An Introduction to Behavioral Psychology

Behavioral psychologist looks intently at the camera as if she's listening to a patient.

Behavioral psychology, or behaviorism, is a theory suggesting that environment shapes human behavior. In a most basic sense, behavioral psychology is the study and analysis of observable behavior.

This field of psychology influenced thought heavily throughout the middle of the 20th century. It is still used by mental health professionals today, as its concepts and theories remain relevant in fields like psychotherapy and education.

A Brief History

Psychologist John B. Watson started behavioral psychology by building off the work of Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov. In what’s known as classical conditioning, Pavlov found that certain objects or events could trigger a response. His famous experiments with dogs demonstrated that the presence of a bowl of dog food (stimulus) would trigger an unconditioned response (salivation).

If Pavlov could pair a stimulus to obtain a new conditioned response, those implications in learning could be applied to other facets of human behavior. For instance, perhaps conditioning and environment could understand how and why people learn, act and think. The earliest believed conditioning explained all learning and behavioral responses. That view refers to strict or radical behaviorism, which is now largely rejected.

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own special world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, beggarman and thief.”– John B. Watson, Behaviorism

In addition to Watson, other psychologists helped shape behavioral psychology into what it is today. Edward Thorndike introduced the law of effect, which refers to how satisfying responses are more likely to occur again in the future. He was the first to integrate that and other scientific principles into learning theory. Another thinker in behavioral psychology, Clark Hull, pioneered drive theory. As organisms suffer deprivation, it creates certain needs in drives in people that directly impact behavior.

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Techniques from Behavioral Psychology

Several concepts in behaviorism are utilized in therapy.

  • Systematic desensitization is used for clients who have specific phobia, which is characterized by marked fear or anxiety about an object or situation, like an animal or airplanes. Therapy involves applying relaxation or coping techniques as people are gradually exposed to the object or situation.
  • Exposure and response prevention is a strategy that involves exposure to fearful situations, and then not engaging in unhelpful coping strategies. This therapeutic technique is used for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and other types of anxiety disorders.
  • Token economy reinforces target behavior by giving children and adults symbols or tokens that can exchanged for something else. It can be used for people with a wide range of mental health issues, as well as in educational settings.
  • Modeling involves clients learning behavior by imitation alone. It’s used in developmental psychology and can be incorporated into clinical use.
  • Applied behavior analysis emerged in the 1960s as a way to modify behavior. It is commonly used for children with an autism spectrum disorder, and is also relevant to fields like education, industrial safety and criminal behavior.
  • Contingency management involves individuals receiving vouchers for retail goods and services, or the opportunity to win prizes. Often used for patients with substance abuse or related disorders, it typically takes the form of monetary-based reinforcers for drug-negative tests, according to The Psychiatrist.

Working in Behavioral Psychology

There are several opportunities for integrating behavioral psychology into practice. For instance, many psychologists research topics like conditioning to examine the nature of human behavior. Often, they are able to apply findings to mental health disorders.

Behavioral psychology has had a major impact in clinical applications. For instance, mental health counselors, substance abuse counselors and other professionals use therapeutic techniques from behaviorism to help people overcome specific issues. Even newer fields, like applied behavior analysis, have emerged by adapting concepts from behavioral psychology.

The foundation to all those careers is an undergraduate degree in psychology. You can start your journey to becoming a psychologist, mental health counselor, applied behavior analyst and more with an online bachelor’s in psychology from Rivier University. Gain the knowledge and skills needed to open up several career paths upon graduation.

Study in a fully online learning environment, which allows you to complete your education and maintain your current work and personal schedule. Multiple term starts, a generous transfer credit policy, and competitive tuition rates are all designed to help you start, and finish, faster. Rivier University has been educating students to transform the world for more than 80 years, so you can trust you will receive a high-quality education in a format designed to help you succeed.