Behavioral Psychology: Definition And Applications

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated April 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Behavioral psychology, also called behaviorism, is the study of human behavior. Its study and applications have shaped how our school system works, how parents teach their children, and how companies develop and market their products. Although the study of radical behavioral psychology has waned since the 1950s, its basic principles still resonate today.

It should be noted that behavioral psychology and developmental psychology are distinct branches of study. Developmental psychology focuses primarily on how individuals develop throughout their lives, whereas behavior psychology studies how individuals behave.

The origins of behavioral psychology

The first applied behavior analysis researchers observed and measured human behavior in various settings. They did not consider subjective influences such as mood, feelings, or cognition. Instead, they focused on how environmental influences and conditioning shape the way we act.

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Famous behaviorists

Several famous behaviorists founded the study of behavioral psychology. The first mention of behavioral psychology was a publication called "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It," published by John B. Watson in 1913. Additional famous behaviorists include B. F. Skinner (who developed the theory of operant conditioning), Edwin Ray Guthrie, Edward C. Tolman, Clark L. Hull, and Kenneth Spence.

Behavioral psychology theory

The theory behind many behavioral psychology books is that one's environment directly shapes one’s behavior. According to behaviorism—behavior modification psychology in particular—behaviors can be successfully measured and modified by studying and controlling an individual's environment. As John B Watson stated in his 1913 paper, behaviorists believe that if you take a dozen healthy infants and raise them in a specified environment, you could turn them into adults with the behaviors of your choosing.

Conditioning

One of the most important findings to come out of the study of behavioral psychology is the theory of conditioning. There are two types of conditioning: operant conditioning and classical conditioning. When studying these two types, you may recognize the similarities between these theories and how both teachers and parents instruct children.

Classical conditioning

In classical conditioning, a naturally occurring stimulus (ex: someone doing an action) is paired with a neutral stimulus (ex: a sound) to create a response. Eventually, the neutral stimulus will create the response even though the natural stimulus is no longer present. For example, let's say you want to teach a child to immediately get dressed when they wake up from an alarm on a school day. The alarm is the naturally occurring stimulus and getting dressed is the neutral stimulus. Eventually, the child is so used to getting dressed immediately after waking up that they will do so even if there is no alarm. This is called a conditioned response. This type of conditioning is most frequently used to build new habits or break unhealthy habits and is largely built on associations.

Ivan Pavlov, another famous behaviorist, showcased the effectiveness of classical conditioning with dogs. Knowing that dogs often salivate at the sight of food, he added in another variable: a bell. When he rang the bell, that signaled to the dogs that food was coming, and over time the dogs began to salivate just from hearing the bell ring, even when food was not immediately present. The bell started as a neutral stimulus, and over time became a conditioned stimulus, eliciting the conditioned response of salivating.

Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning is the most frequently used application of behavioral psychology. It is used by parents, teachers, and even employers. With operant conditioning, each behavior has a consequence, and the behavior is either rewarded or punished. Theoretically, if that consequence is consistently unpleasant, the subject will stop the behavior. If the consequence is pleasant, they may repeat the behavior.

Operant conditioning is also based mostly on associations and changing the psychological nature of a subject. In this case, associations are built on the consequences of behaviors. When a certain behavior is associated with a particular consequence, the behavior will either be reinforced or eliminated. This is very similar to learning theory in behavioral psychology, which describes how information is received and understood throughout the learning process.

For operant conditioning to work, the consequence must be the same or extremely similar each time the target behavior is presented.

After a behavior is learned, partial reinforcement can be applied. For example, you might reward your child every time they do the dishes when you are building the habit, but after the habit is built, you might only reward the child every week. Partial reinforcement should generally not be used during the beginning stages of operant conditioning.

Common applications

Although the study of behavioral psychology has declined since the 1950s, some applications are still used today.

Building and breaking habits

Adults may benefit from some behavioral psychology applications. It is often behavioral psychology that shapes how people break bad habits or create new ones. For example, many books, articles, and tips that you read about making or breaking habits are based on behavioral psychology. Healthy habits are typically formed through classical conditioning, while harmful habits are frequently broken through operant conditioning.

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Teaching children

Behavioral psychology has also helped shape how we teach our children today. For example, public school systems have been influenced by behavioral psychology. Children tend to be rewarded for learning, and associations can be developed to help them learn new skills, information, and behaviors. Parents may use operant conditioning to teach their children right from wrong and to teach them household and societal expectations.

Strengths and weaknesses

Seeing psychology from a behavioral perspective has some strengths and weaknesses to consider, which may explain why behavioral psychology is less prevalent today. In recent years, may psychologists have focused more on biological psychology and the roles that our brains and emotions play in our behaviors.

Strengths

One of the strengths of behavioral psychology is that behavior is observable and measurable. Unlike emotions, thoughts, and moods, behavior can be seen and measured. This can make the behavior easier to define and research than other aspects of psychology. It also has contributed to drive theory, which is an effective approach to understanding the different psychological drives. These implications have led to behaviorism’s major impact on the development of several types of therapy.

Weaknesses

Other psychologists agree that behavioral psychology is a one-sided perspective of behavior. It typically doesn't account for moods, thoughts, and feelings, which play a significant role in human behavior as well. Some psychologists also argue that behaviorism doesn't consider free will. Other types of learning do not involve reinforcement or punishment, and behavioral psychology often ignores these methods. People can also adapt their behavior based on new information, even if that information was not presented through conditioning or goes against a previously conditioned response.

Seeking guidance in changing behaviors

If you are struggling with breaking well-formed habits, building new habits, teaching your children right from wrong, or managing your employees, it may help to get more information about this field of psychology. You can find many books and articles on the subject, particularly for building and breaking habits.

If you are having a difficult time breaking an unhealthy habit, behavioral psychology applications and education may help. A therapist can help you let go of habits such as substance use through therapeutic techniques. Treatment experts often use contingency management strategies to help reinforce good behaviors and eliminate bad ones.

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.

If you are working through behaviors that you’d like to change and want support, consider contacting a mental health professional. Online therapy platforms such as BetterHelp are here to provide you with convenience to therapists. These therapists can help you work through mental health challenges and better understand your thoughts and behaviors.

Most often, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the approach used to help treat negative thoughts and behaviors. One form of CBT is systematic desensitization which is used to reduce anxiety disorders, stress, and avoidant behaviors by exposing the individual to the source of their distress. Studies have found that online CBT can be as effective in treating anxiety as in-person CBT, and in some cases may be more effective. Another study found online CBT to be as effective as in-person therapy when treating symptoms of depression, phobias, OCD, and a variety of other behavioral and mood disorders.

Online therapy can also be more affordable than in-person sessions, as online therapists often have lower overhead costs. Furthermore, online therapy may be more available for people busy in their daily lives.

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Counselor reviews

Continue reading below to see reviews from some of our therapists from people seeking behavior therapy.

“If you are interested in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), I recommend speaking to Dr. Reese (Caleb). I have received therapy for almost three months now. I was very hesitant to seek therapy again, but I'm glad that I did. Dr. Reese is truly invested in what he does. He doesn't make assumptions or jump to conclusions about what I tell him. He's been extremely supportive throughout many difficult moments. It also doesn't hurt that he's a cool guy with a sense of humor.” Learn more about working with Dr. Caleb Reese, PsyD, LP.

“Darlyn has been a true gem during a difficult season in my life. She listens closely but also encourages and challenges me to understand my behavior and how to make a change. I dance around some issues, and Darlyn is not afraid to ask the hard questions to dig in and make me get to work! I am so grateful for her!” Learn more about working with Darlyn Martinez, LCSW.

Takeaway

Behavioral psychology continues to be useful to mental health professionals and those who wish to understand and modify their behaviors. If you’re hoping to learn more about the connection between your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, consider reaching out to a therapist online and taking the next step on your mental health journey.
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