1. Education

What Is Behavioral Therapy?

By

Behavioral therapy

Behavioral therapies utilize techniques such as reinforcement and punishment to alter problematic behaviors.

Kim Gunkel - iStockPhoto

Behavioral therapy is a form of therapy rooted in the principles of behaviorism. The school of thought known as behaviorism is focused on the idea that we learn from our environment. In behavioral therapy, the goal is to reinforce desirable behaviors and eliminate unwanted or maladaptive ones. 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 as well as other new 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.

The Foundation of Behavioral Therapy

First, 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.

Operant conditioning focuses on how reinforcement and punishment can be utilized to either increase or decrease the frequency of a behavior.

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.

Some of the techniques and strategies used in this approach to therapy include:

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

For example, flooding might be used to help a client 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 he or she cannot leave. After repeated exposures to the dog during which nothing bad happens, the fear response begins to fade.

Systematic Desensitization: This technique involves having a client make a list of fears and then teaching the individual 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. The process follows three basic steps. First, the client is taught relaxation techniques. Next, the individual creates a ranked list of fear-invoking situations. 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 utilize a drug known as disulfiram, which causes severe symptoms such as headaches, nausea, anxiety, and vomiting when combined with alcohol. Because the person becomes extremely ill when they drink, the drinking behavior may be eliminated.

Behavior Therapy Based on Operant Conditioning

Many behavior techniques rely on the principles of operant conditioning, which means that they utilize 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.

Some of the techniques and strategies used in this approach to behavioral therapy include:

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 even lose tokens for displaying undesirable behaviors. These tokens can then be traded for things such as candy, toys, or extra time playing with a favorite toy.

Contingency Management: This approach utilizes a formal written contract between the client and the therapist that outlines the behavior change goals, reinforcements and rewards that will be given, and the penalties for failing to meet the demands of the agreement. These types of agreements aren't just used by therapists – teachers and parents also often use them with students and children in the form of behavior contracts. Contingency contracts can be very effective in producing behavior changes since the rules are spelled out clearly in black-and-white, preventing both parties from backing down on their promises.

Modeling: 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 the sought after behaviors can also be helpful.

Extinction: 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 play activity and required to sit quietly in a corner or another room 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.

How Well Does Behavioral Therapy Work?

When it comes to treating specific behavioral issues, behavioral therapy can often be more effective than other approaches. Phobias, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder are examples of problems that respond well to behavioral treatments.

However, it is important to note that behavioral approaches are not always the best solution. For example, behavioral therapy is generally not the best approach when treating more serious psychological disorders such as depression and schizophrenia.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.