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Behavioral Theory

Abstract and Keywords

Behavioral theory seeks to explain human behavior by analyzing the antecedents and consequences present in the individual's environment and the learned associations he or she has acquired through previous experience. This entry describes the various traditions within the behavioral perspective (classical conditioning, operant conditioning, cognitively mediated behavioral theory, and functional contextualism) and the clinical applications that are derived from them. Common criticisms are discussed in light of the ongoing evolution of behavioral theory and the fit of its tenets with the field of social work.

Keywords: behavior therapy, operant, reinforcement, contingency, learning theory, conditioning, social learning

Origins of Behavioral Theory

Behavioral theory holds that psychological events can be described and explained in terms of observable behavior and its associations with environmental stimuli and occurrences. Although behavioral theory is a fundamental theoretical perspective within the field of social work (Reid, 2004), it originated within psychology, where it is known as both a methodological frame of reference and a theory of human and animal conduct. Methodological behaviorism, commonly associated with the work of psychologist John B. Watson (1878–1958), served in part as a reaction against psychodynamic perspectives that dominated psychology in the early 20th century, which focused upon subjective phenomena and employed introspective methods of inquiry. Watson ( 1913) argued, in contrast, that the study of behavior should embrace a fully objective scientific approach, focusing on what organisms do, not on their internal or mental states.

Applied Behavioral Theory

In line with Watson's methodological stance, fundamental behavioral principles were first derived from carefully controlled laboratory investigations of learning processes in animals. Later, behavioral theorists grew interested in applying these principles to the understanding and amelioration of human problems. Interventions spawned by this new subdiscipline of applied behavioral theory are based on several premises that (a) clinical problems, regardless of their origins or subjective manifestations, may be expressed in terms of overt behavioral referents; (b) the learning history of an individual provides understanding about the development of problematic behavior and a potential avenue to behavior change; and (c) effective treatments rely upon active processes, such as learning new behaviors, rather than talking about problems as the primary vehicle for relieving emotional distress. Thoughts and feelings are not viewed as unimportant, but are conceptualized as the by-products of behavior processes, not the engine of them. Thus, the behavioral practitioner seeks to modify problematic thoughts and feelings by changing behavior rather than by changing the thoughts and feelings directly, as would be the case with a cognitive approach. For instance, behavioral approaches to depression call for increasing activities in order to increase a client's opportunities for pleasure, which in turn may elevate depressed mood (Emmelkamp, 2004).

As will be detailed below, applied behavioral theory is often classified into two related yet distinct streams, classical conditioning and operant conditioning (Kazdin, 2000). Behavioral principles and techniques based on respondent or classical conditioning are sometimes referred to as behavior therapy; whereas those predicated on operant conditioning are commonly referred to as behavior modification or applied behavior analysis. Both streams form the basis of clinical interventions employed within the field of social work; however, social work interventions have also been influenced by a general widening of behavioral theory from its classical formulations of respondent and operant conditioning. Contemporary behavioral approaches thus form a large umbrella of approaches that include, for example, hybrid cognitive-behavioral models as well as neo-operant approaches known under the rubric of “contextual behaviorism” (Hayes, Follette, & Follette, 1995).

Classical or Respondent Conditioning

Also known as stimulus–response learning theory, respondent conditioning represents the earliest behavioral approach and derives from applications of Ivan Pavlov's (1849–1946) pioneering experiments on digestion. In these studies, Pavlov demonstrated that an experimenter could condition a reflex response (salivation) in a dog by ringing a bell if he paired the ringing bell with an event already known to reflexively elicit salivation (presenting the dog with food). In so doing, Pavlov demonstrated that reflexive behaviors could be acquired through associative learning.

Following on Pavlov's work, John Watson and his students demonstrated that Pavlovian principles could be employed to experimentally induce fear responses in children. Turning these insights to a novel therapeutic use, Joseph Wolpe (1915–1997) and others derived clinical techniques to decrease learned fear responses using stimulus–response principles. Wolpe ( 1995) contended that behavior disorders such as phobic anxiety represent maladaptive conditioned responses and developed a counterconditioning technique known as systematic desensitization, in which the client is exposed to progressively anxiety-evoking stimuli while at the same time performing muscle relaxation to inhibit the conditioned anxiety response (a process Wolpe termed reciprocal inhibition). Since the conditioned response (anxiety or fear) is incompatible with relaxation, the client gradually becomes desensitized to the anxiety-provoking stimulus over a series of repeated trials.

Exposure is another therapeutic technique based upon classical conditioning, in which clients with learned anxiety or fear are repeatedly exposed, either through guided imagery or in vivo, to the feared stimulus (for example, dogs, elevators). Exposure has been shown to be particularly effective when conducted in vivo, and indeed, in-vivo exposure is currently considered the treatment of choice for phobias (Antony & Roemer, 2003). Another counterconditioning technique is cue avoidance or stimulus control (Prochaska & Norcross, 2007), which is used to inhibit an unwanted problem behavior (for example, drug use) by limiting exposures to high-risk cues (drug-using peers), instead substituting stimuli that cue desired behavior (for example, spending time with nondrug-using friends or family). Newer treatments for trauma-based disorders, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming, are likewise informed by principles of respondent conditioning (Wolpe, 1995).

Operant Conditioning or Applied Behavior Analysis

The operant or applied behavior analysis tradition derives from the radical behaviorist theory of B. F. Skinner (1904–1990). In contrast to the classical conditioning paradigm, Skinner and his followers did not focus upon learned reflex responses, but on the way that learning and behavior may be shaped by modifying the consequences that follow them. Applied behavior analysis emerged as a distinct subfield within psychology during the 1960s, led by psychologists such as Donald Baer, Todd Risley, and Teodoro Ayllon, who sought to harness behavioral principles to assess, evaluate, and change behavior to benefit humans' adaptation and functioning in everyday life (for example, Baer, Wolff, & Risley, 1968).

The linchpin of operant theory is that behavior is controlled or governed by its consequences (for example, behavioral or environmental events that follow it). The process by which a consequence leads to an increase in a given behavior is called reinforcement. For example, parental attention that increases a child's aggressive behavior toward a sibling would be considered a reinforcer of aggressive behavior in that particular child. On the other hand, parental withholding of a privilege following aggressive behavior, which in turn reduces its frequency, is a type of punishment. The relationship between the reinforcer (or the punishment) and the subsequent outcome (increased or decreased aggressive behavior) is called a contingency; that is, in the example just described, aggressive behavior would be considered contingent upon parental responses (attention or withholding of privileges). In addition, descriptions of contingencies (“If you do not pay your taxes on time, you must pay a penalty fine”), if they are meaningfully linked to the individual's learning history, may also evoke behavior, a phenomenon Skinner ( 1969) referred to as rule-governed behavior.

In applied behavior analysis, the therapist seeks to discern, through observation and questioning of the client or family, the environmental contingencies that govern problematic behavior so that the environment might be altered to shape desired behavior. The systematic examination of the antecedents and consequences of behavior is referred to as functional analysis, a fundamental preliminary task of the behavioral approach (Haynes & O'Brien, 1990). Functional analysis differs from traditional casework assessment methods in the level of precision sought in the definition and characterization of target behaviors (including frequency, duration, and intensity). Because this analysis serves as the basis for intervention planning (for example, the modification of reinforcement contingencies), such precision is essential to minimizing decision-making errors.

A common application of operant principles is contingency management, the systematic application of positive reinforcement following a desired behavior and withdrawal of reinforcement or punishment following undesired behaviors. For example, practitioners may train parents to establish explicit rules for their children wherein they reinforce desired behaviors (for example, performance of chores) with rewards (for example, allowance) and punish off-limits behaviors (for example, aggression) with withdrawal of reinforcement (for example, removal of privileges). In drug treatment programs, desirable goods such as money or food may be used to reinforce group attendance or abstinence (for example, drug-free urine) (Petry, 2000). These contingency plans may also be formalized by a contract between a client or child and a treatment provider or parent, which permits all parties to have a voice in the development of the plan and may thereby enhance its success (Kazdin, 2000).

A token economy is another type of contingency management system, commonly found in classrooms, inpatient psychiatric settings, and psychiatric day treatment programs, in which contingencies are established between a specified set of desired behaviors and the provision of backup reinforcers (such as poker chips) that may be exchanged for goods or privileges. Although controlled studies show that token economies foster appropriate behavior within the controlled setting of their application, the treatment gains are difficult to maintain and transfer outside that setting. In addition, these programs are costly and challenging to mount in community settings, where most contemporary mental health treatment takes place (Dickerson, Tenhula, & Green-Paden, 2005; Glynn, 1990).

Operant principles are also integral to applications seeking to develop skills or behaviors. In many interventions with developmentally disabled children, for example, shaping procedures are used to guide the learning of skills by reinforcing successive steps toward the desired behavior. Skills are also taught through instruction (where the helper verbally guides the client through the process of performing a skill) and modeling (in which the helper or a peer modeler demonstrates the skill to help the client acquire it themselves). Combinations of the foregoing procedures are often featured in programs of social skills training, and commonly employed with adult psychiatric clients and children with behavior disorders.

Cognitively Mediated Behavioral Theory

In traditional operant theory, the focus of inquiry was limited to observable behavior and therefore excluded thoughts and feelings. Many applied behavioral theorists found strict behaviorism constraining when trying to explain complex human processes and therefore sought to incorporate language, thought, and affect. One of the leading figures in this endeavor was Albert Bandura, who developed social learning theory (1977), a variant of behavioral theory that gave independent weight to cognition as a factor that interacted in a reciprocal manner with behavior and the environment. For example, he argued that people may acquire behavior through vicarious experience (modeling), rather than simply through contingent responding. He demonstrated this principle of social learning through a set of experiments in which children began to acquire aggressive behaviors after observing adults hitting and kicking a large inflatable doll. Bandura also posited that self-efficacy of the individual was an important mediator of intervention and therefore warranted focus as an intervention target (Bandura & Adams, 1977). His later formulation, social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986), also departed from radical behavioral tenets by positioning the individual as a self-regulating agent whose functioning is multiply determined by internal processes (motivation, thoughts, expectancies) and the social environment.

Bandura's ideas have not only influenced the development of an independent subfield, cognitive theory (Reinecke & Freeman, 2003), but also revolutionalized behavioral theory by suggesting that thoughts and feelings could be modified alongside behavior (Hayes, 2004). This paradigm shift spurred the development of cognitively oriented behavioral interventions such as relapse prevention, problem-solving training, and stress inoculation training. While the inclusion of cognitive mediators in treatment models have been criticized from an orthodox point of view (for example, O'Donohue & Krasner, 1995; Skinner, 1977), this broadening of behavior theory has unquestionably increased its purchase within social work and other helping fields.

Influence on the Field of Social Work

Behavioral theory began to shape the development of social work interventions during the 1960s and 1970s, particularly through the efforts and leadership of Edwin Thomas at the University of Michigan. Many of his former students, like Eileen Gambrill, Bruce Thyer, as well as fellow professor Sheldon Rose, took positions in schools of social work and developed empirical research programs testing behavioral interventions (Reid, 2004). The infusion of behavioral theory into social work practice also influenced the movement toward empirically based interventions, single-system practice evaluation, and more recently, evidence-based practice. Scholars like Pinkston ( 1997) and Mattaini and Moore ( 2004) have extended the use of behavioral principles to analyze organizational and system change. Behaviorally based principles are also featured in the task-centered casework model (Reid, 2000) as well as many introductory direct practice texts (Hepworth, Rooney, Rooney, Strom-Gottfried, & Larsen, 2006), attesting to their influence on generalist social work practice methods.

Criticisms of Behavioral Theory

Due to its lack of explicit focus on subjective experiences, radical behaviorism has been criticized as being mechanistic, reductive, and inadequately attentive to context. Responding to these critiques, many behaviorists (Gambrill, 1997; Kohlenberg, Hayes, & Tsai, 1993; Sweet, 1984) have argued that such criticisms bespeak common misconceptions about behavioral theory. They point out that “behavior,” contrary to popular notions, encompasses private events such as thoughts and feelings in addition to overt actions. Thus, behavior evoked by a stimulus could include, for example, fear, sadness, or joy. Moreover, subjective phenomena are implicitly considered in behavioral concepts such as a stimulus. A stimulus for becoming anxious, for example, will depend on the particulars of the individual's environment, their unique learning history, and idiosyncratic personal meaning. Since individuals perceive the same stimulus in different ways, these particularities must be taken into account in the formulation of behavioral problems and their solutions. In this sense, behavioral theory is inherently concerned with context and meaning.

A second criticism is that behavioral theory overlooks the importance of the therapeutic alliance as a curative common factor (Kohlenberg et al., 1993; Reid, 2004). More damning from an ethical standpoint is the claim that behavioral techniques constitute a form of manipulation, a perception that may have resulted from early behavior therapists referring to themselves as social engineers or programmers (Sweet, 1984). Given that some behavioral formulations discuss the necessity of core helping and engagement skills in the behavioral practitioner (for example, Gambrill, 1977), these criticisms are perhaps exaggerated. However, recent writings on behavioral theory dedicate special attention to therapeutic relationship issues. For example, neo-behavioral theorists from the contextual behaviorist school foreground the role of the therapist in facilitating the helping relationship by observing carefully for minute clinical improvements (such as improved assertiveness) and providing immediate, spontaneous therapeutic social reinforcement (Kohlenberg et al., 1993). Other new generation approaches that are predicated on the “radical acceptance” of the helper, such as dialectical behavior therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy, eschew notions of therapists controlling client behavior through the manipulation of contingencies. As Berlin ( 2005) suggests, these approaches resonate with social work sensibilities since radical acceptance by a helper is designed to foster client authenticity, self-acceptance, and positive change.

Future Directions

Hayes (2004) opines that behaviorism has reached a third wave in a 50-year history of intellectual and practical evolution. Following the development of hybrid cognitive-behavioral interventions—now more common than either element alone (Antony & Roemer, 2003)—emerging behavioral approaches adopt an even more explicitly contextual focus and increase flexibility of the therapeutic repertoire to include philosophical and spiritual dimensions such as mindfulness meditation alongside cognitive and behavioral elements. As the evidence base supporting these treatments grows, the field of social work faces the challenge of adapting them to the local context of social work practice while ensuring their faithful adoption.

Another important challenge for behavioral theory is the movement toward client-centered approaches that mandate the full involvement of client as partner in the treatment process. While social work incarnations of behavioral theory have been intentional in their support of client agency and autonomy (for example, Gambrill, 1977; Reid, 2000), the field of behavioral theory as a whole must also do so to ensure its survival. For instance, incorporating self-control principles may help behaviorism to shed the mantle of behavioral engineering and control. Self-control training involves therapists as teachers who train clients to design their own plans of behavior change, monitor target behaviors, and self-reinforce behavior of their own choosing (Karoly, 1995). Since client self-determination is a longstanding organizing principle of the field of social work, the field represents an untapped potential asset to the movement toward client-centered behavioral treatment.


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                                                        Skinner, B. F. (1977). Why I am not a cognitive psychologist. Behaviorism, 5, 1–10.Find this resource:

                                                          Sweet, A. A. (1984). The therapeutic relationship in behavior therapy. Clinical Psychology Review, 4, 253–272.Find this resource:

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                                                                Further Reading

                                                                Briggs, H. & Rzepnicki, T. (Eds.), Using evidence in social work practice: A behavioral approach. Chicago, IL: Lyceum.Find this resource:

                                                                  Schwartz, A., & Goldiamond, I. (1975). Social casework: A behavioral approach. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                    Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan (also available for free download at this resource:

                                                                      Association for Behavior Analysis International.

                                                                      Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

                                                                      Association for Contextual Behavioral Science.