Behavior Therapy – An Overview


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The third wave has carried behavior therapy into modern times. Image by Peter Kaminski.

The third wave has carried behavior therapy into modern times. Image by Peter Kaminski.

Does Behavior Modification Work?

Kazdin and Wilson (1978)  evaluated the treatment of psychiatric disorders by behavior modification. The researchers reviewed studies of psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy, milieu therapy and institutional care, comparing their results with those of behavior therapy treatments, and finding that behavior therapy was at least as effective as other treatments, as well as useful for a wide variety of problems and populations.

In 2008, Peter Holland reviewed stimulus-response theories of learning. He was attuned to modern approaches to the theory, noting that today’s researchers are interested in understanding our responses to perceptual as well as motivational stimuli. They also recognize that the contents of learning are complex, and not easily reduced to stimulus and response.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy: The Third Wave

During the latter half of the 20th century, behavioral therapy decreased in popularity as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) gained ground. CBT combines changing thoughts with modifying behavior, and can help people with anxiety, depression, and other disorders, and has shown positive results after extensive research.

More recently, science has developed the ‘Third Wave’ of CBT to treat a wide variety of problems, including personality disorders. Among the third-wave treatments are Acceptance and Commitment Treatment (ACT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and Schema Therapy. These therapies include themes such as mindfulness, spirituality, emotions and therapeutic relationships, which represent a distant departure from traditional behavior therapy.

A 2012 study led by Kai Kahl found that while third wave treatments have not yet been subjected to adequately rigorous research, they meet the basic requirements for empirically proven treatments. They have all shown superiority to no treatment at all, or research has shown them to be equal to or more effective than other treatments.

Behavior therapy, while still in practice, has stepped aside to make way for the modernly influenced third wave treatments.


Holland, P. Cognitive versus stimulus-response theories of learning. (2008). Learning and Behavior. Retrieved on July 1, 2013.

Kahl, K., et. al.. The third wave of cognitive behavioral therapies: what is new and what is effective? (2012). Current Opinion Psychiatry. Retrieved on July 1, 2013.

Kazdin, A. and Wilson, G. T. Evaluation of behavior therapy: Issues, evidence, and research strategies. (1978). Ballinger Publishing Co. Retrieved on July 1, 2013.

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