There are seven characteristics to behavior therapy, they are:

  • There is a strong emphasis on defining problems in terms of behavior that can be measured in some way.
  • The treatment techniques are ways of altering an individual's current environment to help that individual function more fully.
  • The methods and rationales can be described precisely.
  • The techniques are often applied in everyday life.
  • The techniques are based largely on principles of learning - specifically operant conditioning and respondent conditioning.
  • There is a strong emphasis on scientific demonstration that a particular technique was responsible for a particular behavior change.
  • There is a strong emphasis on accountability for everyone involved in a behavior therapy program

Many techniques in this therapy are specific techniques aimed at specific issues. There is strong and consistent evidence that behavioral treatments are effective for treating mental health issues such as depression, OCD, anxiety disorders, and ADHD, as well as intimacy in couples relationships, forgiveness in couples, chronic pain, stress related Behavior problems of being an adult child of an alcoholic, anorexia, chronic distress, substance abuse behavior therapy programs form the core of many residential treatment facility programs.

They have shown success in reducing recidivism for adolescents with conduct problems and adult offenders. One area that has repeatedly shown effectiveness has been the work of behaviorists working in the area of community reinforcement for addictions. 

Behavior modifiers like to employ a variety of evidenced-based techniques. These techniques intervene at all levels of context. For example, given specific setting events for a behavior, a behavior modifier may develop a neutralizing routine to eliminate that setting. If a behavior pattern has a specific antecedent, or trigger, then an antecedent control strategy can be developed to train new behavior in the presence of the trigger.

If a problem behavior readily occurs because it achieves some function, then an alternative behavior can be instructed and trained to occur in the context of the trigger. If a behavior is particularly complex it may be task-analyzed and broken into its component parts to be taught through chaining. While all these methods are effective, when the behavior problem gets difficult or when all else fails many turn to contingency management systems. Complex and comprehensive contingency management systems have been developed and represent effective ways to eliminate many problem behaviors. Collaborative goal setting with the client enhances treatment effects. 

Pros for this therapy

Behavioral modification is highly effective when administered properly, and is effective for almost any observable behavior with long term results, and focuses on positive reinforcement instead of negative reinforcement. When effective, it should produce weekly therapeutic progress. By changing the contributing behaviors, it may work to help solve substance abuse problems, aggressive behavior, anger issues, eating disorders, phobias, and anxiety disorders, incontinence and insomnia.

Cons for this therapy

Incorrect application of techniques can lead to failure of the therapy, and inconsistency in treatment can cause regression and setbacks that are difficult to overcome. It may not be appropriate for people with cognitive deficits or impairments (such as a traumatic brain injury or organic brain disease). Patients who do not have a specific behavior that they want to change and address might be better suited for a different type of psychotherapy.

The first use of the term behavior therapy appears to have been by Edward Thorndike in 1911. His article “Provisional Laws of Acquired Behavior or Learning” makes frequent use of the term "modifying behavior". Through early research in the 1940s and the 1950s the term was used by Joseph Wolpe's research group. The experimental tradition in clinical psychology used it to refer to psychotherapeutic techniques derived from empirical research. It has since come to refer mainly to techniques for increasing adaptive behavior through reinforcement and decreasing maladaptive behavior through extinction or punishment (with emphasis on the former).

Two related terms are behavior therapy and applied behavior analysis. Emphasizing the empirical roots of behavior therapy, some authors consider it to be broader in scope and to subsume the other two categories of behavior change methods. Since techniques derived from behavioral psychology tend to be the most effective in altering behavior, most practitioners consider behavior therapy along with behavior therapy and applied behavior analysis to be founded in behaviorism. While behavior therapy encompasses applied behavior analysis and typically uses interventions based on the same behavioral principles, many behavior modifiers who are not applied behavior analysts tend to use packages of interventions and do not conduct functional assessments before intervening.  

Behavior Therapy is a type of psychotherapy. Psychotherapy is a general term referring to therapeutic interaction or treatment contracted between a trained professional and a client or patient; family, couple or group. The problems addressed are psychological in nature and of no specific kind or degree, but rather depend on the specialty of the practitioner.

Psychotherapy aims to increase the individual's sense of his/her own well-being. Psychotherapists employ a range of techniques based on experiential relationship building, dialog, communication and behavior change that are designed to improve the mental health of a client or patient, or to improve group relationships (such as in a family).

Behavior therapy is the use of empirically demonstrated behavior change techniques to improve behavior, such as altering an individual's behaviors and reactions to stimuli through positive and negative reinforcement of adaptive behavior and/or the reduction of maladaptive behavior through its extinction, punishment and/or therapy.

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Review Date: 
February 15, 2012