How Behavioral Therapy Is Used in Psychology

Behavioral therapy with young girl
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In behavioral therapy, the goal is to reinforce desirable behaviors and eliminate unwanted or maladaptive ones. Behavioral therapy is rooted in the principles of behaviorism, a school of thought focused on the idea that we learn from our environment. The techniques used in this type of treatment are based on the theories of classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

One important thing to note about the various behavioral therapies is that unlike some other types of therapy that are rooted in insight (such as psychoanalytic and humanistic therapies), behavioral therapy is action-based. Behavioral therapists are focused on using the same learning strategies that led to the formation of unwanted behaviors.

Because of this, behavioral therapy tends to be highly focused. The behavior itself is the problem and the goal is to teach clients new behaviors to minimize or eliminate the issue. Old learning led to the development of a problem, and so the idea is that new learning can fix it.

There are three major areas that also draw on the strategies of behavioral therapy:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy relies on behavioral techniques but adds a cognitive element, focusing on the problematic thoughts that lie behind behaviors.
  • Applied behavior analysis uses operant conditioning to shape and modify problematic behaviors.
  • Social learning theory centers on how people learn through observation. Observing others being rewarded or punished for their actions can lead to learning and behavior change.

Edward Thorndike was one of the first to refer to the idea of modifying behavior. Other early pioneers of behavior therapy included psychologists Joseph Wolpe and Hans Eysenck. Behaviorist B.F. Skinner's work had a major influence on the development of behavior therapy and his work introduced many of the concepts and techniques that are still in use today.

Later on, psychologists such as Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis began adding a cognitive element to behavioral strategies to form a treatment approach known as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

The Foundation of Behavioral Therapy

In order to understand how behavioral therapy works, let's start by exploring the two basic principles that contribute to behavioral therapy: Classical and operant conditioning.

  • Classical conditioning involves forming associations between stimuli. Previously neutral stimuli are paired with a stimulus that naturally and automatically evokes a response. After repeated pairings, an association is formed and the previously neutral stimulus will come to evoke the response on its own.
  • Operant conditioning focuses on how reinforcement and punishment can be utilized to either increase or decrease the frequency of a behavior. Behaviors followed by desirable consequences are more likely to occur again in the future, while those followed by negative consequences become less likely to occur.

Behavior Therapy Based on Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is one way to alter behavior, and a number of techniques exist that can produce such change. Originally known as behavior modification, this type of therapy is often referred to today as applied behavior analysis. There are several different techniques and strategies used in this approach to therapy.


This process involves exposing people to fear-invoking objects or situations intensely and rapidly. It is often used to treat phobias. During the process, the individual is prevented from escaping or avoiding the situation.

For example, flooding might be used to help a person who is suffering from an intense fear of dogs. At first, the client might be exposed to a small, friendly dog for an extended period of time during which they cannot leave. After repeated exposures to the dog during which nothing bad happens, the fear response begins to fade.

Systematic Desensitization

In this technique, a client makes a list of fears and then learns to relax while concentrating on these fears. The use of this process began with psychologist John B. Watson and his famous Little Albert experiment in which he conditioned a young child to fear a white rat. Later, Mary Cover Jones replicated Watson's results and utilized counterconditioning techniques to desensitize and eliminate the fear response.

Systematic desensitization is often used to treat phobias and other anxiety disorders. The process follows three basic steps.

  1. First, the therapist teaches the client relaxation techniques.
  2. Next, the individual creates a ranked list of fear-invoking situations.
  3. Starting with the least fear-inducing item and working their way up to the most fear-inducing item, the client confronts these fears under the guidance of the therapist while maintaining a relaxed state.

For example, an individual with a fear of the dark might start by looking at an image of a dark room, before moving on to thinking about being in a dark room, and then actually confronting his fear by sitting in a dark room. By pairing the old fear-producing stimulus with the newly learned relaxation behavior, the phobic response can be reduced or even eliminated.

Aversion Therapy

This process involves pairing an undesirable behavior with an aversive stimulus in the hope that the unwanted behavior will eventually be reduced. For example, someone suffering from alcoholism might take disulfiram, a drug which causes severe symptoms (such as headaches, nausea, anxiety, and vomiting) when combined with alcohol.

Behavior Therapy Based on Operant Conditioning

Many behavior techniques rely on the principles of operant conditioning, which means that they use reinforcement, punishment, shaping, modeling and related techniques to alter behavior. These methods have the benefit of being highly focused, which means that they can produce fast and effective results.

Token Economies

This type of behavioral strategy relies on reinforcement to modify behavior. Clients are allowed to earn tokens that can be exchanged for special privileges or desired items. Parents and teachers often use token economies to reinforce good behavior.

Kids earn tokens for engaging in preferred behaviors and may lose tokens for displaying undesirable behaviors. These tokens can then be traded for rewards such as candy, toys, or extra time playing with a favorite toy.

Contingency Management

This approach uses a formal written contract between a client and a therapist (or parent or teacher) that outlines behavior-change goals, reinforcements, rewards, and penalties. Contingency contracts can be very effective in producing behavior changes since the rules are spelled out clearly, preventing both parties from backing down on their promises.


This technique involves learning through observation and modeling the behavior of others. The process is based on Albert Bandura's social learning theory, which emphasizes the social components of the learning process.

Rather than relying simply on reinforcement or punishment, modeling allows individuals to learn new skills or acceptable behaviors by watching someone else perform those desired skills. In some cases, the therapist might model the desired behavior. In other instances, watching peers engage in sought-after behaviors can also be helpful.


Another way to produce behavior change is to stop reinforcing a behavior in order to eliminate the response. Time-outs are a perfect example of the extinction process.

During a time-out, a person is removed from a situation that provides reinforcement. For example, a child who starts yelling or striking other children would be removed from the group and required to sit quietly in a place where there are no opportunities for attention and reinforcement. By taking away the attention that the child found rewarding, the unwanted behavior is eventually extinguished.

A Word From Verywell

When it comes to treating specific behavioral issues, behavioral therapy can sometimes be more effective than other approaches. Phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder respond well to behavioral treatments.

However, behavioral approaches are not always the best solution. For example, behavioral therapy is generally not the best approach when treating certain psychiatric disorders such as depression and schizophrenia. Behavioral therapy might be effective at helping clients manage or cope with certain aspects of these psychiatric conditions, but it should be used in conjunction with other medical and therapeutic treatments.

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