Behavior Therapy

By Paula Zuckerman, LCSW

Behavior Therapy follows the premise that maladaptive behaviors are learned and therefore can be unlearned as well. Behavioral therapy emphasizes current behavior as opposed to historical antecedents to problems. Precise treatment goals and therapeutic strategies are tailored to these goals. Behavior therapy also stresses objective evaluation of therapeutic outcomes. Common behavioral techniques include relaxation, gradual desensitization to feared objects, and assertiveness training. Behavioral interventions can be highly successful for a broad range of specific problems such as phobias, fear of specific stimuli, performance anxiety, bedwetting, and repetitive habits.

Behavior therapy draws its philosophical basis from classical conditioning techniques (think of the work of Pavlov). The behavior of individuals is thought to be governed by patterns of experience and ingrained often erroneous ideas and expectations.. These can be internal as well as external. Behaviors that are rewarding or reinforcing will be repeated and the individual will learn from experience. As a result of experience, or associative learning, individuals often respond in predictable ways to certain stimuli or life events. Notably, these learned responses are not always adaptive or effective in the present lives of individuals. Events that may have resulted in profound emotional responses during childhood may no longer be relevant. But the individual is trapped in them.

Behavior therapy attempts to reprogram the individuals responses using various techniques which hopefully will have positive results and will in turn reinforce the new, more adaptive behavior. Behavior therapy today usually does not use punishment or negative stimuli to discourage the unwanted behavior. Instead, a reward system is often used. With adults, it is considered that positive results from the changed behavior is enough reward and will encourage the individual to maintain the new response. With children, a more concrete approach, such as verbal and physical positive reinforcement, use of gold stars in school for example, had yielded encouraging results.

Behavioral therapy is often combined with cognitive therapy, where both maladaptive cognitions as well as behaviors are examined, and techniques are designed to change both. This melding is known as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.

Both believe that thoughts, feelings, and behavior can be modified by examining and changing automatic thought processes and behaviors. More recently, cognitive-behavioral techniques and theories have been integrated into, and used by the more traditional psychodynamic therapies. This expanded use of technique has greatly enriched the field of psychotherapy.