What Is The ABC Model? The ABC Model In A Nutshell

The ABC model is a technique used in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). It helps individuals understand the meaning of their reactions to adversity; developed by American psychologist Albert Ellis to explain why different people have different reactions to stress and adversity, the ABC model is an acronym of three components that explain how a person perceives an external event: adversity, belief, and consequence.

Understanding the ABC model

The ABC model was developed by American psychologist Albert Ellis to explain why different people have different reactions to stress and adversity. For example, why does one person caught in traffic honk the horn in anger while another tunes into relaxing music on the radio? 

Many individuals believe they must act a certain way in response to negative events. However, Ellis found the actions of the individual were based on their thoughts about negative events. Put differently, emotion and behavior are not determined by the event itself but the way in which the event is cognitively processed and evaluated.

The ABC model is effective in helping people change unhelpful or unhealthy ways of thinking, feeling, or behaving. Outside of a traditional doctor-patient environment, it is used by carers working in residential settings and also by teachers who have disruptive children in the classroom.

The three components of the ABC model

The ABC model is an acronym of three components that explain how a person perceives an external event:

  1. Adversity (A) – the situation or event.
  2. Belief (B) – our explanation of why the situation or event occurred. The belief may be rational or irrational. 
  3. Consequence (C) – the resultant feelings or behaviors that our belief causes, sometimes called the consequence. Rational beliefs lead to healthy consequences, while irrational beliefs lead to unhealthy consequences.

Some clinicians use a further two components to help patients transition to more productive ways of thinking.

They are:

  1. Disputation (D) – or the questioning of an irrational belief to make it a rational belief. For example, a young woman may consider herself to be a social outcast after not receiving a party invitation. Her irrational belief that nobody likes her may cause sadness, anger, and frustration. However, she then disputes her self-critical thoughts. Being overlooked for one party does not make her unlikeable, especially since she was invited to three other parties in the previous month. What’s more, she barely knew the person organizing the party – so it’s perhaps no surprise she wasn’t invited. In any case, the woman realizes that her thoughts are simply thoughts. They do not have the power to determine what sort of person she is or how she behaves.
  2. New effect (E) – by rejecting an irrational thought and replacing it with something more realistic, the woman does not react negatively to being overlooked for the party. To avoid reacting negatively to a similar situation in the future, she may choose to write a formal commitment to adopting rational thoughts.

Key takeaways:

  • The ABC model is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy. It was developed by psychologist Albert Ellis, who discovered that individuals react negatively to their thoughts about an event – and not the event itself.
  • The ABC model has three components that explain how a person reacts to an external event: adversity, belief, and consequence. Some clinicians supplement the model with two more components to help the individual adopt healthier beliefs.
  • The ABC model is used by psychologists to treat patients with poor mental health. It is also used by carers in residential facilities and in schools to treat disruptive children.

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