The 7 Core Characteristics of Behavior Therapy

Behavior therapy seeks to transform the environmental factors shaping an individual’s behavior and their responses to the surroundings. In this approach, “behavior” encompasses a broad spectrum, including actions, physiological reactions, emotions, and thoughts. Contemporary practitioners often use the term cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to describe their work, reflecting a combination of traditional behavioral techniques and cognitive methods. This therapeutic blend addresses both observable behaviors and the underlying thought processes, aiming for a comprehensive and integrated approach to fostering positive change.

The 7 Core Characteristics of Behavior Therapy

  • Focus on Behavior Change: Behavior therapy is centered on modifying behavior patterns. Its primary objective is to decrease maladaptive behaviors while increasing the occurrence of adaptive or beneficial behaviors. By expanding the client’s behavioral repertoire, the therapy aims to enhance flexibility, empowering individuals with diverse response options in various situations. For instance, a person struggling with social anxiety might work on gradually increasing social interactions as a positive behavior.
  • Empirical Foundation: An empirical foundation forms the bedrock of behavior therapy. Therapists employ a scientific, hypothesis-driven approach. They develop hypotheses about variables influencing problematic behaviors, subsequently testing these assumptions through behavioral assessments. Data collection and ongoing revision of hypotheses based on evidence are integral to the therapeutic process. This empirical approach ensures evidence-based interventions are used to assess and address the effects of treatment.
  • Functionality of Behaviors: Behaviors in this therapy are seen as purposeful, arising from patterns of reinforcement and punishment within specific contexts. For example, a child exhibiting attention-seeking behavior by crying before school may be reinforced by receiving attention. Behavioral issues are not viewed as intrinsic to the individual but as responses shaped by environmental interactions. Clients are not blamed for their behaviors; instead, therapy focuses on understanding and modifying the environmental determinants.
  • Emphasis on Maintaining Factors: Behavior therapy prioritizes current determinants of behavior rather than delving into early developmental events. The aim is to alter existing factors influencing behavior, including environmental contingencies and maladaptive learned behaviors. For instance, treating social anxiety might involve addressing avoidance behaviors and biased thinking patterns instead of exploring early childhood experiences.
  • Research Support: Backed by extensive research, behavior therapy, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), stands as one of the most researched forms of psychotherapy. Numerous studies affirm its effectiveness in addressing a wide range of issues, such as anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, and behavioral disorders in children. This empirical foundation enhances the credibility and applicability of behavior therapy.
  • Active Therapeutic Approach: Behavior therapy is inherently active and directive. Therapists offer frequent advice and suggestions, while clients actively engage in practicing behavioral strategies within and between sessions. For example, a client combating generalized anxiety may practice relaxation exercises daily, contributing to a more proactive and hands-on therapeutic process.
  • Transparency and Client Involvement: Transparency is a key tenet of behavior therapy, aiming for clients to become their own therapists eventually. Clients receive a behavioral model to comprehend their problems, along with detailed rationales for each strategy. Step-by-step instructions guide the use of behavioral techniques, and data from assessments are openly shared. The client plays an active role in setting treatment goals and shaping the session agenda, fostering a collaborative therapeutic relationship.

Comparing Behavioral Therapy and other Psychotherapies

Behavior Therapy and Cognitive Therapy: A Harmonious Blend

Behavior therapy, cognitive therapy, and rational emotive behavior therapy form a cohesive trio often collectively referred to as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). These modalities share a directive, time-limited, and evidence-based approach. They borrow strategies from each other, combining traditional behavioral methods with cognitive techniques. While behavior therapy originally focused less on thoughts and emotions, contemporary practitioners recognize the importance of thoughts in influencing behavior. All three therapies concentrate on changing factors maintaining psychological problems, steering away from understanding past triggers.

Behavior Therapy vs. Psychoanalysis: A Stark Contrast

Behavior therapy stands in stark contrast to psychoanalysis, particularly in its approach to observable behaviors. Psychoanalysis interprets behavioral symptoms as manifestations of unconscious conflicts, while behavior therapy takes behaviors at face value. Psychoanalysis tends to be nondirective, less transparent, and more focused on early developmental contributors than current maintaining factors. It emphasizes developing insight over evidence-based methods. Unlike behavior therapy, it often assumes therapists must undergo their own psychoanalysis for effective treatment, resulting in a more expensive and longer-term approach.

Behavior Therapy vs. Client-Centered Psychotherapy: Key Differences

Compared to client-centered psychotherapy, behavior therapy is directive and involves homework between sessions. While behavior therapists traditionally gave less attention to the therapeutic relationship, the importance of supportive and warm therapists is now acknowledged across psychotherapies. Client-centered psychotherapy lacks the structured and action-oriented elements found in behavior therapy.

Behavior Therapy in Alignment with Other Modalities

Behavior therapy shares common ground with various psychotherapies. Adlerian psychotherapy, like CBT, emphasizes changing beliefs and incorporates action-oriented techniques. Both Adlerian therapy and behavior therapy view abnormal behavior as “problems in living” rather than signs of illness. Gestalt therapy incorporates some behavioral strategies, such as role-plays and experiential approaches. Interpersonal psychotherapy, family therapies, and behavioral family therapy also exhibit overlapping features with behavior therapy.

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Antony Lawrence. (2023, November 19). The 7 Core Characteristics of Behavior Therapy. Retrieved from

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