Beck proposed that cognitive factors (thoughts and beliefs) are the cause of depressive behavior. Beck’s theory of depression has three components: cognitive triad, negative schema, and cognitive errors.
The cognitive triad relates to the fact that people with depression have a triad of negative thoughts about themselves, the world, and the future. Beck suggested that these automatic thought processes may give life events distorted meanings. These then lead to the emotional disturbances associated with depression. Secondly, Beck argued that depression is rooted in a patient’s automatic thoughts such as negative self-schemas organized around themes of failure, inadequacy, and worthlessness. Thirdly, Beck proposed that people tend to selectively attend to the negative aspects of a situation and ignore the positive aspects.
Beck’s theory has vast empirical support from laboratory experiments. For example, Alloy et al. (1999) has shown that having a negative cognitive style is a vulnerability to depression, whereas a positive cognitive style can reduce the risk of depression. Only 1% of the participants who had positive styles developed depression after six years, versus 17% of the participants with negative styles.
Similarly, Caseras et al. (2007) concluded that negative attention bias (focusing on negative stimuli rather than positive stimuli) is one of the mechanisms of depression.
Additionally, the success of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in treating depression supports Beck’s theory. CBT assumes that depression stems from maladaptive automatic thoughts that lead to irrational behavior. It targets the negative automatic thoughts to replace them with more reality-congruent information processing. Many empirical studies, such as Goldapple et al. (2004), have established CBT as an effective treatment method for depression.
Overall, Beck’s theory explains depression from a cognitive perspective. It has high empirical support as well as a successful application (CBT).