Behavioural Therapy

According to Seligman (2006) Behaviour Therapy focuses on the present and not the past, observable behaviours rather than unconscious forces and short-term treatment, clear goals, and rapid change.


Behaviour therapy had its beginnings in the early 1900’s and became established as a psychological approach in the 1950s and 1960s. At this time, it received much resistance from the current school of thought, psychoanalysis.

There have been a number of people that that have contributed to the development of behavioural therapy, including Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, B.F. Skinner, John Dollard, Neal Miller, Joseph Wolpe and Albert Bandura (for more information on the contribution of each of them to behavioural therapy theory, download a copy of the “Five Therapies eBook” from our Blog).

Key Concepts

Classical Conditioning: is a type of learning when an ‘unconditioned stimulus (UCS)’ (e.g. food) produces an ‘unconditioned response (UCR)’ (e.g. salivation).

If a neutral stimulus (such as a bell) is then paired with the UCS (food) to produce the UCR (salivation) and this is repeated, then the neutral stimulus will eventually result in the UCR. The neutral stimulus (the bell) is now the ‘conditioned stimulus (CS)’ and the response is a ‘conditioned response (CR)’ (salivation).

Operant Conditioning: also known as “instrumental learning”, is the process whereby learned responses are controlled by the consequences (Weiten, 2007). There are two main processes involved in operant conditioning:

‘Reinforcement’ occurs when a response is strengthened by an outcome. There are two types of reinforcement, negative and positive. Positive reinforcement occurs when a behaviour is strengthened by a positive reward.

For example, a child behaves well at the shops so is given a chocolate as a reward. This reinforces the good behaviour at the shops. Negative reinforcement occurs when behaviour is strengthened by the removal of a negative stimulus. For example, doing a relaxation exercise when stressed. The relaxation exercise (response) reinforces this behaviour as the stress (aversive stimulus) has been removed.

‘Punishment’ occurs when a response to behaviour decreases the likelihood of the behaviour reoccurring (Weiten, 2007). There are also two types of punishment, negative and positive punishment. Positive punishment occurs when an aversive response to behaviour is used and therefore the behaviour is less likely to occur.

For example, a child is given chores when he or she has been naughty. The child therefore, has been given a punishment to reduce the likelihood of the bad behaviour continuing. Negative punishment occurs when something is taken away and therefore decreases the likelihood of the behaviour reoccurring. For example, a person fails to secure a bike and this leads to the theft of the bike. This therefore decreases the likelihood of the person leaving property unsecured in the future.

Social Learning: also know as “modelling”, occurs when an individual (or animal) responds a certain way due to having observed the behaviour previously. ‘Social learning’ is an extension of classical and operant conditioning in that an individual is conditioned indirectly by observing another’s conditioning.

For example, a child observes his or her older sibling setting the table for their parents. The older child receives praise for setting the table. The younger child’s own tendency to set the table for the parents is reinforced as a result of the praise the older child receives (Weiten, 2007).

General Ideas about Personality Development

Seligman (2006) has identified “three basic building blocks of personality” that people are born with:

  1. Primary drives
  2. Specific reflexes
  3. Innate responses to particular stimuli

The primary drives of an individual relate to drives such as toward food and warmth. Specific reflexes refer to processes such as sucking and blinking, and innate responses include behaviours such as reacting to pain (Seligman, 2006).

Behavioural theorists believe that personality is shaped by learning and unlearning throughout the lifespan. They also believe that the environment in which a child is brought up in influences the personality of the individual.

An example of how personality is developed through the eyes of a behaviourist is of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy refers to the way one believes in one’s ability. High self-efficacy is often the result of responsive behaviour by parents, non-punitive techniques, and a warm family environment (Weiten, 2007).

Therapeutic Techniques and Methods of Working

Principles of Therapeutic Methods of Working: There are a number of principles behavioural therapists use when working with clients. The following principles have been sourced from Seligman (2006):

  • Although genetics play a role, individual differences are derived primarily from different experiences.
  • Behaviour is learned and acquired largely through modelling, conditioning, and reinforcement.
  • Behaviour has a purpose.
  • Behaviour is the major determinant of habits, thoughts, emotions, and other aspects of personality.
  • Behaviour therapy seeks to understand and change behaviour.
  • Therapy should be based on the scientific method and be systematic, empirical, and experimental. Goals should be stated in behavioural, specific, and measurable terms, with progress assessed regularly.
  • The focus of treatment should generally be on the present. Even if behaviours are longstanding, they are maintained by factors in the current environment.
  • However, behaviours must be viewed in context, and some exploration of the past is appropriate to provide context and help people feel understood.
  • Education, promoting new learning and transfer of learning, is an important aspect of behaviour therapy.
  • Strategies of behaviour therapy need to be individualized to the particular person and problem.
  • Clients have primary responsibility for defining their goals and completing homework tasks. The treatment plan is formulated collaboratively, with both client and clinician participating actively in that process.

Steps in Treatment

As well as working with the principles of behavioural therapy, there are a number of steps a therapist can utilise when in a session with a client (adapted from Seligman, 2006):

  • Identify the problem: This involves investigating what the problem is and its history. Also, identifying the baseline of the problem such as the frequency, duration and severity of the problem.
  • Identify goals: Identifying goals involves selecting goals related to the problem that are realistic, specific, and measurable. The goals also need to be relevant to the client and positive to help keep the client motivated.
  • Strategies: This involves identifying and developing strategies that will assist in the change process. The counsellor should teach new skills, provide relevant information and implement behavioural strategies to help the client to change. As well as a plan for change, a plan for how success will be monitored and having a written contract with the client is important.
  • Implement the plan: This involves the plan that has been developed being implemented for the process of change to occur.
  • Assess progress: The progress of the plan is assessed and the plan is evaluated. The plan is revised for any areas of need and successes are reinforced. Reinforcing success helps to keep the client motivated and ensures more success.
  • Continue the process: This is the process is continued by ensuring plans are continued and that plans include preventing relapse of problems.

Treatment Types

Treatments in behavioural therapies apply the learning principles to change maladaptive behaviours (Weiten, 2007). The treatments do not focus on clients achieving insights into their behaviour; rather the focus is just on changing the behaviour.

For example, if a behavioural therapist was working with a client that has an alcohol problem, the behavioural therapist would design a program to eliminate the behaviour of drinking but there would be no focus on the issues or pathological symptoms causing the alcohol problem.

There are a number of treatments used in behavioural therapy that have been scientifically validated as being successful approaches to treating symptoms:

‘Systematic Desensitisation’: was developed by Joseph Wolfe and was designed for clients with phobias. This treatment follows a process of “counter-conditioning” meaning the association between the stimulus and the anxiety is weakened (Weiten, 2007).

‘Exposure Therapies’: designed to expose the client to feared situations similar to that of systematic desensitisation (Corey, 2005). The therapies included are in vivo desensitisation and flooding. In vivo desensitization involves the client being exposed to real life anxiety provoking situations. The exposure is brief to begin with and eventually the client is exposed for longer periods of time to the fearful situation.

As with systematic desensitisation, the client is taught relaxation techniques to cope with the anxiety produced by the situation. The example of the client with a fear of spiders will be used to demonstrate in vivo desensitisation.

To begin with the client would be shown a spider in a container on the other side of the room for one minute. This would gradually increase in time as well as the client getting closer to the spider until eventually the client is able to be sitting near the spider for a prolonged period.

Flooding involves the client being exposed to the actual or imagined fearful situation for a prolonged period of time. The example of the client with the spider fear would be that the client would be exposed to the spider or the thought of a spider for a prolonged period of time and uses relaxation techniques to cope. There may be ethical issues in using these techniques with certain fears or traumatic events and the client should be provided with information on the techniques before utilising them so he or she understands the process.

‘Aversion Therapy’: the most controversial of the behavioural treatments and is used by therapists as a last resort to an aversive behaviour (Weiten, 2007). This treatment involves pairing the aversive behaviour (such as drinking alcohol) with a stimulus with an undesirable response (such as a medication that induces vomiting when taken with alcohol). This is designed to reduce the targeted behaviour (drinking alcohol) even when the stimulus with the undesirable response is not taken (medication).

‘Social Skills Training’: a treatment that involves improving interpersonal skills such as communication and how to act in a social setting through the techniques of modelling, behavioural rehearsal, and shaping. Modelling involves encouraging the client to watch friends and colleagues in their social settings to see how to act appropriately.

Behavioural rehearsal involves clients rehearsing their social skills in the therapy session and eventually moving to real-life situations. Shaping involves the client gradually building up to handling difficult social situations.

‘Biofeedback’: involves the therapist getting feedback of the client’s bodily functions and in turn providing the information to clients to help him or her engage in relaxation techniques (Weiten, 2007). For example, during a therapy session the client is hooked up to an electromyograph (EMG) to measure the skeletal-muscular tension in the body. This information is then used for the client to help control their physiological responses and implement relaxation techniques.

Areas of Application

Behavioural therapy can be used to treat many psychological disorders including anxiety disorders, sexual disorders, depression, interpersonal and marital problems, chronic mental conditions, childhood disorders, eating and weight disorders as well as prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease (Corsini & Wedding, 2000).


  • When using in therapy, it accomplishes what the theory predicts will happen (Guilliard, James & Bowman, 1994).
  • Treatment outcomes have been scientifically and empirically validated (Corey, 2005).
  • Emphasises ethical accountability (Corey, 2005).
  • Wide variety of techniques that may be utilised in therapy (Corey, 2005).


  • Overdependence on animal research (Weiten, 2007).
  • Denies the existence of free will and the importance of cognitive processes (Weiten, 2007).
  • Treats symptoms rather than underlying issues (Corey, 2005).
  • Does not provide insight (Corey, 2005).
  • Personality structure only focuses on stimulus-response associations. There is no emphasis on underlying concepts (Weiten, 1998).


Overall, behavioural therapies are not generally used on their own in treating psychological disorders however the techniques used in behavioural therapies are applicable to treatment in a wide variety of settings.

Behavioural therapies have contributed to greater understanding of the learning processes and have also significantly influenced measurement strategies for identifying psychological problems such as anxiety disorders.


  • Corey, C. (2005). Theory and practice of counseling & psychotherapy.  (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning.
  • Corsini, R.J., & Wedding, D. (eds.) (2000). Current Psychotherapies.  (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning, Inc.
  • Guilliard, B., James, R., & Bowman, J. (1994). Theories and strategies in counseling an Psychotherapy.  (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  • McLeod, S. (n.d.a) The behaviourist approach in psychology. Retrieved February 14, 2007, from
  • McLeod, S. (n.d.b). Operant Conditioning. Retrieved February 14, 2007, from
  • Seligman, L. (2006). Theories of counseling and psychotherapy: Systems, strategies, and skills. (2nd ed.).Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Ltd.
  • Weiten, W. (2007). Psychology: Themes & Variations.  (7th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Thomson Publishing Inc.