What Is Behavioral Psychology?

Updated June 17, 2024by MyTherapist Editorial Team
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Behavioral psychology studies how our minds and behavior connect; it explores the why behind our actions. This field of psychology is also referred to as behaviorism, but this subfield of psychology intends to understand and discover behavior patterns so that humans can predict outcomes and behaviors to develop better habits and positive life experiences.

Understanding behavioral psychology

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Behavioral psychology is known for its use of conditioning and the idea that all behaviors a person exhibits are acquired through conditioning. This means people’s actions are shaped mainly by environment and stimuli rather than 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.

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 in good health and 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 despite 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 psychologists from 1920-the 1950s due to the method’s ability to be empirically measured and easily described. During these decades, psychology had completely shifted from a philosophical school of thought to a scientific one, with research laboratories receiving funding from 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 and naturally occurring stimuli 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 the behavior more likely not to 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 naturally initiates a salivary response, with a bell chime and 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 stimuli.

Conditioning involves establishing and then strengthening a response. Many factors can affect this process, including the prominence and timing of the stimulus. If the prominence of the stimulus or timing is not just so, 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 being conditioned. Without this consistency, the conditioned response cannot be learned. Associations can disappear, also known as extinction, when conditioning is inconsistent. 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 maintain conditioning consistency is to execute a reinforcement schedule. This means that every time a desirable behavior is presented, 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

Aversion therapy, systematic desensitization, modeling, and contingency management are 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. Aversion therapy can be used with addictions such as alcoholism. Someone with alcoholism takes a pill that makes them very ill as soon as they take a drink. This conditions the patient to no longer want to drink because they expect an unpleasant outcome whenever they try to. This therapy technique can also stop other habits, such as nail-biting or smoking.

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. In systematic desensitization, patients focus on learning how to control their emotions and relax to reduce the fear response.


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. However, this theory does not use reward or punishment and leans on observing the environment to shape behavior.

Contingency Management

Therapists, 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 arrangements pressure the other party to conform to those expectations because they are the rules. This also outlines the rewards and consequences, 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, like schizophrenia and clinical depression.

For many disorders, behavioral therapy can be an excellent 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 treating severe 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 them to fear having panic attacks constantly. Panic attacks can occur during sleep or waking times and typically begin in adulthood, although children can also have panic disorders.

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 significantly disrupt the lives of the patients and the people around them. OCD begins in early adulthood, with symptoms generally presenting around 19.


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.


Start treatment with online therapy

If you have a panic disorder, OCD, or a phobia, you may need behavioral therapy to treat your disorder. If talking to a therapist in-person isn’t appealing to you, or if you’re looking for another way, online therapy is a great option.

With online therapy, you’re matched with a qualified professional who can start helping you right away. You attend sessions from the comfort of your home or anywhere you have an internet connection, so you don’t have to worry about commuting to an office. Online therapy is effective, too. One review of 14 studies found that online treatment was as effective as in-person treatment. If you’re ready to get started, contact a therapist online to take the next steps.


Behavioral therapy examines how our minds and our behaviors are connected. If you need help changing your thoughts or behaviors, talk to a therapist online. 

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