How to Perform Behavioral Experiments

Test how real your assumptions are and you might change your life.

Test your negative beliefs with behavioral experiments.

 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.

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:

  1. Identifying the exact belief/thought/process the experiment will target
  2. Brainstorming ideas for the experiment
  3. Predicting the outcome and devising a method to record the outcome
  4. Anticipating challenges and brainstorming solutions
  5. Conducting the experiment
  6. Reviewing the experiment and drawing conclusions
  7. Identifying 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.

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