Behavior Theory and Personality

Unlike most theories of psycho therapy which we discussed in this block, behavior therapy does not have a comprehensive personality theory from which it is derived. Learning theories have been integrated into the practice of behavior therapy.The important principles that under lie most of these theories are those developed through research on classical and operant condition ingand on observational learning.We will discuss some of the major principles here.

Positive Reinforcement

An event presented as a consequence of a person’s performing a behavior is called positive reinforcement.When an event follows a behavior, and the behavior increases in frequency, the event is a positive re inforcer. Positive reinforcement is considered to be one of the most widely used behavior therapy procedures because of its effectiveness in bringing about changes in behavior and its compatibility with cultural values.


When re inforcers are with drawn or not available, individuals stopper forming a behavior.
Extinction is the process of no longer presenting a re inforcer.


When behavioris reinforced, it may generalize too the behavior. Reinforcement increases
the chances that ways of responding to one type of stimulus will transfer to similar stimuli.


The ability to be able to react differently, depending upon the stimulus condition that is presented, is extremely important for individuals.Discrimination comes about as certain responses are reinforced and others are ignored and thus extinguished.


When a therapist shapes a client’s behavior, reinforcement, extinction, generalization, and discrimination are involved. In shaping there is a gradual movement from the original behavior to the desired behavior by reinforcing approximations of the desired behavior.

General Treatment Approach

Behavioral the rapist shave developed a variety of methods based on behavioral principles
to reduce fear and anxiety and to change other behaviors. Perhaps the best known method is Wople’s (1915-1997) desensitization method that makes use of relaxation and gradual imaginal strategies.Some approaches use intense imaginal strategies;others workin the actual environment that causes anxiety. Yet other techniques include modeling the behavior of others. By combining behavioral and cognitive approaches,Daniel Meichenbaum (1977) has created stress management approaches. Each of these is described further.

Systematic Desensitization

Developed by Joseph Wolpe (1958), systematic desensitization was designed to treat patients who presented with extreme anxiety or fear toward specific events, people, or objects, or had generalized fears. The basic approach is to have clients replace their anxious feelings with relaxation.

  • The first step is to teach the client relaxation responses that compete with and
    replace anxiety.
  • Second, the events that make the client anxious are assessed and arranged by
    degrees of anxiety.
  • The third step is to have the client imagine anxiety-evoking situations while being relaxed Repeated in a gradual manner, so that relaxation is paired with thoughts of events that had previously evoked anxiety, the client is  systematically desensitized to situations that had previously created anxiety.


The process of progressive relaxation was first developed by Jacobson(1938). Basically it  involves tensing and relaxing muscle groups including arms, face, neck, shoulders, chest,  stomach, and legs, to achieve deeper and deeper levels of relaxation.

Anxiety Hierarchies

Obtaining detailed and highly specific information about events that cause a client to become anxious is the essence of constructing an anxiety hierarchy. Often several hierarchies representing different fears are constructed.After describing the events that elicit anxiety, clients then list the min order from least anxiety evoking to most anxiety evoking. This is often done by assigning a number from0 to 100 to each event. In this way a Subjective Units of Discomfort scale (SUD’s) is developed,with 0 representing total relaxation and 100 representing extremely high anxiety.These units are subjective and apply only to the individual.As systematic desensitization progresses, events that originally had high SUD’s ratings have lower SUD’s ratings.


Although the relaxation process may not be fully mastered, the desensitization procedures
can start. During the first desensitization session, the therapist asks clients, after they are relaxed, how many SUD’s they are experiencing. If the level is too high, above 25, relaxation is continued.The first scene presented is a neutral one, such as a flower against a background. This provides an opportunity for the therapist to gauge how well the client is able to imagine or visualize.

Imaginal Flooding Therapies

Whereas the process of systematic desensitization is a gradual one, flooding is not. In imaginal flooding, the client is exposed to the mental image of a frightening or anxiety producing object or event and continues to experience the image of the event until the anxiety gradually diminishes.The exposure is not to the actual situation but to an image
of a frightening situation such as being mugged, raped, or in an airplane.

The basic procedure in imaginal flooding is to develop scenes that frighten or induce  anxietyinthe client and then have the client imagine the scene fully and indicate SUD’s. Then the client is asked to imagine the scene again in the same session and in future sessions, indicating the SUD’s.With continual exposure, the SUD’s should be reduced to a point where discomfort is no longer experienced.

In Vivo Therapies

The termin vivo refers to procedures that occur in the client’s actual environment. Basicallythere are two types of in vivo therapies: those in which the client approaches the feared stimuli gradually(similar to systematic desensitization) and those in which the client works directly with the feared situation (similar to imaginal flooding). With the graduated approach, clients often learn and practice relaxation techniques that will compete with the exposure to anxious situations. In some cases, other competing responses, such as pleasant images, are also used to compete with the anxiety that is experienced in the actual situation.A client choosing a graduated approach to reducing fears and anxiety would discuss with therapists which situations are likely to arouse varying degrees of anxiety, establishing a hierarchyor list of events.

Modeling Techniques

The therapeutic use of modeling is based chie flyon the work of Bandura (1969, 1971, 1976, 1977, 1986, and 1997). Basically,modeling as a therapeutic technique occurs when a client observes the behavior of another person and make use of that observation. In behavior therapy, there are five basic functions of modeling: teaching,prompting,motivating, reducing anxiety, and discouraging.Modeling can occur by teaching through demonstration, for example,watching someone throw baseball or peel an apple. Modelling can serve as a prompt, such as when a parent makes a game of cleaning a room, so that the child can see how the task can be enjoyable.Anxiety reduction can occur as a result of modeling, such as when a child goes into the water after having watched another child do so, thus reducing a fear of the water.Last, an individual can be discouraged from continuing behavior such as when a smoker watches a graphic film of a patient smoking and gradually dying from lung cancer.

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