Behavioral psychology studies the interactions among thoughts, emotions, perceptions and behaviors. As a field with both research and clinical applications, it investigates ways to modify problematic behavior and learn more positive and healthier ways to behave. Behavioral psychology’s definition to clinical psychotherapy is similar, defined as the study of the ways thoughts, feelings, and beliefs influence, even control behavior. Behavioral psychology also studies how behaviors can impact cognition.
Behavioral psychology is sometimes referred to as behaviorism, and classical behaviorists define behavioral psychology as the study of the brain’s influence on behavior, as they don’t deal with any non-observable phenomenon. Dreams are an example of behavior that’s not observable to a third party and thus cannot be objectively observed. Classical behavioral psychologists do not deal with unobservable phenomenon, but over time the field has grown.
John B. Watson is usually credited as the founder of behaviorism, with his publication of Behaviorism in 1925 being a seminal moment in the field and one of the earliest behavioral psychology books. Watson believed that classical conditioning was both necessary and sufficient to describe and account for all instances of learning across all species. However, while other theorists hailed his work, they weren’t sold on classical conditioning alone being the one all-powerful means of learning and behavior. Operant condition was just a few decades down the road.
Behavioral Psychology, B.F. Skinner and Operant Conditioning
Although everyone has heard of “Pavlov’s dogs,” an experiment that demonstrates the power of classical conditioning, the ins and outs of operant conditioning might not come to mind quite as easily. B.F. Skinner developed the theory and principles of operant condition in the 1950s and went on to test it through many experiments. Operant conditioning states that behaviors that are reinforced are more likely to occur, but reinforcement can become a complex proposition. Two overall types of reinforcement, positive and negative reinforcement, are defined as:
- Positive reinforcement is the presentation of a particular stimulus that causes behavior to be performed. For example, a dog that receives a treat when shaking hands has received positive reinforcement. A girl who gets the praise of her team after hitting a home run is receiving positive reinforcement.
- Negative reinforcement occurs when a stimulus (most often an aversive, or unpleasant stimulus) is removed after the subject performs the target behavior. The likelihood of the particular behavior occurring again in the future is increased because of removing/avoiding the negative consequence. It’s important to understand that negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment. Punishment involves the presentation of an aversive–a painful or uncomfortable stimulus–that reduces a particular behavior. Negative and positive reinforcement always increases the likelihood of a specific behavior. Punishment decreases the likelihood of a behavior, but it cannot teach new behaviors. That failing is one of the many drawbacks of punishment.
- Reinforcement always increases the likelihood that a particular behavior is performed. The interplay between positive and negative reinforcement can be used to teach very complex tasks. In contrast, punishment’s goal is to eliminate undesirable behavior.
Behavioral Psychology Examples and Subdisciplines
Examples of behavioral psychology can be separated into four major sub-disciplines: applied behavior analysis, cognitive therapy, behavioral therapy, and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy itself has several variations, such as Rational-Emotive Behavioral Therapy. Each of these subdivisions of behavioral psychology can interact with the others. They are all geared to help people overcome problems and obstacles in their lives.
- Applied behavior analysis (ABA) has been used with great success in helping children with autism learn to talk, interact with others, generalize helpful behaviors from one situation to the other, and a host of other necessary life skills. ABA can be used in any situation where complex tasks can be broken down into concrete steps.
- Cognitive therapy. Aaron Beck developed cognitive therapy in the 1960s. Cognitive therapy states that emotions, behaviors and thoughts are interconnected and influence each other. Cognitive therapy helps people learn more adaptive ways to get their needs met by finding and changing inaccurate and unhelpful thought patterns and deeply held but erroneous beliefs. Cognitive therapy belongs to the collaborative models of psychotherapeutic practices.
- Behavioral therapy. Behavioral therapy posits that all behavior is learned, including harmful behaviors. Harmful or unhelpful behavior can be unlearned and replaced with healthy, helpful behaviors. Systematic desensitization, cognitive-behavioral therapy, cognitive-behavioral play therapy, and aversion therapy are all noted helpful and effective variations of behavioral therapy.
Behavioral Psychology Careers
Behavioral psychology is a superb background for a career in the counseling profession. Behavioral psychology has many offshoots and variations within counseling, but they all put forth that harmful, unwanted behaviors and destructive habits can be overcome. They can be replaced by productive, helpful and life-affirming behaviors. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a rapidly growing field within counseling that makes use of these concepts, particularly that by changing unproductive, even erroneous thoughts and patterns of thinking, we can change behaviors.
Just a small sampling of careers that use behavioral psychology include:
- Education. Teaching uses the principles of behavioral psychology daily. Helping students increase their ability to learn, acquire and remember new information and demonstrate new behaviors is at the heart of education. A bachelor’s degree and state licensure are sufficient to teach through high school. Typically a master’s degree or doctoral level degree is required for teaching at a university.
- Behavioral psychologist. Behavioral psychologists turn to professionals for help in making their lives more positive. Behavioral psychologists treat depression, anxiety, phobias, relationship issues, eating disorders and many other concerns. Behavioral psychology requires at least a master’s degree to become a counselor, with a PhD being a requirement for work as a psychologist. Both psychologists and master’s level counselors require licensure by each state they work in.
- Marketing Executive. A bachelor’s degree can prepare you to become a marketer or marketing executive. Marketers study human behavior to figure out how shopping and buying behavior tie into all marketable areas of life. That’s a huge job and marketers who have a background in behavioral psychology are in high demand. Market analysis is a similar behavioral psychology career that uses statistics and research into human behavior, with heavy emphasis on computer models of purchasing behavior.
Behavioral psychology is one of those rare fields where what you learn in the classroom is rapidly applicable to real-world situations. If you’re fascinated by human behavior and the ways that behavior can be modified, behavioral psychology is worth your time.
B.S. Psychology | Arkansas State University
M.A. Rehabilitation Counseling | Arkansas State University
M.A. English | Arkansas State University
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