to depend on
- The idea that our past holds a strong influence over our present life
- The idea that all problems have a perfect and findable solution
Ellis first formulated the ABC model in 1955, holding that activating events (A) contribute to people’s emotional and behavioral reactions (C) since they’re influenced by people’s beliefs about said activating events (B).1 Ultimately, Ellis developed the ABC model to address people’s irrational beliefs and to build resilience to adversity. In 1991, Ellis expanded his model of activating events, beliefs, and consequences to the ABCDE model. Since the goal of the ABC model was to help people restructure their thoughts to dispute irrational beliefs, he added a (D), standing for disputation of beliefs. This disputation of beliefs would result in healthier beliefs, known as effects (E) in the model.