Historical Background of Theoretical Models

Some of the major techniques used in counselling and other disciplines (e.g. coaching) are based on the key theoretical models of behaviour therapy, cognitive behaviour therapy, person-centred therapy, solution-focused therapy and gestalt.

Understanding each of these therapies’ histories, concepts, applications, benefits, disadvantages and processes helps therapists to relate to clients and assist them to develop efficient models for positive change and to cope with life’s challenges.

In this article, we showcase the history and the most prominent contributors behind each approach.

Behaviour Therapy

Behaviour therapy had its beginnings in the early 1900’s and became established as a psychological approach in the 1950s and 1960s. At this time, it received much resistance from the current school of thought, psychoanalysis. Some of the major contributors to the development of behavioural therapy include:

Ivan Pavlov (1849 – 1936): Pavlov’s contributions to behavioural therapy were accidental. He was originally studying the digestive process of dogs when he discovered that associations can develop when pairing a stimulus (food) that has a response (dog salivates) with a stimulus that has no response (bell). The stimulus with no response (bell) eventually develops the same response (dog salivates) as the stimuli that has the response (food). This type of learning is known as classical conditioning (Seligman, 2006).

John B. Watson (1878 – 1958): Watson has been described as the “father” of behaviourism (McLeod). He used Pavlov’s principles of classical conditioning as well as emphasising that all behaviour could be understood as a result of learning. Watson’s research involved the study of a young child called “Albert”. “Albert” was initially not scared of rats.

However, Watson paired the rat with a loud noise and this frightened “Albert”. After this was repeated numerous times, “Albert” developed a fear of rats. He also developed a fear of things similar to a rat such as men with beards, dogs, and fur coats. This fear was extinguished after a month of not repeating the experiment (McLeod, n.d.a).

B.F. Skinner (1904 – 1958): Skinner developed the theory of operant reinforcement theory which is the notion that how often a behaviour is executed depends on the events that follow the behaviour (Seligman, 2006). For example, if the behaviour is reinforced, the behaviour is more likely to be repeated. He emphasised observable behaviour and rejected the notion of “inner causes” for behaviour (McLeod, n.d.a)

John Dollard (1900 – 1980) & Neal Miller (1909 – 2002): Dollard and Miller provided more understanding to behavioural theory. They believed that when a stimulus and response are frequently paired together and rewarded, the more likely it is for an individual to repeat the behaviour (Seligman, 2006).

They identified this as a habitual response. They also identified four elements in behaviour: drive, cue, response, and reinforcement (Seligman, 2006)

Joseph Wolpe (1915 – 1977): Wolpe described a process known as reciprocal inhibition which is when “eliciting a novel response brings about a decrease in the strength of a concurrent response” (Seligman, 2006). Wolpe also developed the therapeutic tool of systematic desensitization which is used in the treatment of phobias (to be discussed further down).

Albert Bandura (1925): Bandura applied the principles of classical and operant conditioning to social learning. Basically, people learn behaviours through observation of other’s behaviour, also known as modelling (Seligman, 2006).

The traditional behavioural approach is no longer used as it once was. It has moved towards a more collaborative treatment with cognitive therapy and as such this has meant a more applicable approach (Seligman, 2006).

Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy

Albert Ellis: Ellis was born in Pittsburg (1913). He spent most of his life in New York. A natural counsellor, Ellis studied psychoanalysis and was supervised by a training analyst. Ellis, however grew increasingly frustrated by psychoanalysis which he concluded was unscientific and superficial (Corey, 2005).

In the early 1950s, Ellis experimented with other treatment frameworks, from humanism to behaviour therapy. From such experimentation, Ellis founded what is now referred to as Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (or REBT).

Aaron Beck: Beck, born in 1921, Providence, Rhode Island, was initially attracted to the study of neurology. It wasn’t long, however, before he discovered psychiatry was a more fitting interest for him. Beck struggled with numerous fears throughout his life, including a fear of public speaking and anxiety about his health.

Beck used these fears to help him understand himself and others which ultimately provided the basis on which he developed his cognitive theory (Corey, 2005). Through his research, Beck discovered that people who are suffering from depression often reported thinking that was characterised by errors in logic. These errors, Beck called, ‘cognitive distortions’.

Person-Centred Therapy

The person-centred approach was developed from the concepts of humanistic psychology. The humanistic approach “views people as capable and autonomous, with the ability to resolve their difficulties, realize their potential, and change their lives in positive ways” (Seligman, 2006).

Carl Rogers (a major contributor of the client-centred approach) emphasised the humanistic perspective as well as ensuring therapeutic relationships with clients promote self-esteem, authenticity and actualisation in their life, and help them to use their strengths (Seligman, 2006).

The person-centred approach was originally focused on the client being in charge of the therapy which led to the client developing a greater understanding of self, self-exploration, and improved self-concepts. The focus then shifted to the client’s frame of reference and the core conditions required for successful therapy such as ensuring the therapist demonstrates empathic understanding in a non-judgemental way.

Currently, the person-centred approach focuses on the client being able to develop a greater understanding of self in an environment which allows the client to resolve his or her own problems without direct intervention by the therapist. The therapist should keep a questioning stance which is open to change as well as demonstrating courage to face the unknown.

Rogers also emphasised the attitudes and personal characteristics of the therapist and the quality of the client-therapist relationship as being the determinants for a successful therapeutic process (Corey, 2005).

Solution-Focused Therapy

Solution focused therapies are founded on the rationale that there are exceptions to every problem and through examining these exceptions and having a clear vision of a preferred future, client and counsellor, together, can generate ides for solutions. Solution focused therapists are competency and future focused. They highlight and utilise client strengths to enable a more effective future.

Historically, psychotherapeutic approaches of the early-mid 1900s focused primarily on client pathology and problems. By the late 1950s a moderate shift in practitioner direction was occurring. Therapists were shifting from a focus on the past to a ‘here and now’ approach.

Nonetheless the focus on client pathology and problems remained. By the late 1970s, practitioners, particularly family therapists, were taking note of their own biases. Contextual factors became the focus as clinicians began to challenge traditional pathologising and power-orientated practices (Bertolino & O’Hanlon, 2002).

Solution focused practice emerged with the idea that solutions may rest within the individual and his or her social network. As postmodernism sparked questions about the superiority of the therapist’s position and the idea of a universal truth, the therapeutic relationship began to transform – the client now recognised as the expert in his or her own life.

This created a more collaborative approach to counselling (Bertolino & O’Hanlon, 2002) and established a context in which solution focused practice could flourish.

Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapy was developed in the 1940’s by Fritz and Laura Perls and further influenced by the likes of Kurt Lewin and Kurt Goldstein (Corsini & Wedding, 2000).

It was developed as a revision to psychoanalysis and focuses on an experiential and humanistic approach rather than analysis of the unconscious which was one of the main therapeutic tools at the time Gestalt therapy was employed.

Gestalt therapy rejects the dualities of mind and body, body and soul, thinking and feeling, and feeling and action. According to Perls, people are not made up of separate components, this is, mind, body and soul, rather human beings function as a whole. In doing so, one defines who one is (sense of self) by choice of responses to environmental interactions (boundaries). The word “Gestalt” (of German origin) refers to a “whole, configuration, integration, pattern or form” (Patterson, 1986).

The form of Gestalt therapy practiced today utilises ideas, data and interventions from multiple sources, as well as some of the original techniques known to be ‘Gestalt therapy techniques’. It is noted that Gestalt therapy has a history of being an approach which creates or borrows specific techniques that are focused on assisting the client to take the next step in their personal growth and development.


  • Corey, C. (2005). Theory and practice of counseling & psychotherapy.  (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning.
  • Seligman, L. (2006). Theories of counseling and psychotherapy: Systems, strategies, and skills. (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Ltd.