What Is Behavioral Therapy? - Definition & Techniques

Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

How do people get over phobias? Why do you no longer eat really spicy food? What do rats have to do with either of these?! This lesson covers the basics of behavioral therapy, from Skinnerian operant conditioning to aversion therapy.

When people want to change what they do, such as smoking or drinking alcohol, they look to therapy to help them. One effective therapy is...

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral Therapy is simply defined as changing what you do with guidance from a therapist. A single behavior or groups of behaviors, also known as the actions you take, have become problematic and stressful. The therapist will work with the client to change or modify these behaviors in a step-by-step process by using scientifically valid techniques.

Origin of Technique

B.F. Skinner
B.F. Skinner

The primary theoretical basis of this therapy is Skinnerian Operant Conditioning. Have you ever watched a television commercial where an animal completes a bizarre maze, a raccoon puts a coin in a bank, or a bird sings and dances a little jig? This is done by applying the principles of learning to make constructive changes in behavior. For example, a rat does not naturally press a bar when placed into a cage, but it can be trained to press a bar when rewarded with food. The rat can also be trained to press a bar if the floor is electrified or a loud sound plays over the speaker and the bar turns off the electricity or noise.

Skinner Training Box
Skinner Box

The same ideas of punishment and reward can also be applied to human learning. If a person learns to behave in a different way, then the therapy would be called successful, would you not agree?

Actual Practice

Aversion Therapy

Aversion Therapy is the pairing of a behavior with a punishment. A common use of this technique is when someone is trying to quit smoking. You put a cigarette and lighter in front of someone, and every time he goes to pick up and light the cigarette, a painful but harmless electrical shock occurs. The pairing of immediate pain with the cigarette causes the subject to learn 'cigarette equals pain; stop!' This is repeated several times so the learning is cemented into his memory - not necessarily his conscious memories, but somewhere deep down it is stored.

You more than likely have accidentally used something like aversion therapy before. Are there any foods you dislike because after you ate them you vomited? Or maybe every time you eat a certain type of food you have intense stomach pain, so now you avoid that food? This is the basic principle of learning in action, which is being controlled and used in aversion therapy.


Desensitization is the gradual introduction of a stress-causing stimulus. The first step is to have the client relaxed, since you do not want to have a client who is already worked up, then introduce something that will cause more anxiety. With your client relaxed, you introduce a small aspect of something that stresses him, and you have the client control his reaction by using relaxation techniques. Relaxation Techniques are conscious ways to control the body's reaction to stress. A popular example is controlled breathing, also known as yoga breathing or combat breathing. When he can handle this small stress-causing aspect, you move to a larger, then a larger, and then a larger aspect until the client is able to function around whatever it was that originally caused anxiety. This technique is most often used to help overcome phobias, which are fears that are irrational or impairing the client's daily functioning.

As an example, you as a therapist have someone who is terrified, absolutely terrified, of heights. This goes beyond an uncomfortable feeling of being up high; this person's fear is so crippling they cannot change light bulbs in their house, fly in a plane, or look out a window above the first floor due to an irrational fear of falling and dying. Your first step would be to teach the client relaxation techniques, which readies them for the first, small step. While holding on to something steady, the client steps up onto a very small, very stable step stool only a few inches off of the ground. Next, you might move to the chair, and following this you might have your client stand on the chair without support. Each of these steps has them using relaxation techniques beforehand as well as during. From the chair, he moves on to a small ladder, then standing in a window of a medium-height building. Next is moving to a high building, and possibly after that, the observation level of a high building. The final step would be to fly in a plane. Each incremental step allows the person to learn and rewrite his brain on how he reacts to the phobia.

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