The Cognitive Approach to Explaining Depression (Beck’s Negative Triad and Ellis’ ABC Model)

The Cognitive Approach to Explaining Depression (Beck’s Negative Triad and Ellis’ ABC Model)

Description, AO1:

(1) Beck’s Negative Triad: Beck believed that depressed people think as they do because their thinking is biased towards negative interpretations of the world and they lack a perceived sense of control.

Negative Schema: Depressed people have acquired a negative schema during childhood – a tendency to adopt a negative view of the world. This may be caused by a variety of factors, including parental and/or peer rejection and criticisms by teachers. These negative schemas (e.g. expecting to fail) are activated when an individual encounters a new situation (e.g. an exam) that resembles the original condition of when the schemas were learned. Negative schemas lead to systematic cognitive biases in thinking. For example, individuals over-generalise, drawing a sweeping conclusion regarding self-worth on the basis of one small negative piece of feedback.

One of the clearest examples of the cognitive approach to psychopathology is Beck’s model of depression, known as the negative triad (sometimes also referred to as the cognitive triad). Beck uses the term negative triad to refer to the three main forms of negative thinking – negative views of:

  • The self (‘I am worthless’, I am, plain, undesirable, is there to like about me? I’m unattractive and seem to bore everyone)
  • The world – life experiences, (‘Everything is against me, I can understand why pNegative Triadeople don’t like me. They would all prefer someone else’s company. Even my boyfriend left me’)
  • The future (Nothing will ever change, I am always going to be one my own, there is nothing that is going to change this’).


(2) Ellis’ ABC Model:

Ellis proposed that many problems are caused by irrational and self-defeating beliefs that put unreasonable demands on the individual. Ellis particularly focuses on how self-defeating attitudes cause problems when something unpleasant happens (such as in the example given over the page – failing a driving test – or an A level exam!)

Ellis believes that activating events (A) in an individual’s life have consequences (C) such as feelings and actions. However, these consequences are affected by beliefs (B)
about these events.

ABC Model


Mustabatory Thinking:

The source of irrational beliefs lies in mustabatory thinking – thinking that certain ideas or assumptions must be true in order for an individual to be happy. Ellis identified the three most important irrational beliefs.

  • I must be approved of or accepted by people I find important.
  • I must do well or very well, or I am worthless.
  • The world must give me happiness or I will die.

Other irrational assumptions include; ‘others must treat me fairly and give me what I need’ and ‘people must live up to my expectations or it is terrible’.

An individual who holds such expectations is bound to be disappointed and is at risk of becoming depressed. An individual who fails an exam becomes depressed not because they have failed the exam but because they hold an irrational belief regarding that failure (e.g.’ I must do well so failing the exam means I’m stupid.’) In order to treat depression which arises out of negative thinking, such irrational thoughts need to be challenged and turned into more positive beliefs.


Evaluation, AO3 of Cognitive Explanations of Depression:


(1) POINT: A strength of the Cognitive explanation of depression is that there is evidence to support the role of irrational thinking. EXAMPLE: Bates et al (1999) found that depressed participants who were given negative automatic thoughts statements become more and more depressed. EVALUATION: This is a strength because the research supports the view that negative thinking leads to depression.



(1) POINT: The cognitive explanations of depression can be criticised for being reductionist: EVIDENCE: For example, the cognitive explanation states that if an individual thinks in a negative way/has negative automatic thoughts they are likely to develop disorders such as depression. EVALUATION: This is a weakness because this theory of depression ignores the fact that biological research has indicated that depression can be down to low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin and therefore, the cognitive approach can be seen to be too simplistic.


(2) POINT: A weakness of the cognitive approach to depression is that it blames the patient. EVIDENCE: For example, the cognitive approach suggests disorders are simply in the patient’s mind (e.g. an individual is depressed because they think in a negative automatic way/operate under the negative triad) this could lead to situational factors (e.g. family) being overlooked. EVALUATION: This is a problem because it may be unhelpful to place a large burden of blame on a person prone to negative thoughts and depression, as a result, if individuals feel responsible for their own abnormality this could lead to delays in treatment (the individual may not have the motivation to treat a disorder that they feel ultimately responsible for).