Common Behavioral Treatments: Classical Conditioning and Desensitization

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  • 0:07 Behavioral Therapy
  • 1:13 Conditioning
  • 2:46 Counterconditioning
  • 4:29 Desensitization
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

When someone is suffering from a psychological disorder, they have many options as far as treatment goes. In this lesson, we'll look at aspects of behavioral therapy, including conditioning, counterconditioning, and desensitization.

Behavioral Therapy

Kylie is addicted to alcohol and tranquilizers. If she doesn't take a tranquilizer or drink alcohol, she feels empty and alone. Even though her husband is always there for her, when she's sober, she just can't seem to feel complete. Substance abuse disorders like Kylie's are psychological disorders. The field of abnormal psychology is about studying psychological disorders and how best to treat them.

There are many ways to treat psychological illness, including drug and alcohol addiction. Medication, psychoanalysis and other treatments are often used to address mental health disorders. One such treatment is behavioral therapy, which seeks to change a patient's behaviors.

Behavioral therapy is different from other types of therapy because it doesn't dig for an underlying issue, or cause. Whereas a psychoanalyst might talk to Kylie and try to ascertain what's going on in her subconscious mind, a behavioral therapist looks directly at the behaviors (Kylie's drug abuse) and doesn't try to find other problems. To a behavioral therapist, the actions are the problems. Let's look closer at some tools used in behavioral therapy: conditioning, counterconditioning and desensitization.


The theory behind behavioral therapy is that most people learn to associate certain behaviors with rewards, which leads them to continue with the behavior. For example, if a person steals money and gets away with it, they are more likely to steal again. After all, their action (stealing) led to a reward (keeping the money and not getting punished).

Behavioral theory started with a scientist named Ivan Pavlov, who did a famous experiment with dogs. Whenever he fed the dogs, he rang a bell. After a while, the dogs learned to associate the ringing of the bell with food. When the bell rang, they started to salivate, even if there wasn't any food around! When a person associates two things that don't normally go together, it is called conditioning. A bell is not an intuitive thing to associate with food, but Pavlov's dogs were conditioned to put the two together.

So what does this have to do with therapy? Let's go back to Kylie for a moment. She's got an alcohol and drug problem. Conditioning might explain why she behaves the way she does. For example, perhaps her mother never showed Kylie any love or attention except when her mother was drinking or taking pills. Kylie became conditioned to associate love and attention with drugs and alcohol, and that's why she abuses those substances.


If someone learns something through conditioning, is that it? Are they doomed to forever associate those two things? Or can you undo conditioning somehow? Back in the early 20th century, a psychologist named John B. Watson did an experiment where he proved that intense fears, like phobias, can be learned, or conditioned. But knowing that wasn't enough for his student Mary Cover Jones, who decided to see if the idea of conditioning could be used to help cure phobias, too.

Jones worked with a little boy named Peter, who had a phobia of rabbits. She showed him a rabbit, and he panicked. But Jones offered him his favorite food and as he ate the food, he calmed down. She gradually moved the rabbit closer and closer to Peter, giving him more food as she did so. Slowly, Peter began to associate the rabbit with his favorite food. He no longer feared rabbits.

When someone learns to change their behavior to a more positive one based on conditioning, it is called counterconditioning. As we've seen with Peter, counterconditioning is particularly helpful with phobias and other anxieties. But it can also be used to treat other mental illnesses.

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