Behavior Therapy – An Overview


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Not all learning comes from books. Image by College Degrees 360.

Not all learning comes from books. Image by College Degrees 360.

Behavior therapy, which is widely used in its various forms, is based on the notion that people’s environments spur them to act in certain ways. Behavioral therapists do not delve into their patient’s minds, or strive to understand why they act as they do, and are not concerned about patient’s thoughts, desires or needs. They simply aim to change behaviors by changing the patient’s responses to their environments.

Behavior therapy, which developed in the 1950’s, laid the groundwork for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and third-wave cognitive behavioral therapies, such as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).

What is Learning Theory?

B.F. Skinner, a researcher, initiated the concept of behavior therapy. He extensively studied animal behavior, and then applied his conclusions to human behavior. Following in the footsteps of Edward Thorndike, who had proposed the Law of Effect, he tested how animals responded to rewards and the absence of rewards. Skinner is best known for his stimulus-response studies.

A stimulus is an action or condition that brings about a physiological or psychological response, or an action. Skinner offered rats a variety of conditions, and saw how their responses changed as he adjusted the environmental conditions. For example, he would place a lever that controlled food delivery inside the rats’ cages. At times, he would arrange to have the lever deliver food each time they pressed it, and at other times, he would arrange to have the lever deliver food only some of the time. He recognized that the rats learned to behave in different ways according to how he arranged their environments.

Skinner applied his theory, called “operant conditioning,” to people as well. He recognized that behavior can be shaped through exposure to situations in which people are rewarded for certain behaviors. Reward and punishment are key aspects of operant conditioning, and Skinner used them promote or decrease behaviors.

What is Behavior Modification?

Behavior modification is behavior therapy that is based on operant conditioning. Often used by parents and teachers, behavior modification seeks to change the way people respond to stimuli through use of positive and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement, such as rewards for good behavior, aims to increase positive behavior, and eliminate maladaptive behaviors by failing to reward negative actions.

Often, the reward for positive behavior is ephemeral rather than physical. For example, compliments and encouragement can help shape behavior. A supervisor who wants to encourage her workers to arrive on time to work each day can shape their behavior by publicly complimenting those who are prompt and ignoring the behavior of those who are tardy. The behavior modification technique requires no analysis of thoughts or past behavior, yet is likely to yield the desired results.

A token economy, in contrast, uses a physical reward to increase positive behavior. For example, a teacher might give a piece of play money to each child who has sat and listened in class throughout the week. At the end of the month, the children would be able to use their play money, or ‘tokens,’ to purchase small toys at the class store. The tokens reinforce good behavior, thereby shaping the children’s behavior.

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