Behavioral Theory Or Behavioral Psychology? How Behavior And Personality Intersect

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated April 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

When it comes to behavioral psychology definition, it pertains to the study of the connection between our mind and behavior. Everyone can use behavioral theory, behavioral psychology, and behaviorism interchangeably to describe a single psychological theory: behaviorism. The theory relies less upon standard therapy modalities such as talk therapy and focuses on conditioning for improved behavior and quality of life.

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What is behaviorism?

Behavior theory is a psychological framework used to examine and explain human psychology. Some psychologists might explore matters of the unconscious or refer to aspects of humanity that are wholly internal and do not display outward characteristics. However, behaviorism neglects this definition of psychology. 

Behaviorism favors the observable, knowable impacts of behavior. As one researcher stated, "behaviorism is a doctrine." It can be a way of looking at the psychology of the human mind and explaining motivation, behavior, and psychological study through the lens of human actions.

In behaviorism, a behavior might be explained through actions rather than resorting to an examination of intrinsic or internal motivators. For instance, through the lens of behaviorism, addictive behavior may be less likely to be attributed to a history of trauma or severe insecurity. Instead, it may be attributed to a system of pleasure, reward, or the motivations governing actions. 

Behaviorism may also label anxiety as a learned behavior rather than a construct determined by previous traumas, belief systems, or internally based motivators.

How does behaviorism impact will and personality determination?

For behaviorists, personality is not something intrinsic or predetermined. Instead, personality may be considered made up of a series of behaviors partly related to external factors, such as reward, punishment, or example. 

Personality may be seen as a construct based upon surroundings, meaning humans are often shaped by culture, societal conditions, and upbringing rather than carrying a foundational self which is then influenced by surroundings. In this theory, children are blank slates upon birth and gradually develop distinct personalities.

Will, too, is influenced externally, according to behaviorists. In behavioral theory, psychology is used to determine how will, personality, and motivations are impacted and created by a person's behavior and the behaviors of those around them. 

Just as personality may be created according to external influences, will and motivation are considered to be created and sorted according to surroundings. Using this theory, the behaviors of children may resemble family or close friends. Personalities and ideas may not be set but are instead bent according to their surroundings.

Is there a combination?

Behavioral theories may seem dogmatic in their approach. Some individuals consider the framework of behaviorism a "doctrine" with which to approach mental health. There may be less internal work and more external motivation to explore, alter, and improve in behavioral therapy. 

This way of thinking may not be a middle road but one side of a psychological coin. With behaviorism, therapists, doctors, and their patients may not be bound to theories in psychology that cite childhood or unresolved issues as the primary reason for behaviors. However, they may also overlook trauma disorders during treatment. 

Many psychologists borrow concepts from behavioral theory and apply them to a balanced or person-focused approach to mental health and wellness. They often use external and internal motivation practices simultaneously to diagnose and treat their patients. 

Getty/Luis Alvarez

Is behaviorism useful?

Although this brand of psychology may feel somewhat rigid in its approach, it may have practical applications, and some individuals may find it helpful. Behaviorism might benefit behaviorists and people with certain personalities and specific belief systems. 

Behaviorism may feel helpful if someone is staunchly against the notion of a higher power, spirituality, or anything not readily observed or tangible. It may not require patients to discount any previously held ideas to engage in functional therapy.

Behaviorism may also be valuable due to its contribution to psychology. Although some practitioners might consider it too restrictive in its outlook, many agree that external motivators and influences are worth noting when evaluating a patient and determining the source of their pain, a prognosis, and a treatment plan. 

For some people, external motivators are compelling in creating the ideal conditions for a personality or mood disorder. For others, internal issues are of greater importance. For many, contributing factors are internal and external, and a multi-layered approach may be the best way to treat mental health symptoms. 

For example, someone who has had childhood trauma and struggles with angry outbursts may benefit from discussing their inner thoughts and feelings while learning new coping mechanisms to improve their behavior. This therapy approach may be called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). 

Behavioral psychology's popularity

In its infancy, behaviorism was a polarizing issue. It directly contradicted the theories of Freud and similar psychoanalysts who cited internal mechanisms as the most critical aspects of psychological motivations. Its status as a newcomer with wholly new ideas gave it credence, as did its ability to demonstrate its tenets with observable traits and behaviors rather than focusing and relying entirely on a person's experience.

Because it can be a polarizing issue, behaviorism has often had intense critics and supporters. For some, behaviorism is too restrictive in its opinions regarding personality and motivation. 

Many people firmly believe in nature, not nurture, or believe in some mixture of the two. Behaviorism often focuses primarily on the notion of "nurture." Behaviorists may believe that all behaviors and modifications are engaged in or supported based on the environment.

This belief may make the psychological intervention more readily targeted, as you might see tangible results quickly, while internally based psychology systems may rely primarily on a patient's report to determine efficacy. 

However, non-behavioral therapy may also warrant physical results that can be tracked. For example, many studies exist on the efficacy of emotion and inner-based therapies such as compassion-based therapy and EMDR. 

Behaviorism in practice

Behaviorism often relies on behavioral learning theory rather than trauma or talk-based treatment modalities. Behavioral intervention may enact tangible changes in the lives of people seeking treatment and may focus on changing externals more than internals. 

Classical conditioning 

One of behaviorism's techniques is called classical conditioning. Although this modification may not be frequently used in a therapeutic setting, you may see it in marketing campaigns. 

The concept of classical conditioning is to use already-existing reactions and responses to encourage particular behavior. Marketing teams may take advantage of this by using beautiful models to sell unrelated items. Attraction is often associated with pleasure, so pairing an item with an attractive model may create the notion of pleasure when using or purchasing that item.

Operant conditioning 

Another example of behaviorism in practice is operant conditioning. This treatment method may involve identifying rewards for specific behaviors and delivering rewards once the desired behavior is executed. Many people use this daily when working with children, coworkers, or challenging peers. 

For instance, misbehaving children might be promised a toy in exchange for positive behavior. In contrast, a problematic coworker might be promised the opportunity to leave work early in exchange for extra responsibility.

Behaviorism, psychology, and personality

Some aspects of behaviorism may seem too rigid or strict to be useful in a clinical setting. Other aspects may be immensely helpful in treating mental health conditions. Behavioral therapy may significantly benefit those who have compulsive behaviors. 

Replacing the allure of a natural consequence of a compulsion with a healthier alternative may help alleviate the symptoms of compulsive behavior. 

For some conditions, the applications of behaviorism may be ill-suited for treatment, as could be the case in depression or trauma disorders that are not necessarily based on systems of reward or consequence.

In behavioral theory, personality and behaviorism tenets intersect in the literal development of your personality. Behaviorism states that you would be a blank slate with no intrinsic characteristics without any external factors to shape your actions, beliefs, and motivations. Within this train of thought, people may not be as individualistic or unique as is often believed. 

In behaviorism, children are often thought of as direct products of their parents' belief systems or the belief systems of those closest to them. Their parents' parents may have shaped their beliefs, and so on. This theory distinguishes between personalities, belief systems, and ideas attributable to society and relevant conditioning.

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Should I see a therapist to change my behavior?

In behavior modification psychology, behaviors that don't necessarily affect the quality of your life but you want to change anyway may be modified through a reward system, such as buying yourself a coffee when you finish a challenging assignment.  

However, serious behaviors like substance use, compulsions, or anger issues might warrant seeing a therapist who specializes in behavioral therapy. With a therapist, you may learn how your behaviors have led to your emotional responses or the other way around. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

Behaviors may be treated with behavioral therapy online, which can be as effective as face-to-face therapy. For example, a recent study found that 32 participants (youths between the ages of 9-17) diagnosed with type one diabetes mellitus who received online behavioral treatment could control their glycemic levels by adhering to a diabetes regime.

If exploring underlying reasons for your behavior prevents you from seeking therapy, know that you don't have to use talk therapy if you don't want to. You can try finding a therapist on an online platform such as BetterHelp and connecting with someone who practices behavioral therapy or CBT. They may be able to teach you behavior modification techniques to practice at home. 


For some, behavioral therapy or the practice of behaviorism may not click. For others, it may feel like an effective alternative to talk therapy or emotion-based treatment. Whatever treatment type you want to try, consider reaching out to a counselor for support. You're not alone. 

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