Behavioral Therapy

Published on July 14th, 2020

Updated on January 2nd, 2024

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy is a form of therapy that targets behavioral patterns in people. The goal of behavioral therapy is to increase healthy behaviors. It is also a goal to extinguish unhealthy behaviors. Behavioral therapy utilizes key concepts of behaviorism. It pulls from theories and findings from behaviorists, including:

Each of these psychologists contributed to behavioral therapy. They have helped with developing methods of treating people with behavioral issues. Behavioral therapy reflects the principles of classical conditioning and operant conditioning. It also incorporates concepts from the social learning theory.

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Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning was developed by Dr. Ivan Pavlov. It is the principle of learning through conditioned stimulation. According to the principle, subjects can be conditions to respond to repeated exposure stimuli.

Classical conditioning consists of four components:

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning was discovered through observing a dog’s reaction to being given food. In the experiment, a dog hears a bell (CS), then is presented with food (US). At first, whenever the dog smells the food, he would start to salivate (UR).

Since the bell was rung at the same time the food was presented, the dog began to associate the bell with food. This resulted in the dog salivating whenever it heard the bell (UR).

Classical conditioning contributed to different methods in behavioral therapy. Methods in behavioral therapy that stem from classical conditioning include:

Aversion Therapy

Aversion therapy is a form of therapy that targets unwanted behaviors in a person. The method can be useful for cases of:

Aversion therapy pairs unwanted behaviors with an unpleasant response. It repeatedly pairs an unpleasant response to an unwanted behavior. This causes the individual to become less inclined to repeat the behavior.

Example: An example of how the process of aversion therapy works is displayed in bark collars. Dog owners may buy a bark collar to prevent their dog from barking excessively. The collar zaps the dog with an electrical shock every time it barks. The repeated zap after the dog barks eventually causes the dog to bark less often. The decrease in barking happens in an attempt to avoid being zapped by the bark collar.


Flooding is used to treat phobias. With flooding, the affected person is repeatedly exposed to their feared object. The method is to present the individual with the feared object. This is done in a safe, yet inescapable environment.

Typically, the exposure is gradual. It begins with a minimally feared object, and works its way up to an intensely feared object.

Example: Someone who is afraid of spiders may be presented with a small spider in a cage. Eventually, the affected person becomes comfortable with the spider in the cage.

At this point, the therapist will increase the intensity of the situation. A method of doing so may be by opening the cage door.

The goal may be to reach a point in which the person can hold the spider without an intense fear in response. They may be uncomfortable, but they have developed a tolerance to the spider. The fear associated with the spider is diminished.

Systematic Desensitization

Systematic Desensitization teaches relaxation skills in reaction to feared situations. It can be effective in treating phobias, along with other anxiety disorders. The goal of systematic desensitization is to condition the affected person out of the fear response.

In systematic desensitization, the client is taught relaxation exercises. Before being confronted with feared situations, they sort their identified fears. They list their fears in order of most tolerable to least tolerable. The client uses the relaxation exercises they learned while confronting the feared situations on the list. They do so with the guidance of a mental health professional.

The client begins with the most tolerable feared object. As their use of their relaxation techniques strengthen, they move up to the list. In this process, the client learns how to tolerate feared situations by using relaxation exercises. In successful cases, the situations may remain uncomfortable, but the fear response will diminish.

Operant Conditioning

Behavioral therapy is also heavily influenced by the principle of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a process of learning that results in modified behavior. Operant conditioning uses reinforcement and punishment to influence change in behaviors. They work to promote wanted behaviors and diminish unwanted behaviors.

B. F. Skinner, the founder of operant conditioning, created the principle based on the law of effect. The law of effect was developed by E. L. Thorndike. The law of effect states that behaviors with favorable outcomes continue to occur. Behaviors that create unfavorable outcomes are unlikely to continue to occur.

Methods in behavioral therapy were inspired by operant conditioning. Such methods that use concepts of operant conditioning include:

Token Economy

A token economy is a method that uses reinforcement to facilitate behavioral changes. This method is particularly useful for children and adolescents. It can also be helpful for parents and teachers who are working with kids with behavioral issues.

In a token economy, the affected person is able to earn tokens for favorable behavior. The tokens become a form of currency. They can be exchanged for rewards.

This method uses reinforcement to encourage favorable behavior. The individual is reinforced by earning tokens. They continue to engage in favorable behaviors to continue to earn tokens.

Example: Ms. Sandy uses a token economy to promote the behavior of completing classroom chores. Each time a student completes a chore, they get a token. When a child earns 10 tokens, they can exchange their tokens for 10 extra minutes of play time.

The token economy method is most often used on children, but it can also be used for cases with adults. Token economies can be particularly helpful in residential recovery centers.

Example: Paul is in a residential treatment program to recover from alcoholism. He is not permitted to leave the premises, but is allowed 30 minutes of phone time per day.

Paul’s counselor uses a token economy to encourage engagement in group therapy sessions. For every day Paul participates in group discussion, he receives a participation token. When Paul has 5 tokens, he can exchange them for an extra 15 minutes of phone time.

Contingency Management

Contingency management is a method of setting expectations for behavior change. The process of contingency management involves creating clear expectations and goals for therapy. A client and therapist establish rewards. These rewards will reinforce progress in treatment. The client and therapist will also establish punishments. These punishments are for breaking the treatment agreement at the beginning of therapy.

Contingency management can be thought of as a contract. It includes a written agreement between therapist and client. Expectations are clearly stated in the agreement. Both parties commit to each term of the agreement.

Social Learning Theory

Doctor Albert Bandura is an American psychologist who developed the social learning theory. Bandura’s social learning theory states that people learn how to behave from social influence.

The following all set a model for behavior that promotes social learning:

Dr. Albert Bandura
Dr. Albert Bandura

The social learning theory contributes to behavioral therapy through the concept of modeling. Modeling is a concept that maintains that people model behaviors for other people. This concept can be applied to behavioral therapy. With the support of a therapist, modeling can be used to promote behavioral change.


Modeling is a therapeutic method that pulls from Bandura’s social learning theory. Modeling promotes learning favorable behaviors through social influence.

Using modeling in therapy encourages the development of healthy and socially acceptable behavior. Modeling allows the client to observe an example of favorable behaviors. Sometimes a therapist will model the behavior they would like to see in their clients. Therapists may also teach parents and teachers how to model behaviors for their children or students.

Children and adolescents tend to respond particularly well to modeling. Through watching a model for behavior, they can learn how to:

Modeling can also teach social skills and academic skills. Modeling can be helpful in behavioral modification. It can also aid in the treatment of phobias, social issues, and relationship issues.

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