1 Part Critical Thinking + 1 Part Behavior Modification = Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)

The Enlightenment premise that the average person can deal rationally with life’s demands invites a question: what might a psychotherapy that foregrounds critical thinking habits look like?

Enter Albert Ellis (1913-2007) and his Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Ellis, an atheist and humanist, believed that rational life habits could be taught, and he did just that. He was a popular cognitive behavioral therapist in New York City for more than half a century, and for 46 years, at his Institute for Rational Living (later named the Albert Ellis Institute), he led Friday night workshops teaching reason-based cognitive behavioral therapy and self-help.

In April 2009, American Psychologist  ran an obituary to Ellis, and I think that this paragraph in the obituary, written by Frank Farley of Temple University, explains Ellis’s cognitive behavioral therapy with superb concision and clarity:

A central conception in REBT is the ABC model. In summary, this refers to A, an activating event that one does not like; B, one’s belief about A; and C, the consequence, in which one might experience healthy emotions and behavior or unhealthy emotions and self-defeating behavior, depending on whether one’s beliefs (B) are rational or irrational. People often blame A as the cause of C, but B is to blame. Their belief (B), which is their interpretation of A, is the culprit. At B one chooses how one feels about A, that choice leading to C. If one is unable to change A, rationally accepting that fact can produce appropriate emotions one can deal with. However, if one demands irrationally that A must be changed when it cannot be, unhealthy emotions are created. Disputing (D) the irrational beliefs, which will lead to effective (E) new beliefs, emotions, and behavior, is what is required in therapy and self-help. Thus, points B and D become essential foci for progress. Related to the foregoing, Ellis fought the influence of the ‘musts’ and the ‘shoulds’ and emphasized unconditional self-acceptance, unconditional other-acceptance, and unconditional life-acceptance.

Ellis’s ABC model, of course, is a contemporary gloss on Hellenistic philosophy. Both Seneca and Epicurus would have recognized Ellis as a fellow traveller—as one of them. As Martha Nussbaum writes of Roman philosophy (in The Therapy of Desire, p. 15):

[T]here is in this [Hellenistic] period broad and deep agreement that the central motivation for philosophizing is the urgency of human suffering, and that the goal of philosophy is human flourishing, or eudaimonia. . . . All three schools [Epicurean, Skeptic, Stoic] . . . could accept the Epicurean definition of philosophy: ‘Philosophy is an activity that secures the flourishing [eudaimon ] life by arguments and reasonings.’

In other words, Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics all believed that rational arguments delivered to the mind could counter its suffering. But Nussbaum quotes Cicero as being dubious of this solution to what ails us (p. 15-16):

Their narrow little syllogistic arguments prick their hearers like pins. Even if they assent intellectually, they are in no way changed in their hearts, but they go away in the same condition in which they came. The subject matter is perhaps true and certainly important; but the arguments treat it in too petty a manner, and not as it deserves.

Presumably Cicero, were he alive today, would express a similar skepticism of Albert Ellis’s REBT. And in an age of biochemistry, wherever people are ill at ease, perhaps they would be wise to join Cicero in his skepticism, looking more to Prozac than to talk.

Still, Albert Ellis is a compelling figure in psychology, and here he is outlining some of his key ideas to an interviewer:

And this chart from Wikipedia presenting Ellis’s three musterbations (the “musts” by which we disturb ataraxia—peace of mind) is interesting. The categatories under which the “musts” fall are the following: (1) “I must”; (2) “people must”‘; and (3) “the world must”:

“I absolutely MUST, under practically all conditions and at all times, perform well (or outstandingly well) and win the approval (or complete love) of significant others. If I fail in these important—and sacred—respects, that is awful and I am a bad, incompetent, unworthy person, who will probably always fail and deserves to suffer.” “Other people with whom I relate or associate, absolutely MUST, under practically all conditions and at all times, treat me nicely, considerately and fairly. Otherwise, it is terrible and they are rotten, bad, unworthy people who will always treat me badly and do not deserve a good life and should be severely punished for acting so abominably to me.” “The conditions under which I live absolutely MUST, at practically all times, be favorable, safe, hassle-free, and quickly and easily enjoyable, and if they are not that way it’s awful and horrible and I can’t bear it. I can’t ever enjoy myself at all. My life is impossible and hardly worth living.”
Holding this belief when faced with adversity tends to contribute to feelings of anxiety, panic, depression, despair, and worthlessness. Holding this belief when faced with adversity tends to contribute to feelings of anger, rage, fury, and vindictiveness. Holding this belief when faced with adversity tends to contribute to frustration and discomfort, intolerance, self-pity, anger, depression, and to behaviors such as procrastination, avoidance, and inaction.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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7 Responses to 1 Part Critical Thinking + 1 Part Behavior Modification = Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)

  1. JCR says:

    Great story, you post some really interesting stuff. I have read about Epicurus and Democritus before, but went back to wikipedia to read a little more about them.

    This is off topic, but when reading about these 2 on wikipedia, I noticed that they both lived past 70. Interesting, in a time when the average life expectancy was in the 30s. I then looked up a few more, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle – all live WAY beyond the average life expectancy of their times (2x or more). Not really relevant, just interesting. Do great philosophers live longer for a reason?

    • santitafarella says:


      Lots of possibilities on the age question. I suppose there could be a correlation between high intelligence and general fitness. Brains that work efficiently perhaps tend to be attached to bodies that run efficiently. Or maybe the great philosophers, because they obviously came from their societies’ leisure classes, had less stressful lives than, say, slaves. Or maybe they exercised moderation and restraint in accord with wisdom.

      In happiness studies, there comes a point (somewhere around 60,000 dollars, I think) where making more doesn’t make you all that much happier. Perhaps lifespan is like that. Once you have a certain minimum number of positive life factors in place (secure housing, food, fresh air and water, a degree of liesure, etc) the odds that you reach 70 are pretty good. And a lot more of these things—or other factors, like exercise and high-tech medical care—maybe don’t increase your probable lifespan all that much.


      • Colin Hutton says:

        Or perhaps treat philosophy requires maturity and life experience. Would JCR’s exemplars be remembered today, had they died at age 40? Nietzsche comes to mind as someone who (effectively) died young (insane at 45), but I believe I’m right in thinking that most of his really significant work was in his last 3-4 years. Mathematicians are the reverse, seldom producing anything novel after age 30.


      • santitafarella says:


        My guess is that all the great philosophers wrote their best work relatively young. Genius is genius; it tends to show up early.

        And we are assuming that the ancient writers who claim to know the ages of these philosophers actually did. It is more likely that a philosopher’s age at death is exaggerated precisely because it would add to his status. Who wants to follow the advice of a philosopher who died young?


      • @Santi

        Did they write their works early in life? While genius is genius, wisdom is not. Alas, the truth seems lost to history. I recently turned 40, so did most of my friends. I know that I have changed philosophies over the years – although I recognize huge changes in my friends over the years. And who knows what lies ahead.

  2. Colin Hutton says:

    Apologies: treat = great

  3. Best Detox says:

    Excellent post. Seems as though alot of time and effort went in this.

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