What is Behavior Therapy?

by Anthony Carter on May 27, 2011


Many people in society will exhibit undesirable behaviors such as addiction or other types of abuse. According to behavioral therapists people learn to behave the way they do. If this is so then it means that they should be able to unlearn it too. Behavior modification therapy then is an intervention aimed at changing people’s maladaptive behavior. It is now commonly used by many therapists around the world and this technique has proven to be quite successful. It can be used to help both adults and children.

The Theory behind Behavior Therapy

Behavior therapy is strongly influenced by the work of a scientist called Ivan Pavlov. His theory of classical conditioning described how people could be encouraged to exhibit certain behaviors. He did this by studying the production of saliva in dogs. It is expected that animals will salivate when eating, but he conditioned them to exhibit this behavior without even receiving any food. He proved that it was possible to change the behavior of others. Later work investigated the role of reward and punishment in producing certain behaviors.

Behavior modification can use many different tools to create change. For instance a token economy can work well with children. Here they will be rewarded with tokens for exhibiting good behavior. They can later use these tokens to buy things with. Another popular example of behavior modification therapy is aversion therapy. Here the individual is punished for exhibiting certain behaviors.

An Example of Behavior Modification Therapy

The early work on conditioning later developed to different therapies to treat maladaptive behaviors. A good example of this would be treatments to treat alcoholism or drug abuse. The client can be encouraged to use techniques such as relaxation and aversion to discourage drinking. So if they have the urge to drink they may be asked to think of something really unpleasant. It is also possible to use aversion therapy involving drugs or electric shocks.

The most common form of aversion therapy for alcoholics is Antabuse. This drug causes the individual to become very ill if they drink while on it. In fact the effects are so extreme that the person may feel that they are dying. This negative response to drinking acts as a push to change behavior. Even if the individual does decide to drink on the drug they will then begin to associate using alcohol with feeling very sick. That way they will be conditioned into changing their behavior.

Behavior modification therapy is usually combined with other therapies to increase its effectiveness. For example cognitive-behavioral techniques will involve examining thinking as well as behavior. This approach can reduce the time needed to treat maladaptive behavior. When treating problems like addiction or compulsive behavior it is usually recommended that a variety of methods are used together.

The amount of behavior therapy that an individual will require will always depend on the nature of their problem. Some behaviors can be very hard to remove and so will take intensive therapy over a long period. Other problems can be dealt with in much shorter periods of time.

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