Behaviorism:  Behavioral Psychology and Behavior Therapy

During the course of their studies, psychologists, psychotherapists, and counselors are familiarized with behaviorism.  One can view this school of thought as 1 piece of the puzzle that explains human behavior and mental health disorders, such as anxiety, OCD, phobias, addictions, or any other mal-adaptive behaviors (avoidance behaviors, disordered eating, self-harm etc.).  Based on this school of thought, therapies were developed to treat mental health conditions.  As the scientific research in the field of psychology and psychotherapy continued, behaviorism was expanded upon and other schools of thought emerged.  Knowledge of all the significant schools of thought and treatment modalities in the field of psychology constitute the basic curriculum of any accredited university degree in psychology and gives psychologists, psychotherapists, and counselors the qualifications to use evidence based treatment methods for mental health disorders and to facilitate personal development and growth.

Ivan Pavlov is considered the father of behaviorism.  This the late 19th century Russian biologist was conducting research on digestion in dogs when he noticed and interesting thing.  For his research, he had temporarily inserted tubes in the cheeks of dogs to gather saliva during eating.  After several feeding sessions Pavlov noticed that that the dogs started salivating when they heard the food being brought to them rather than when it was put in their mouths.  Pavlov observed that the dogs had recognized to associate the sound of bringing the food with the food.  Since the sound of brining the food always happened immediately before bringing the food, the dogs started to salivate to the sound as if it were the food.

To take this surprise finding a step further, Pavlov in the next round of experimentation would ring a bell right before the food was given to the dogs.  As expected, over time the dogs would salivate just in response to ringing the bell.  As has so often happened in scientific research, he had accidentally discovered a very important principle in learning, which he called conditioning.   He came to believe that all human thought, emotion, and language derived from this simple form of learning that psychologists, psychotherapists, and counselors call classical or Pavlovian conditioning.

John B. Watson, an American psychologist, was deeply impressed by the first reports of Pavlov’s work, because of the scientific precision and the absence of introspection.  He agreed that this finding gave profound insight on human behavior and concluded that most human behavior is learned through classical conditioning.  Due to the focus on the precise measurement of overt behavior, Watson called the new school of thought, founded on his principles and those of Pavlov, behaviorism.

Psychologists, psychotherapists, and counselors use their knowledge of classical conditioning to understand the origins of some mental health disorders, and during counseling apply specific treatments based on this school of thought.  According to behaviorism, phobias and psychosomatic illnesses are based on classical conditioning.  A phobia is an intense irrational fear, such as a fear of needles, flying, birds, insects etc.   Imagine, for example, that a child playing in a pool was frightened, and almost drowned, when a large dog jumped in the water and knocked the child down.  This one pairing may have been so intense that, even as an adult, it left a conditioned fear of water, even though the dog and the water rationally had nothing to do with each other.  Behavioral scientists specializing in phobias suggest that many, but probably not all, human phobias are the result of classical conditioning.

In 1920 Watson and his associate Rayner conducted an experiment with little Albert that came to be the most widely cited example of classical conditioning of a phobia.  All qualified psychologists, psychotherapists and counselors have studied this experiment.  What must be noted, at this point, is that such experimentation would not be considered ethical by today’s standards.  Since the early years of psychology, a code of ethics has been developed that prohibits any experimentation that could possibly do harm to a subject.

Little Albert:  Classically conditioned fear

Albert was given permission to play with a white laboratory rat to find out if he was afraid of rats.  Based on observation, little Albert had no fear of rats.  Then as he played with the white rat, an iron bar was struck loudly with a hammer behind the boy’s head.  The boy was startled and began to cry loudly.  After seven of such pairings (playing with the white rat and sudden, loud noise) little Albert showed a strong fear response when he was given the rat to play with.  He had learned to fear the rat through classical conditioning.   Additionally, the fear generalized to other similar objects.  Five days later, Albert reacted fearfully to a white rabbit, a dog, and a sealskin coat.  He also was somewhat fearful when he saw white cotton balls and a Santa Clause mask.

Psychologists, psychotherapists, and counselors also understand that classical conditioning can play a significant role in psychosomatic illness.  A psychosomatic illness is a bodily illness that is psychological rather than biological in origin (psycho=psychological, soma=body).  Evidence gathered by Dutch researchers showed that they can classically condition asthma attacks to a previously neutral stimulus.  These psychologists were fortunate to have two volunteers for their experiment.  Two asthma patients, one with an allergic sensitivity to grass pollen and the other to house dust, partook in the study.  First, they inhaled the substance to which they were allergic through a glass mouthpiece and each suffered a full-blown asthma attack.  This one pairing was so effective that the net time they were brought to the laboratory the subjects suffered allergy attacks as soon as the glass mouthpiece as placed in their mouths, even though it contained only oxygen.  It was apparent that their asthma attacks were classically conditioned.  This raises the possibility that asthmatics may learn to have some of their attacks to neutral stimuli outside the laboratory.

It is through the work that B. F. Skinner conducted at Harvard University that psychologists, psychotherapists, and counselors gain additional insight on how learning can impact behavior and mental health.  He emphasized the importance of learning in shaping our behaviors.  Skinner was a radical behaviorist, and posited that mental events or processes are completely unnecessary in describing why people behave the way they do.  Radical behaviorists essentially try to think of behavior as a “black box,” meaning that whatever is going on inside the mind is irrelevant to psychology.  According to radical behaviorism, there are simply stimuli coming in and influencing the way that people behave, and then there are responses, or behaviors, as a result of those stimuli.  Skinner coined the term operant conditioning.  This psychologist defined operant conditioning in the following way:  learning in which the consequence of behavior leads to changes in the probability of its occurrence.  He identified 3 important concepts in how we acquire behaviors.

Positive Reinforcement:

Is defined as any consequence of behavior that leads to an increase in the probability of its occurrence.  In the modern work place for instance, pay increases based on work performance will most likely increase productive work behavior.

The psychologist B. F. Skinner conducted research with laboratory rats to analyze how the timing of reinforcement influences behavior.   Psychologists, psychotherapists, and counselors often refer to this as the “Skinner Box”.  He discovered 4 different schedules of reinforcement that have a profound effect on behavior.

  1. Fixed ratio schedule: This is a reward that is given after a specified number of desired responses.
  2. Variable ratio schedule: Here the reward is given after a varying number of desired responses
  3. Fixed interval schedule: The reward is given based on a predetermined passage of time.
  4. Variable interval schedule: The reward is given based on a variable amount of time passing.

Negative Reinforcement:

This type of reinforcement is the removal or avoidance of a negative event as the consequence of behavior.  E.g. If you assertively ask a neighbor to turn off his loud music and the noise ceases, your assertiveness will be strengthened because you were able to avoid the loud noise.  There are two types of operant learning to shape our behaviors:

  1. Escape conditioning:

Is operant conditioning in which the behavior is reinforced because it causes a negative event to stop.

  1. Avoidance conditioning:

Is operant conditioning in which the behavior is reinforced because it prevents something negative that would normally happen from happening.


A negative consequence of a behavior that leads to a decrease in the frequency of the behavior.  Some simple examples are fines for speeding, or having DEWA cut off it you do not pay your bills on time.

Psychologists, psychotherapists, and counselors are aware of the various forms of learning that can cause “abnormal” behavior.  Here we are looking at mal-adaptive behaviors as simply learned from abnormal experiences of classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and by observing other people’s behavior (this is called modeling).  To put this another way, the individual deviates from the norm in his behaviors because his environment taught him to.  The logical deduction from this train of thought is that people can unlearn abnormal ways of behaving and learn adaptive behaviors.  Based upon this concept some psychotherapeutic treatments have developed that are implemented through the help of a qualified psychologist or counselor.

How do mental health care professionals, such as psychologists, psychotherapist and counselors apply this knowledge in the treatment of mental health disorders:  anxiety treatments, depression treatment, phobia treatment, schizophrenia treatment?  The basic premise of behaviorism is that psychotherapy or counseling is based on learning in which the therapist or counselor provide counseling to help the client unlearn abnormal ways of behaving, and learn more adaptive ways to take their place.

Here is an example based on the research finding by Ayllon and Haughton, 1964.  Ayllon observed that when delusional schizophrenic patients made delusional statements, they received more attention form the attendants than when they were making “normal” statements.  For instance, when a patient said she was the queen of England and wanted to smoke and to please give King George greetings, she received a great deal of attention from the attendant.  The psychologist Ayllon hypothesized, based on behaviorism, that this attention reinforced making “crazy” statements.

He conducted a clinical experiment with 3 schizophrenic women who in high frequency made delusional statements.  First, he measured the number of delusional statements in a given time period to crease a baseline.  Then he instructed the attendants to pay attention to the patients every time a delusional statement was made.  During this phase of the experiment the number of delusional statements increased significantly.  During the third phase, which was the therapeutic phase of the treatment, the attendants were instructed not to pay any attention to delusional statements, but to pay attention when the patients were making normal statements.   As expected, based on behaviorism, the number of delusional statements decreased dramatically and well below the baseline and normal statements significantly increased.

These findings were a significant breakthrough in the treatment of schizophrenic individuals to shape their behaviors into reality based behaviors.  Ayllon’s findings show that our behaviors can be influenced, to a great extent, by subtle reinforcers like the amount of attention that we receive.   The principles of behaviorism don’t only come into play in the mental health field and in the treatment of mental health disorders, but also in parenting and the field of education.

Behavior therapy also lends itself to fear reduction in the case of abnormal fears, which qualified psychologists, psychotherapist and counselors call phobias.  The treatment of phobias in this case is based on extinguishing the fear that comes in response to a stimulus and replace it with a relaxation response.  The two most common approaches to treating phobias are:  systematic desensitization and flooding.

Psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe (1958) developed the treatment of systematic desensitization for the treatment of phobias.  His procedure is complex and involved multiple steps.  In essence, it is a behavior therapy method for the treatment of phobias in which the client is taught not to fear phobic stimuli by learning to relax in the presence of successively more threatening stimuli.  The treating psychologist, psychotherapist or counselor and the client create a list that states the fear level regarding the feared stimulus and it is ranked from lowest to highest.  Then the client receives training on progressive relaxation.  This is a method of learning to deeply relax the muscles of the body.  During this deep state of relaxation, the client learns to be relaxed with each level of fear.  The result is that the phobia is extinguished.

The psychologist Thomas Stampfl (1967) invented flooding as a phobia treatment.  This alternative to systematic desensitization takes less time to implement and can be used with clients seeking phobia treatment who cannot relax their muscles easily. In this phobia treatment the psychologist, psychotherapist or counselor creates a situation where the client is flooded with high levels of the fear for prolonged periods of time.  Typically, this is done in a prolonged session of 2 to 8 hours.  The session is not terminated until the fear response is extinguished and the phobic stimulus is no longer capable of eliciting the fear response.  Sometimes this is done with imagination only; however, the best flooding treatment for phobias is when they are done in vivo.  This means that the client is indeed exposed to the feared object or situation.   An example for this would be to have someone with a cat phobia spend so much time with a cat, in close proximity, until the fear is gone.

Qualified Psychologists, psychotherapists and counselors also use behavior therapy, or operant skills training, for teaching of new, adaptive skills based on the basics of conditioning. Social skills training, for instance has a healing effect for people with anxiety disorders, affective disorders, and schizophrenia.  Such individuals often have a hard time interacting with other people.  They can appear shy, awkward, “odd,” and have difficulties expressing their feelings.  Most people have experienced uncomfortable situations in which they felt this way.  However, for a person with a mental health diagnosis, such as anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, addiction, or depression etc. this is a pervasive experience coloring almost all of their social encounters.

Psychologists, psychotherapists, and counselors tap into the basics of behaviorism and provide social skills training, during counseling sessions, to individuals with social deficiencies.  Through modeling, role playing, and reward systems (positive reinforcement) their behavior is shaped into socially acceptable behaviors.  Counseling sessions result in their learning to speak more often, to speak in a voice that is loud enough to be heard, to make appropriate eye contact and to make fewer odd comments.   Qualified psychologists, psychotherapists and counselors also perform assertiveness training, which is a method of behavior therapy that teaches individuals assertive rather than passive or aggressive ways of dealing with problematic situations.

It is evident that behaviorism has offered psychologists, psychotherapists and counselors insights and tools to offer evidence based treatment to individuals suffering from a variety of mental health disorders.  It must be remembered that behaviorism is one school of thought and offers treatments based on its scientific findings.  Well qualified psychologist, psychotherapist, and counselors in their treatment of mental health disorders draw from a variety of schools of thought and treatment modalities.  A good therapist, during a counseling session, will deal with what emerges and will intuitively draw on the theoretical approach that will best serve the patient.

List of References:

Feldman, R. S. (2015). Understanding psychology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.

Lahey, B. B. (2012). Psychology: an introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior: B.F. Skinner. New York: Macmillan.

Watson, J. B. (2012). Behaviorism. London?: Forgotten Books.

Weigel, J. A. (1977). B.F. Skinner. Boston: Twayne .

Wolpe, J. (1960). In behaviour therapy and the neuroses.