The Cognitive Model in Psychology and Abnormal Functioning

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Everyone has thoughts and beliefs. But how do those thoughts affect your mental health? In this lesson, we'll seek an answer to that question in the cognitive model of abnormal psychology and look closer at the A-B-C theory of processing. Updated: 02/01/2020


Ashley is depressed. Her boyfriend cheated on her with her best friend. She keeps thinking that maybe if she'd just been a bit more adventurous and outgoing, like her former best friend, then he'd have liked her. She tells herself that it's all her fault he cheated. She cries a lot, and sometimes she can't even get out of bed.

Depression is one type of psychological disorder that's studied in abnormal psychology. Psychologists ask two questions when they are studying abnormality:

  1. 'Why does this patient act, think and feel this way?' and
  2. 'How should this person be treated?'

There are many answers to those questions and many different approaches to abnormal psychology. One psychologist might look at Ashley and say that she has a chemical imbalance in her brain and that she needs to be given medication.

Another might say that Ashley is depressed because her boyfriend's betrayal reminds her of a troubled time in her childhood and that talking about her childhood and her relationship with her boyfriend will help heal her. Let's look closer at one of the ways to approach abnormal psychology: the cognitive model.

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  • 0:07 Abnormality
  • 1:17 Cognitive Model
  • 2:31 A-B-C Theory
  • 3:19 Cognitive Treatment
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Cognitive Model

Ashley's depressed. We know that. But why? Is it because she has a chemical imbalance in her brain? Because she's survived a childhood trauma? Or is it something else? The cognitive model of abnormality says that psychological problems stem from a person's thoughts. The thoughts then cause feelings or behaviors that are not healthy.

According to the cognitive model, Ashley's depressed because of the thoughts she has about her boyfriend's cheating. She thinks it's her fault because she's not adventurous enough. Her depression is caused by this train of thought.

Now, you might be saying that it's not Ashley's thoughts but the fact that her boyfriend cheated that's causing her depression. But think about this: Many people have partners who cheat on them. They all react differently: Some get angry, some shrug it off and go on with their lives and some get depressed. What causes the different reactions?

A cognitive theorist would argue that the difference in Ashley and someone who gets angry instead of depressed is their thoughts. Ashley is depressed because she thinks it's all her fault. Someone who blames the cheater might get angry instead of depressed.

A-B-C Theory

The process by which people's thoughts affect their feelings and behaviors is sometimes referred to as the A-B-C theory of processing. It has three parts:

  • Activating Event - This is something that happens to spur certain thoughts. In Ashley's case, it's her boyfriend cheating on her.
  • Belief - The thoughts that shape what a person believes about the event come next. Ashley, for example, believes that her boyfriend's indiscretion is her fault.
  • Consequence - A consequence can be emotional or behavioral, and it is what occurs because of the person's belief. For example, Ashley's depression is a consequence of her belief that her boyfriend's cheating was her fault.

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