What is the cognitive triad?

In this blog we will briefly discuss what the cognitive triad is. 

Beck’s cognitive triad is also known as the negative triad which consists of three forms of negative thinking that are spontaneous and automatic, thus seemingly uncontrollable, about the self, the world and the future.

We will also explore what Beck’s model of depression is, the elements of this model, the strengths and limitations of this model and the application of this CBT model of depression. 

What is the cognitive triad?

The cognitive triad is one of the three mechanisms proposed by Aaron Beck that were responsible for depression. 

Beck’s cognitive triad is also known as the negative triad which consists of three forms of negative thinking that are spontaneous and automatic, thus seemingly uncontrollable, about the self, the world and the future.

The three corners of the triad involves negative thinking about:

  • The self – “I’m worthless” or “I wish I was someone else”
  • The world – “No one values me” or “They are ignoring me all the time”
  • The future – “Things will never change” or “My relationship can only get worse!”

Based on Aaron Beck’s model, this particular negative thinking triad is what is observed in individuals with depression and this form of thinking plays a major role in the development and sustenance of the condition. 

According to Aaron Beck’s model of depression, the cognitive triad is part of three mechanisms that cause depression. These mechanisms include:

  • The cognitive triad
  • Negative self schemas
  • Errors in Logic

The triad along with the other mechanisms informs his form of cognitive therapy and these concepts are used to treat depression and other mental health conditions by treating the automatic and spontaneous negative thinking as illustrated by the cognitive triad.

Beck believes that the interaction between the triad and other mechanisms is what impacts an individual’s perception and healthier cognitive processing and rather leads the individual to become occupied with negative thoughts that can impact their behaviours and feelings leading to mental health conditions like depression. 

What is Beck’s model of depression?

Aaron Beck’s model of depression is based on the belief that a person’s cognitive reaction to what happens to them is what causes problems. 

It disregards the idea that events that happen to us are the root cause of mental disorders but rather our interpretation of these events that lead to abnormality and dysfunction. 

According to this model, as we face and confront life and the situations in our daily lives, both positive and negative thoughts come into our heads and these thoughts are what he referred to as automatic thoughts.

It is when a person’s automatic thought patterns are very negative and these negative thoughts persist even if there is evidence that says otherwise,  they become depressed. 

According to his understanding, Beck identified three mechanisms that he believed were responsible for depression:

  • The cognitive triad 
  • Negative self schemas
  • Cognitive distortions or errors in logic. 

From the perspective of this model, it is these negative thinking about themselves, others and the world, which lead to the development of negative self schemas and negative assumptions that cause depression and other mental disorders. 

People with depression according to this model, often view themselves in very negative perspectives- hopeless, lacking, worthless etc. They also attribute anything negative that happens to them as a result of their deficits due to these negative schemas of the self. 

These negative schemas of the self, errors in thinking, and the cognitive triad feed each other and as a result they have a hard time thinking otherwise because of how ingrained it has become in them. 

They may have a very difficult time viewing themselves in any positive light which results in behavioural changes such as social withdrawal, self deprecation etc. 

Beck’s form of therapy- Cognitive therapy is informed by this model of depression and is mostly used for treating depression and mood disorders including anxiety. 

The intent is to help clients become aware of these three mechanisms that work against them and challenge these dysfunctional thoughts and correct errors to build a newer, more healthy schema of the self and the world. 

What are the other elements of Beck’s Model of depression?

Let us look at a closer look at the other two elements of Beck’s model of depression. These include:

Cognitive distortions or Errors in logic

Beck’s model of depression pushes forward the idea that individual with depression develop cognitive distortions or cognitive biases which are unhelpful and faulty- he referred to these biases as  Negative automatic thoughts.

These distortions are what leads them to misinterpret their experiences with the world around them as well as their own positive attributes leading them to develop a negative self schema about themselves as hopeless, worthless, and incapable. 

These cognitive distortions also lead them to experience negative feelings and impact their behaviours such as feelings of guilt and shame which drives their social withdrawal and lack of motivation. 

The main cognitive distortions according to Beck include:

  • Arbitrary inference where the individual draws conclusions from insufficient or no evidence.
  • Selective abstraction where an individual draws conclusions on the basis of just one of many elements of a situation.
  • Overgeneralization where the individual makes broad conclusions based on a single event.
  • Magnification where the individual exaggerates the importance of an undesirable event.
  • Minimisation where the individual undermines the significance of a positive attribute or event.
  • Personalisation where the individual attributes negative feelings of others to oneself; self blame. 

As of today there are more cognitive distortions that have been added by Beck’s own daughter and fellow Cognitive theorist. 

Negative self-schemata

Another element according to Beck’s model is that people develop a self schemata based on their childhood or early life experiences. 

In the case of people who are depressed, they usually hold a negative view of themselves based on these experiences such as bullying, trauma, abuse, loss and death of parent and siblings, neglect from parents or caregiver etc leading to a negative self schema. 

He suggests that people with negative self schema often interpret everything that happens to them in a negative light, fueling cognitive distortions and the negative triad. 

This manner of explaining their experience to themselves is what leads them to develop a sense of hopelessness and lack of control over their own lives, their future, and the people around them. 

What are the strengths and limitations of Beck’s Cognitive model?

According to various reviews of Beck’s model of depression one of the major strengths is its focus on human thought which is believed to play an important part in human progress and achievements.


There is immense empirical evidence that back up Beck’s model and theory and the application of this theory in cognitive therapy has been observed to be effective for depression and anxiety according to a view down by Hollon and Beck in 1994 and more clinical research that followed. 

While this model has been viewed primarily as an important development in psychology and treatment of psychological problems there is still a lack of literature and study on the precise role of how faulty cognitions are a cause of psychopathology.

The cause and effect relationship between negative thinking and depression has not been consolidated and the model is narrow since thinking or cognitive is not the whole of human functioning but rather a small part of it. 

What are the applications of the Cognitive model of Beck?

Beck’s form of therapy- Cognitive therapy is informed by this model of depression and is mostly used for treating depression and mood disorders including anxiety. 

The intent is to help clients become aware of these three mechanisms that work against them and challenge these dysfunctional thoughts and correct errors to build a newer, more healthy schema of the self and the world. 

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) emerged as one of the first evidence-based forms of psychological therapy which involves information gathering about experiences and reactions including thought, emotions, and behaviour that is happening in and out of the sessions. 

This form of talk therapy is designed to help people recognize unhelpful and destructive patterns of thoughts and behaviours and learn how to change them. It is based on the premise that by identifying patterns, we can reconstruct or restructure these patterns into more helpful ones.

CBT core principals posit that psychological issues and disorders are a result of negative patterns of thinking and learned patterns of behaviour. It is of the opinion that by learning coping strategies that help restore these patterns can help relieve symptoms of psychological problems.

CBT for by exploring how one’s thoughts and behaviours work together to create psychological problems re;ated to cognition, emotions, and behaviour. The process involves identifying and addressing their thoughts- usually negative assumptions and irrational beliefs. 

Once these are addressed, work is done to reconstruct more healthy and helpful attitudes and beliefs by replacing unhelpful patterns of thought. 

CBT is most widely used for anxiety, mood disorders like depression and is understood to be one of the most effective treatment plans for anxiety disorder such as panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety disorder, and generalised anxiety disorder.

Conclusion

In this blog we have briefly discussed what the cognitive triad is. 

We have also explored what Beck’s model of depression is, the elements of this model, the strengths and limitations of this model and the application of this CBT model of depression. 

FAQ related to Cognitive triad

What are the three parts of the cognitive triad?

Beck’s cognitive triad is also known as the negative triad which consists of three forms of negative thinking that are spontaneous and automatic, thus seemingly uncontrollable, about the self, the world and the future.

The three corners of the triad involves negative thinking about:

  • The self – “I’m worthless” or “I wish I was someone else”
  • The world – “No one values me” or “They are ignoring me all the time”
  • The future – “Things will never change” or “My relationship can only get worse!”

What is a positive cognitive triad?

The positive cognitive triad is a  protective factor against depression and it consists of positive cognitions about the self, the world, and the future that is encouraged and fostering in individuals through intervention and therapy. 

What is Aaron Beck’s cognitive theory?

Aaron Beck’s Cognitive theory is based on the belief that a person’s cognitive reaction to what happens to them is what causes problems. 

It disregards the idea that events that happen to us are the root cause of mental disorders but rather our interpretation of these events that lead to abnormality and dysfunction. 

According to this theory, as we face and confront life and the situations in our daily lives, both positive and negative thoughts come into our heads and these thoughts are what he referred to as automatic thoughts.

References

Beck, A. T. (1967). Depression: Causes and treatment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Beck, A. T., Epstein, N., & Harrison, R. (1983). Cognitions, attitudes and personality dimensions in depression. British Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy.

McLeod, S. A. (2019, January 11). Cognitive behavioural therapy. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-therapy.html

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