Key Takeaways

  • Behavioral psychology is the study of observable human behaviors and how learning happens through conditioning.
  • Instead of judging a behavior, behavioral psychology encourages us to view it as an attempt to resolve an unmet need or as a response to something in our environment.
  • Behavioral psychologists believe that the first step in changing behavior is uncovering what’s driving it. Working with a therapist who specializes in behavioral psychology can help you navigate this process.


Have you ever genuinely wanted to change a behavior, only to fall back into old patterns? If so, you’re not alone. There’s some truth to the saying “old habits die hard”. It can be tough to switch up your routine or let go of the coping behaviors you’ve come to rely on, even if they no longer serve you. 

Behavior change is a complex process that is affected by all kinds of internal and external factors. Having a hard time with behavior change doesn’t make you a failure. It simply makes you human. 

The good news is that healthy change is possible and the first step is identifying what’s driving your behavior. To do this, we can look to principles from behavioral psychology, the study of human behaviors and the forces that shape them. 

A brief history of behavioral psychology

Psychologists began studying human behavior in the early 20th century. One of the first behaviorists was the Russian psychologist Ian Pavlov who conducted the famous experiment commonly known as “Pavlov’s Dogs.” In his discovery of a concept known as classical conditioning, Pavlov realized that a neutral signal (ringing a bell) could elicit an unconscious behavior (salivating) in his dogs. His findings laid the foundation for our understanding of how outside forces shape behavior. 

Later, psychologist John B. Watson built upon Pavlov’s findings. Watson advocated for studying behavior with an objective, scientific approach. He focused on the observable (rather than the emotional or unconscious) and believed in the power of the environment to shape behavior. Watson’s work focused largely on children and contributed to our understanding of the great “nature vs. nurture” debate. But it’s important to note that some of his experiments would be considered controversial and unethical by today’s standards.

Later in the mid-20th century the psychologist B.F. Skinner developed the theory of operant conditioning. This concept focuses on the role of consequences in shaping behavior. It helps us understand how reinforcement and punishment can be used to modify behavior. Skinner is also known for exploring the link between emotion and behavior and was dubbed one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. 

How behavioral psychology can support habit change

Feeling stuck in a cycle of unwanted behavior can take a toll on your mental health. And over time, multiple failed attempts at meaningful change can decrease motivation and damage your self-esteem. Sometimes, you may even start to define yourself by your unwanted behavior. But behavioral psychology can pull back the curtain on what’s really driving your habits so that you can explore a different path. 

Simply put, behavioral psychology frames behavior as a language that explains why we do what we do. And instead of viewing behavior through a lens of judgment, behavioral psychology helps us view our behavior as an attempt to resolve an unmet need or as a response to something in our environment. 

Take for example the term “hangry.” It’s used to describe the frustrated, angry feelings that might arise when your body doesn’t have the fuel it needs. Let’s say you forget to bring your lunch to work. Left unacknowledged, your “hanger” might cause you to be uncharacteristically short with your colleagues in your afternoon meetings.

In this case, what’s driving your behavior is hunger, which is a totally valid human need! But the response isn’t serving you (or your colleagues) so it’s time to find a replacement behavior that allows you to address your hunger in a more functional way. So the next time you’re at the grocery store you buy some protein bars to keep in your desk in case this happens again.

Behavioral psychology encourages us to approach solving more complex behavioral problems in a similar way. When applied in the therapeutic setting, your therapist may use a variety of behavioral modification techniques to help you identify the source of your behavior and experiment with choosing a replacement behavior. 

Two common therapeutic modalities that incorporate behavioral psychology to promote behavior change are cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy. In CBT, you’ll identify patterns and challenge the unhelpful thoughts that might be driving unhelpful behaviors. Exposure therapy involves a slow, gradual engagement with the object of a specific phobia within a safe environment. This therapy can help you learn to tolerate your fears and choose different behaviors in response to uncomfortable situations.

Applying behavioral psychology in therapy

Many therapists apply principles from behavioral psychology in their sessions with clients who are seeking lasting change. While this approach can be helpful in a variety of settings, it’s proven to be most helpful in the following areas.

  • Behavior management in children: Parents, teachers, and caregivers can use components of behavioral psychology to reinforce positive behaviors and reduce unwanted behaviors in children.
  • Treatment of phobias and anxiety disorders: Since behavioral psychology emphasizes the role of outside forces in shaping behavior, therapists can guide their clients in creating stress and anxiety-reducing environments and building tolerance for discomfort.
  • Substance use disorder treatment: Behavioral psychology focuses on identifying triggers, evaluating the environment, interrupting patterns, and naming consequences. This approach can help support change in those living with a substance use disorder. 
  • Behavior change in organizations and workplaces: Behavioral psychology can be used to reinforce positive actions, keep employees more engaged, and create a safer environment. 
  • Sports psychology and performance enhancement: Many athletes rely on principles from behavioral psychology to support goal setting, enhance motivation, and increase endurance.

Finding a therapist who specializes in behavioral psychology 

Almost everyone has habits they wish they could break. And many of us wish it was easier to stick to a new routine. Fortunately, behavioral psychology can help us understand why behavior change is hard for most people, explore what’s driving our behavior, and work towards building different habits. 

If you’re looking for support in creating behavior change, Rula is here to take the guesswork out of finding a therapist who specializes in behavioral psychology. Whether you’re interested in exploring CBT, exposure therapy, or other behavior-focused treatments, our team will connect you with the right provider for your needs. To learn more about our streamlined therapist matching process, visit our website. 

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