This is one of the four main branches of psychotherapy . Sometimes known as stimulus/response psychology, the behavioural approach is based on ‘learning theory’ which grew out of research with animals. Basing his work on Pavlov’s earlier studies of conditioned reflexes in dogs, the American psychologist B F Skinner made further studies of animal behaviour from which he developed his ‘laws of learning’, the theory of reinforcement on top of conditioning.
Behaviourists emphasize how the environment ‘conditions’ us to behave in certain ways, and that we modify our behaviour to suit our surroundings. In principle, anything that we do is reinforced by a reward or punishment. We tell a joke and people laugh, so we tell it again. We chatter in the theatre, everybody stares at us with a scowl, so we do not do it again. Behavioural therapy uses this simple fact to encourage correct behaviour and discourage bad behaviour. A good example is a disruptive child who manages to attract the attention of his parents by misbehaving. If the parent ignores the child the behaviour goes unattended and the child’s attitude will change.
Since all behaviour is learned, behaviourists argue that undesirable behaviour can be unlearned and replaced by more desirable behaviour. Behavioural therapy is particularly useful for phobias, breaking habits, obsessive-compulsive behaviour and even bed-wetting. The most successful and widely used form of the therapy is desensitization or flooding for specific phobias: in the first method the patient is lightly hypnotized, relaxes deeply and imagines a progressively more frightening series of fearful stimuli; in the second the patient confronts the most frightening stimulus, either in reality or imagination, for 20 minutes or so.