Psychotherapy How to Perform Behavioral Experiments Test how real your assumptions are and you might change your life. By Amy Morin, LCSW, Editor-in-Chief Updated on February 12, 2020 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Daniel B. Block, MD Medically reviewed by Daniel B. Block, MD LinkedIn Twitter Daniel B. Block, MD, is an award-winning, board-certified psychiatrist who operates a private practice in Pennsylvania. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print Thomas Barwick / Stone / Getty Images Plus Psychotherapists sometimes encourage clients to perform behavioral experiments that test the reality of their beliefs. It’s a powerful cognitive behavioral therapy technique that can help people recognize that their assumptions aren’t necessarily accurate. What you think and believe isn't always true. But holding onto some of those beliefs might cause you to suffer. For example, someone who believes they are destined to be an “insomniac” might try several different behavioral experiments in an attempt to uncover whether specific strategies might help them sleep better, like exercising in the morning and turning off their screens an hour before bedtime. How It Works Cognitive behavioral therapists help individuals become aware of their problems and the thoughts, emotions, and beliefs about their problems. The therapist helps identify inaccurate thoughts and thought patterns that contribute to the problem. Then, they help people challenge their irrational or unproductive thoughts by asking questions and encouraging them to consider alternative ways to view an issue. Therapists often ask questions that help clients look for exceptions to their rules and assumptions. For example, a therapist who is working with an individual who insists, “No one ever likes me,” might ask, “When was a time when someone did like you?” This could help the client see that their assumptions aren’t 100% accurate. But changing thought patterns aren’t always effective in changing deeply held core beliefs. This is in part because we’re constantly looking for evidence that supports our beliefs. Someone who believes no one ever likes her might automatically think not getting a response from a text message is further proof that people dislike her. Meanwhile, she may view an invitation to a party as a “sympathy invite” from someone who feels sorry for her, not as proof that people actually like her. When changing thought patterns aren’t effective in changing a person’s beliefs, changing their behavior first may be the best option. An individual who accomplishes something they assumed they couldn’t do may begin to see themselves differently. Or an individual who sees that people don’t respond the way they assumed they would may let go of their unhealthy beliefs about other people. Using behavioral experiments to gather evidence can chip away at self-limiting beliefs and help individuals begin to see themselves, other people, or the world in a different manner. Studies show that cognitive behavioral therapy is effective in treating a variety of issues, including anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, substance abuse issues, and PTSD. Press Play For Advice On Reframing Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares tips for reframing your self-limiting beliefs, featuring Paralympic gold medalist Mallory Weggemann. Follow Now: Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts The Process Behavioral experiments can take many forms. For some individuals a behavioral experiment might involve taking a survey to gather evidence about whether other people hold certain beliefs. For others it might involve facing one of their fears head on. No matter what type of behavioral experiment a client is conducting, the therapist and the client usually work together on the following process: Identifying the exact belief/thought/process the experiment will targetBrainstorming ideas for the experimentPredicting the outcome and devising a method to record the outcomeAnticipating challenges and brainstorming solutionsConducting the experimentReviewing the experiment and drawing conclusionsIdentifying follow-up experiments if needed The therapist and the client work together to design the experiment. Then, the client conducts the experiment and monitors the results. The therapist and the client usually debrief together and discuss how the results affect the client’s belief system. The therapist may prescribe further experiments or ongoing experiments to continue to assess unhealthy beliefs. Examples Psychotherapists may assist individuals in designing a behavioral experiment that can counteract almost any distorted way of thinking. Here are a few examples of behavioral experiments: A woman believes people will only like her if she is perfect. Her perfectionist tendencies create a lot of stress and anxiety. She agrees to conduct a behavioral experiment that involves making a few mistakes on purpose and then monitoring how people respond. She sends an email with a few typos and sends a birthday card with a grammatical error to see how people respond. A man believes he’s socially awkward. Consequently, he rarely attends social events—and when he does, he sits in the corner by himself. His behavioral experiment involves going to one social event per week and talking to five people. He then gauges how people to respond to him when he acts outgoing and friendly. A woman worries her boyfriend is cheating on her. She checks his social media accounts throughout the day to see what he is doing. Her behavioral experiment is to stop using social media for two weeks and see if her anxiety gets better or worse. A man struggles to stay asleep at night. When he wakes up, he turns on the TV and watches it until he falls asleep again. His behavioral experiment is to read a book when he wakes up to see if it helps him fall back to sleep faster. A woman with depression doesn’t go to work on days when she feels bad. On these days she stays in bed all day watching TV. Her behavioral experiment involves pushing herself to go to work on days she’s tempted to stay in bed to see if getting out of the house improves her mood. A man with social anxiety avoids socializing at all costs. He thinks he won’t have anything worthwhile to contribute to conversations. His behavioral experiment is to start attending small social events to see if his interactions with others go as poorly as he anticipates. A Word From Verywell If you’re interested in testing some of the potentially self-limiting beliefs you’ve been holding onto, try designing your own behavioral experiment. If you’re not certain how to get started, want some help designing the experiment, or would like to learn more about how to recognize irrational beliefs, then contact a cognitive behavioral therapist. If you aren’t sure where to find one, speak to your physician. Your doctor may be able to refer a cognitive behavioral therapist who can assist you. The 6 Stages of Change Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. David D, Cristea I, Hofmann SG. Why Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Is the Current Gold Standard of Psychotherapy. Frontiers in Psychiatry. 2018;9. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00004. Hofmann SG, Asnaani A, Vonk IJJ, Sawyer AT, Fang A. The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-analyses. Cognitive Therapy and Research. 2013;36(5):427-440. doi:10.1007/s10608-012-9476-1. By Amy Morin, LCSW, Editor-in-Chief Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk, "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? 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