Summary Chart: Cognitive-Behavioral Theory

Human Nature

Cognitive-behavioral theories are not developmental in the same sense as are stage theories. There is a stated assumption that behavior is learned that applies equally to the explanation of how problem behaviors and adaptive behaviors are developed. Behavior is assumed to be developed and maintained by external events or cues, by external reinforcers, or by internal processes such as cognition. Development is based on each individual's different learning history, experiences, and cognitive understanding of the world.

Major Constructs

The major constructs of cognitive-behavioral theories are an amalgamation of behavioral and cognitive approaches and include emphasis on behavioral and cognitive excesses or deficits, learning theory, observed changes in behavior, semantic interventions, and changes in cognitions. Operational definitions, functional analysis, and therapeutic empathy also serve as major constructs.


The goals of cognitive-behavioral theories are best viewed in terms of understanding the nature of the presenting problem from a behavioral, affective, cognitive, and social perspective; how progress in counseling and psychotherapy can be measured and monitored; the environmental contingencies maintaining the behavior; and which interventions are more likely to be effective.

Change Process

Because the cognitive-behavioral area comprises many different theories and interventions, the process of change is best understood in terms of how the theory explains the mechanisms for change. For example, Bandura's self-efficacy theory asserts that individuals develop expectations for their success in performing specific behaviors and that these expectations influence their decisions to try new behaviors and maintain behavioral changes, whereas Beck's theory asserts that behavioral and affective change occur through the change in cognitions.


The interventions used in cognitive-behavioral theories are best viewed in terms of behavioral interventions (reinforcement, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, extinction, shaping, and stimulus control) and cognitive interventions (identifying cognitive distortions, thought stopping, the use of positive self-statements, cognitive restructuring, use of the empathic therapeutic relationship, Socratic questioning, disputing, reframing, role playing, modeling, humor, homework, risk-taking exercises, systematic desensitization, bibliotherapy, shame-attacking exercises, self-instructional training, stress inoculation training, and relapse prevention).


According to the critics of cognitive behavioral theories, the theories are limited because of their lack of attention to unconscious factors in determining behavior and their exclusion of concepts such as ego strength and insight. Experiential counselors and therapists indicate that cognitive-behavioral strategies do not pay enough attention to feelings. Insight and an emphasis on the past (often seen as important in other theories) do not fit within the purview of cognitive-behavioral theory.

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