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BehaviorTherapy

What Is Behavior Therapy?

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Updated May 09, 2013

What Is Behavior Therapy?

Behavior therapy is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on changing and gaining control over unwanted behaviors. Behavior therapy is based upon the principles of classical conditioning developed by Ivan Pavlov and operant conditioning developed by B. F. Skinner.

What Is Classical Conditioning?

Classical conditioning is best exemplified by a famous experiment conducted by Pavlov in which he learned that ringing a bell close to dinner time caused dogs to associate the ringing of the bell with the arrival of food. Soon, the dogs learned to begin salivating at the sound of the bell even though no food was present.

An important principle in conditioned learning is that a conditioned response (salivating in the case of the dogs) decreases in intensity if the conditioned stimulus (bell) is repeatedly presented without the unconditioned stimulus (food). This process, called extinction, is useful in treating phobias, which are essentially cases where a person has learned to have an irrational fear of an object or situation because of some fear-inducing stimulus which accompanied it.

For example, a person might fear clowns because as a child they were frightened by the loud noises of the circus. Gradually exposing this person to stimuli that trigger his phobia -- a process called desensitization--would eventually extinguish his fear.

What Is Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning is based upon the fact that behavior can be affected by rewards and punishments.

In explaining operant conditioning, B. F. Skinner gave an example of a hungry rat in a semi-soundproof box. For several days, food was delivered into a tray via an automatic dispenser. When the rat heard the dispenser he went to eat. Next, a small lever in the wall was slightly raised so that when the rat touched it with its paw, the food dispenser was delivered. Immediately after eating the food, the rat began to press the lever rapidly. The first time the rat touched the lever by accident, but the arrival of the food dispenser reinforced the behavior so he kept doing it.

Just like the rat, human behavior can be affected by reinforcement. Desired behaviors can be reinforced while undesired behaviors can be extinguished by not offering reinforcement.

What Is Behavior Therapy Used For?

Behavior therapy is effective for the treatment of health problems which require some sort of behavior change, such as quitting smoking or losing weight. It is also effective for anxiety disorders and phobias. It has been used with positive results in patients with developmental disabilities and with severely disturbed psychotic patients. It is the treatment of choice for severely ill patients who can't participate in insight-oriented or cognitive therapies.

Sources:

Fredholm, Lotta. "Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936)." Nobelprize.org. Nobel Foundation. September 21, 2007 <http://nobelprize.org/educational_games/medicine/pavlov/readmore.html>

Jacobson, James L. and Alan M. Jacobson. Psychiatric Secrets. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA : Hanley & Belfus, Inc., 2001.

Skinner, B. F. " A Brief Survey of Operant Behavior." B. F. Skinner Foundation. September 21, 2007 <http://www.bfskinner.org/briefsurvey.html>.

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