What is the Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies?


The Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) was founded in 1966.

Its headquarters are in New York City and its membership includes researchers, psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians, social workers, marriage and family therapists, nurses, and other mental-health practitioners and students. These members support, use, and/or disseminate behavioural and cognitive approaches.

Brief History

ABCT was founded in 1966 under the name Association for Advancement of Behavioural Therapies (AABT) by 10 behaviourists who were dissatisfied with the prevailing Freudian/psychoanalytic model (Its founding members include: John Paul Brady, Joseph Cautela, Edward Dengrove, Cyril Franks, Martin Gittelman, Leonard Krasner, Arnold Lazarus, Andrew Salter, Dorothy Susskind, and Joseph Wolpe). The Freudian/psychoanalytic model refers to the Id, Ego, and Superego within each individual as they interpret and interact with the world and those around them. Although the ABCT was not established until 1966, its history begins in the early 1900s with the birth of the behaviourist movement, which was brought about by Pavlov, Watson, Skinner, Thorndike, Hull, Mowrer, and others – scientists who, concerned primarily with observable behaviour, were beginning to experiment with conditioning and learning theory. By the 1950s, two entities – Hans Eysenck’s research group (which included one of AABT’s founders Cyril Franks) at the University of London Institute of Psychiatry, and Joseph Wolpe’s research group (which included another of AABT’s founders, Arnold Lazarus) in South Africa – were conducting important studies that would establish behaviour therapy as a science based on principles of learning. In complete opposition to the psychoanalytic model, “The seminal significance of behaviour therapy was the commitment to apply the principles and procedures of experimental psychology to clinical problems, to rigorously evaluate the effects of therapy, and to ensure that clinical practice was guided by such objective evaluation”.

The first president of the association was Cyril Franks, who also founded the organisation’s flagship journal Behaviour Therapy and was the first editor of the Association for Advancement of Behavioural Therapies Newsletter. The first annual meeting of the association took place in 1967, in Washington, DC, concurrent with the American Psychological Association’s meeting.

An article in the November 1967 issue of the Newsletter, entitled “Behaviour Therapy and Not Behaviour Therapies” (Wilson & Evans, 1967), influenced the association’s first name change from Association for Advancement of Behavioural Therapies to Association for Advancement of Behaviour Therapy because, as the authors argued, “the various techniques of behaviour therapy all derive from learning theory and should not be misinterpreted as different kinds of behaviour therapy…”. This issue remains a debate in the field and within the organization, particularly with the emergence of the term “cognitive behavioural therapies.” This resulted in yet another name change in 2005 to the Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies.

The Association for Advancement of Behavioural Therapies/Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies has been at the forefront of the professional, legal, social, and ethical controversies and dissemination efforts that have accompanied the field’s evolution. The 1970s was perhaps the most “explosive” and controversial decade for the field of behaviour therapy, as it suffered from an overall negative public image and received numerous attacks from the press regarding behaviour modification and its possible unethical uses. In Gerald Davison’s (AABT’s 8th president) public “Statement on Behaviour Modification from the AABT”, he asserted that “it is a serious mistake … to equate behaviour therapy with the use of electric shocks applied to the extremities…” and “a major contribution of behaviour therapy has been a profound commitment to full description of procedures and careful evaluation of their effects”. From this point, AABT became instrumental in enacting legislative guidelines that protected human research subjects, and they also became active in efforts to educate the public.

Mission Statement

The ABCT is an interdisciplinary organisation committed to the advancement of a scientific approach to the understanding and amelioration of problems of the human condition. These aims are achieved through the investigation and application of behavioural, cognitive, prevention, and treatment. While primarily an interest group, ABCT is also active in:

  • Encouraging the development, study, and dissemination of scientific approaches to behavioural health.
  • Promoting the utilisation, expansion, and dissemination of behavioural, cognitive, and other empirically derived practices.
  • Facilitating professional development, interaction, and networking among members.

Professional Activities

Through its membership, publications, convention and education committees, the ABCT conducts a variety of activities to support and disseminate the behavioural and cognitive therapies. The organization produces two quarterly journals, Behaviour Therapy (research-based) and Cognitive and Behavioural Practice (treatment focused), as well as its house periodical, the Behaviour Therapist (eight times per year). The association’s convention is held annually in November. ABCT also produces fact sheets, an assessment series, and training and archival videotapes. The association maintains a website on which can be found a “Find-a-Therapist” search engine and information about behavioural and cognitive therapies. The organisation provides its members with an online clinical directory, over 30 special interest groups, a list serve, a job bank, and an awards and recognition programme. Other offerings available on the website include sample course syllabi, listings of grants available, and a broad range of offerings of interest to mental health researchers.

Mental Health Professionals

The training of mental health professionals has also been a significant priority for the association. Along with its annual meeting, AABT created an “ad hoc review mechanism” in the 1970s through the 1980s whereby a state could receive a review of a behaviour therapy programme. This led to the yearly publication of a widely used resource, “The Directory of Training Programmes”. With growing concerns over quality control and standardisation of practice, the certification of behaviour therapists also became an issue in the 1970s. This debate led to the development of a Diplomate in behaviour therapy at APA and for those behavioural therapy practices from a more radical behavioural perspective, the development of certification in behaviour analysis at the master level.

An ongoing debate within the association concerns what many consider to be a movement away from basic behavioural science as the field has attempted to advance and integrate more and more “new” therapies/specialisations, particularly the addition of cognitive theory and its variety of techniques. John Forsyth, in his special issue of Behaviour Therapy] entitled “Thirty Years of Behaviour Therapy: Promises Kept, Promises Unfulfilled”, summarised this opposition as follows:

“(a) cognition is not behaviour, (b) behaviour principles and theory cannot account for events occurring within the skin, and most important, (c) we therefore need a unique conceptual system to account for how thinking, feeling, and other private events relate to overt human action”.

The field’s desire to maintain its scientific foundations and yet continue to advance and grow, was reflected in its most recent discussion about adding the word “cognitive” to the name of the association.

Many notable scholars have served as president of the association, including Joseph Wolpe, Arnold Lazarus, Nathan Azrin, Steven C. Hayes, and David Barlow. The current executive director of the ABCT is Mary Jane Eimer, CAE. For a wealth of historical specifics (governing bodies, lists of editors, past presidents, award winners, SIGs, and conventions from the past 40 years) see ABCT’s 40th anniversary issue of the Behaviour Therapist.

About Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies

Cognitive and behavioural therapists help people learn to actively cope with, confront, reformulate, and/or change the maladaptive cognitions, behaviours, and symptoms that limit their ability to function, cause emotional distress, and accompany the wide range of mental health disorders. Goal-oriented, time-limited, research-based, and focused on the present, the cognitive and behavioural approach is collaborative. This approach values feedback from the client, and encourages the client to play an active role in setting goals and the overall course and pace of treatment. Importantly, behavioural interventions are characterized by a “direct focus on observable behaviour”. Practitioners teach clients concrete skills and exercises – from breathing retraining, to keeping thought records to behavioural rehearsal – to practice at home and in sessions, with the overall goal of optimal functioning and the ability to engage in life fully.

Because cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is based on broad principles of human learning and adaptation, it can be used to accomplish a wide variety of goals. CBT has been applied to issues ranging from depression and anxiety, to the improvement of the quality of parenting, relationships, and personal effectiveness.

Numerous scientific studies and research have documented the helpfulness of CBT programmes for a wide range of concerns throughout the lifespan. These concerns include children’s behaviour problems, health promotion, weight management, pain management, sexual dysfunction, stress, violence and victimisation, serious mental illness, relationship issues, academic problems, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, developmental disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, social phobia, school refusal and school phobia, hair pulling (trichotillomania) and much more. Cognitive-behavioural treatments are subject randomised controlled trials and “have been subjected to more rigorous evaluation using randomised controlled trials than any of the other psychological therapies”. There is discussion of using technology to determine diagnosis and host interventions according to research done by W. Edward Craighead. This would be done using “genetic analysis” and “neuroimaging” to create more individualised treatment plans.

Special Interest Groups

The ABCT has more than 40 special interest groups for its members. These include groups for issues involving African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanics and other ethnic groups such as children and adolescents; couples; gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people; students; military personnel; and the criminal justice system. The ABCT works within these groups to overcome addictive behaviours and mental illnesses that may cause negativity in these groups life. A group that the ABCT has supported well is the special interest group of the criminal justice system. The ABCT helps provide the prison system with knowledge of how to more humanely treat those who committed crimes and give people the proper care and attention to become great citizens.

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