What is Behavioral Psychology?

Behavioral psychology, sometimes known as cognitive-behavioral psychology, works with patients and uses research-based methods to help them modify their behavior. Behavioral psychologists might work with people who have addictions or eating disorders or other behaviors they wish to modify. Like other types of psychologists, they may also work with people who have personality disorders or have experienced trauma, or they might work as couples or family counselors.

Underlying Theories

Behavioral psychology is based on the idea that people’s actions, thoughts and emotions are affected by their conditioning. Many people are familiar with the idea of Pavlov’s dog. In this experiment, the scientist Ivan Pavlov trained a to drool whenever a bell range because it associated the sound with being fed. This is the core of classical conditioning, which produces a response by linking two stimuli. Operant conditioning associates behavior and ,and certain behaviors may be rewarded or punished. Both of these are examples of stimulus-response theory, in which a subject associates a stimulus with a specific response. Behavioral psychology focuses on objective measures and on human behavior that can be observed. While these are the roots of behavioral psychology, behavioral psychologists may use a number of different techniques with patients.

Work Environment and Approaches

Behavioral psychologists do not only work in private practices, clinics or hospitals. They also may be found in schools, businesses or other organizations, and their focus may be on modifying the behavior of groups as well as individuals. As the American Psychological Association explains, one way a behavioral psychologist might work with a patient who has a phobia is to expose that patient to the fear in increasing doses in a safe environment so the patient becomes conditioned to no longer be afraid. Cognitive-behavioral therapists focus on helping people retrain unwanted thought patterns and behavior. Behavioral psychologists might also opt to go into research and teaching rather than clinical practice.

Becoming a Behavioral Psychologist

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a faster than average growth for psychologists in the years ahead. While a few positions in behavioral psychology only require a master’s degree, most require a doctorate. There are two types of doctoral degrees, a PhD and a PsyD, and advantages and disadvantages to both. Both prepare people for clinical work, but people who are interested in research or who want to go into academia should probably get a PhD. There are other advantages and disadvantages to both types of programs. Psychologists usually must be licensed and generally complete a supervised internship as part of their doctoral education. A successful behavioral psychologist must have strong analytical skills but must also be able to communicate effectively. A behavioral psychologist who goes into research might perform more quantitative research than psychologists in some other specialties since the subspecialty is so strongly focused on observable data.

There are a number of different approaches to psychology, and behavioral psychology is only one. Some criticize it as oversimplifying human behavior and failing to account for complex factors. However, many find the techniques of behavioral psychology, and cognitive behavioral therapy, in particular, to be practical and useful.