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David Burns is a cognitive therapist, who in his Feeling Good describes how to overcome depression. He states that depression is a logical result of irrational negative thoughts, which can be generalized to a finite set of thought patterns called cognitive distortions. For example, one such cognitive distortion is over-generalization, an example of a negative irrational thought matching this pattern is "this girl rejected my advances outright, i'll probably never have success with a girl". In general, cognitive therapy states that our thoughts determine emotions, feelings, moods, habits and behaviors. Thoughts here not only mean thought-phrases, but also perceptions, interpretations, attitudes and beliefs.

Allen Carr was a smoking cessation expert, who wrote Easy Way to Stop Smoking. In short, his method revolves around changing your perception of smoking and quitting, and if you succeed, you will quit easily, painlessly and instantly, as if you were never a smoker. First, Carr deconstructs every single argument for smoking, such as concentration, relaxation, stress coping aid, taste, hobby and so on, showing that they are just incorrect rationalizations of an addicted mind. Then he explains the mechanism of addiction — you smoke to relieve the unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, your mind associates sense of relief with the cigarette, therefore cigarette deprivation is so painful, even though it itself doesn't bring pleasure, only returns you to the state, in which non-smokers always are. Finally, he goes through the fears of quitting and deconstructs them by showing that physical withdrawal symptoms are mild, and the cravings are creatures of the deluded mind, that quitting is not a sacrifice and a chore, and the only obstacle was fear.

Carr meticulously describes every facet of smoking, therefore his book doesn't propose written exercises and ideally takes only one reading through to quit smoking. Burns's approach, in contrast, is generic and gradual, he gives you some tools, namely, list of cognitive distortions and a vast amount of written exercises, and asks you to manually apply them in everyday situations. His therapy course lasts for several weeks.

My question is, can Carr's method viewed as a kind of cognitive therapy? What is its relation to a vast ontology of cognitive-behavioral therapy variants, what is the same and what is different? Do mainstream cognitive therapy academics acknowledge Carr's method and his similarities with their approach?

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1 Answer 1

Cognitive therapy

The driving principle behind cognitive therapy is that mental problems are caused not by any 'objective' qualities of the events that we experience, but our perception and interpretation of those events. By changing these perceptions and interpretations, we can alleviate or solve those problems (Beck, 1970).

In this sense, Carr's method can be seen as consistent with cognitive therapy, but I would not go so far as to call it a form of cognitive therapy without peer review and validation that does not seem to exist.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

The difference between Burns' and Carr's methods can be explained by the fact that Burns is a cognitive behavioral therapist (CBT). This is a form of therapy which incorporates and expands on the principles of cognitive therapy, by acknowledging that not all of our perceptions and interpretations are under rational or conscious control. It therefore incorporates both cognitive and behavioral elements. An introduction to and meta-review of CBT's efficacy compared to therapy forms like cognitive therapy can be found in Butler et al. (2006).

Validity of Carr's method

Carr's work does not appear to have been directly referenced, at least not in any readily discoverable form, in the psychological literature. This may be because his method is actually not new, but seems to have been loosely based on a mix of Beck's ideas and Albert Ellis' stoicism-inspired rational therapy, so it should not necessarily be taken to mean that the method is nonsense; Carr may simply be popularizing established methods.


  • Beck, A. T. (1970). Cognitive therapy: Nature and relation to behavior therapy. Behavior therapy, 1(2), 184-200.
  • Butler, A. C., Chapman, J. E., Forman, E. M., & Beck, A. T. (2006). The empirical status of cognitive-behavioral therapy: a review of meta-analyses. Clinical psychology review, 26(1), 17-31.
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