Behavior therapies

Conditioning is important in the treatment of various pathologies, and in this context there are many psychotherapies based on conditioning models. We can divide behavior therapies into two groups: those based on classical conditioning and those based on operant conditioning.

     I.Therapies based on classical conditioning:

    This type of therapy is used primarily with phobias, but it can also be used with obsessive compulsive disorder. The idea behind this therapy is that phobias can be developed through classical conditioning. A learned association between an aversive unconditioned stimulus and a conditioned stimulus give as a result an irrational fear towards the conditioned stimulus. There for the simplest way to get rid of a phobia is through extinction.

     By repeatedly presenting the feared object without the association with the unconditioned stimulus that originally elicited the fear, the fear response to the conditioned stimulus will disappear. However it is not as easy as it sounds, presenting the feared object to the patient is hard considering the fact that the patient has an irrational fear toward that particular object. In this case therapists need to find the proper way to expose the patient to the source of fear. In the therapies based on classical conditioning there are four ways of exposing the patient to their feared object and these ways are:

  • Flooding:

in flooding the patient directly experiences the feared object, in this case the conditioned stimulus, without the unconditioned stimulus. Let us say for example that the patient has an irrational fear for cats the therapist in this case for example can make the client hold the cat. After experiencing close contact to the cat the patient learns that there is no reason to be afraid of the cat.

  • Implosion:

here the patient only imagines the fearful situation. The patient is asked to imagine the fearful stimulus in a context where nothing fearful can happen. This makes the patient able to confront the phobia.

  • Systematic desensitization:

A criticism for both flooding and implosion is that they force the patient to experience a great deal of anxiety at the beginning of the therapy. To reduce the initial anxiety, a psychologist by the name of Joseph Wolpe developed the technique of systematic desensitization.  In this technique the individual imagine the feared object while trying to ensure that the patient stays relaxed by using deep relaxation and an anxiety hierarchy. The principal is that an individual cannot experience these contradictory emotions “relaxation and anxiety” simultaneously. The individual then proceeds up the hierarchy until the relaxation response are reinforced to the anxiety-invoking stimulus. This is called counter-conditioning.

  • Conditioned aversion:

This therapy is used when the patient have a behavior that is undesirable, for example alcohol problems. In this therapy the undesirable stimulus becomes paired with an aversive unconditioned stimulus. The negative feelings will be associated to the undesired behavior and the patient therefore will no longer be attracted to the behavior.

II.Therapies based on operant conditioning:

The goal of these therapies is to change the patient’s behavior by changing the reinforcement contingency that is associated with the behavior. The therapist use different kinds of operant conditioning: positive, negative, punishment and extinction to modify patient’s behavior. This therapy is generally called contingency management and here we can find different types like:

  • Behavioral contract:

it is a negotiated agreement between two parties that explicitly states the behavioral change that is desired and indicates consequences of certain acts.

  • Time out procedure:

the idea behind this therapy is that the undesirable behavior occurs in situations that reinforce the behavior. Therefore removing the reinforcing situation will stop the reinforcement of the behavior which will make the behavior eventually disappear.

  • Taken economics:

they are given for desirable behaviors and are taken away for undesirable behaviors. These tokens can then be exchanged by the patient for rewards and privileges.

  • Premack principle:

the idea behind this therapy is using a more preferred activity to reinforce a less preferred activity. For example parents can tell the child that he can play after an hour of studying. This way using a more preferred activity “playing” will reinforce a less preferred activity “studying”.    

See Also:

Classical Conditioning

Operant Conditioning

Trial and error


Conditioning Watson and little Albert