What Is Behavioral Psychology?

Updated November 25, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The behavioral psychology definition is the study of how our minds and behavior connects. Behavioral psychology explores the why behind our actions. This field of psychology is also referred to as behaviorism, but subfield of psychology intends to understand and discover patterns of behavior so that humans can predict outcomes and behaviors to develop better habits for individuals and communities of people leading to positive living experiences.

Understanding Behavioral Psychology

Want To Learn More About Certain Behaviors And How They Impact You?

Behavioral psychology is most known for its use of conditioning and the idea that all behaviors that a person exhibits are acquired through conditioning. This means that people’s actions are mostly shaped by environment and stimuli rather than by biology and genetics. Behavioral psychologists believe that, regardless of a patient’s internal mental state, their behavior can be studied systematically. Emotions and moods are believed to be subjective and therefore cannot be measured.

Extreme behavioral psychology theory suggests that people can be conditioned to do anything regardless of their opinion, thoughts, or moral values. This type of conditioning is likened to brainwashing.

History Of Behavioral Psychology

John B Watson first introduced behavioral psychology in 1913. Watson released this theory to the scientific community in his paper Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It”. Today, Watson is considered the father of behaviorism.

Watson claimed that if someone gave him a dozen infants, that were in good health, and he raised them all in a specified world of his making, he could train them to be an expert in any vocation from beggar to doctor, lawyer, or artist. This would be in spite of the infant’s genetics, personality, talents, or interests. Watson, a strict behaviorist, believes no behavior cannot be taught with the right conditioning methods.

Behaviorism became the prevalent school of thought for psychologist from 1920-the 1950’s due to the method’s ability to be empirically measured and easily described. During these decades, psychology had completing shifted from being a philosophical school of thought to a scientific one with research laboratories receiving funding in most major universities.

Types Of Conditioning Used In Behavioral Psychology

According to behavioral psychologists, people learn their behaviors through conditioning. There are two types of conditioning recognized in behavioral psychology.

Classical Condition- Neutral stimulus and naturally occurring stimulus are paired together in classical conditioning so that the neutral stimulus solicits the same response as the natural stimulus for the control. The naturally occurring stimulus will need not be present once conditioning occurs for the neutral stimulus to bring about the response. This neutral stimulus is now called a conditioned stimulus while the behavior learned is called a conditioned response.

Operant Conditioning- Punishment and reinforcement tactics are used in operant conditioning. Using operant conditioning, the person makes an association between desired and undesired behaviors through consequences. When the desired behavior is present, reinforcement is used to make it more likely for the behavior to occur again. This tactic is usually done through a reward or praise. When an undesirable behavior is presented, punishment is used to make it more likely the behavior will not occur again. Operant conditioning is a very popular mode of psychology used in parenting.

What You Need To Know About The Conditioning Process

One of the most famous experiments involving classical conditioning was Ivan Pavlov’s experiment with dogs. In this experiment, Pavlov proved that conditioning is successful through association. The basis of the Pavlov dog experiment was to associate food, which initiates a salivary response naturally, with a bell chime and then a lab coat. The dogs were taught to associate both the bell sound and a lab coat with being fed which made the dogs salivate at the site of both unnatural stimulus.

The first part of conditioning is to establish response and then strengthen that response. Many factors can affect this process including prominence and timing of the stimulus. If the prominence of the stimulus or timing is not just so, the conditioning cannot occur. Conditioning is also only achieved if the presentation of the stimulus is consistent every time.

Consistency can become a big problem with behavioral conditioning. Operant conditioning is most heavily affected by consistency because the reward or punishment must be presented with every instance of the behavior is conditioned. Without this consistency, the conditioned response cannot be learned. Associations can disappear, also known as extinction when conditioning is not consistent. If a behavior has been conditioned for a long period, however, the extinction of the behavior will occur more slowly.

How To Use Reinforcement Schedules With Conditioning

One way to remain consistent in your conditioning is to execute a reinforcement schedule. This means that every time a desirable behavior is presented, the reinforcement will occur, usually through reward. To be consistent in reinforcement, the rewards must be continuous. As the behaviors are instilled, however, the reinforcement may become only partial. The use of partial reinforcement means that the behavior is not always rewarded or may be rewarded after a period. This schedule makes it possible for the behavior to continue without immediate reinforcement.

Therapeutic Techniques Of Behavioral Psychology

Behavioral psychology is used today to help treat children with autism and other developmental delays. Behavior analysis can be used to help these patients acquire and reinforce new skills. The techniques used with these types of therapies include shaping and chaining. Through these processes, children with developmental or cognitive disabilities can be rewarded for being close to the desired behavior. Processes can also be broken down into simple steps that are linked together to understand tasks for children with autism better.

Aversion therapy, systematic desensitization, modeling, and contingency management are other behavioral therapy techniques often used to condition certain behaviors.

Aversion Therapy- Undesired behaviors are paired with the aversive stimulus in this therapy technique that reduces unwanted behavior. This type of therapy can be used with addictions such as alcoholism. A medication is taken that makes the alcoholic very ill as soon as they take a drink. This conditions the patient to no longer want to drink because they are expecting an unpleasant outcome every time they try to drink. This therapy technique can also be used to stop other habits such as nail-biting. If when biting your nails, the experience is made unpleasant each time, eventually the nail-biter will quit biting their nails.

Systematic Desensitization- This type of therapy is often used to treat phobias. A patient will write down their fears, and the behavior therapist will teach the individual how to relax while being faced with that fear. Patients focus on learning how to control their emotions and relax to reduce the fear response.

Modeling- Behaviors are learned through observation when using modeling. Albert Bandura proved that modeling is a significant way of learning behaviors during childhood. His doll experiment developed the social learning theory. This theory does not use reward or punishment however and leans on observation of the environment to shape behavior.

Contingency Management- Therapist, teachers, and employers often use the contingency management technique to shape behavior. Using this method, the authority figure draws up a contract between themselves and the other person that describes the desired behaviors and goals the authority figure is expecting. These types of arrangements put pressure on the other party to conform to those expectations because they are the rules. This also outlines exactly what the rewards and consequences will be such as getting a raise or earning a suspension.

Psychiatric Disorders Treated With Behavioral Psychology

Behavioral therapy is very effective in treating psychiatric disorders that cause issues with behavior such as panic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and phobias. There are also psychiatric disorders that behavioral psychology is not effective for treating such as schizophrenia and clinical depression.

For many disorders, behavioral therapy can be a great tool for learning how to cope with some of the responses that come from the conditions. However, behavior therapy is often accompanied by medication and other therapies for the treatment of serious psychiatric disorders.

Panic disorder– Panic disorder is not the same as anxiety disorder although it is often misdiagnosed as so. With panic disorder, patients experience random panic attacks that cause the person to be in constant fear of having panic attacks. Panic attacks can occur during sleep or waking times and typically begin in adulthood although children can also have panic disorder.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder- Obsessive-compulsive disorder, also known as OCD, is an anxiety disorder that causes recurring thoughts, ideas or obsessions that result in repetitive behaviors. Common compulsions are hand washing, counting, touching objects, or checking locks. These behaviors can greatly disrupt the lives of the patients and the people around them. OCD begins in early adulthood with symptoms generally presenting around 19 years of age.

Phobia– Extreme and irrational fears of specific objects or situations are defined as phobias. Another type of anxiety disorder, phobias are learned emotional responses to a stimulus that have been transferred to other situations. An example would be people with intense fears of water may have had a drowning experience as a child. These past traumas are usually repressed.

If you have the Panic disorder, OCD, or a phobia, behavioral therapy may be what you need to treat your disorder. Click HERE to start your online journey with a behavioral therapist with mytherapist.com.

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns

Speak with a Licensed Therapist Today
This website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.