What Is Behavioral Psychology? (With Duties and Specialties)

Updated October 27, 2022

Behavioral psychology helps scientists understand the relationship between behaviors and the human mind. Conditioning and other concepts that scientists develop continue to shape how we learn, teach and train both humans and animals. Behavioral psychologists apply these concepts to help patients form better habits and live with addictions and disorders, and learning more about this field can help you improve your qualifications when pursuing a job.

In this article, we explain what behavior psychology is and explore some of its important concepts and applications.

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What is behavioral psychology?

Behavioral psychology, also known as behaviorism, is the study of changing human behaviors through analysis and therapy. The theory behind behavioral psychology considers an individual's environment when determining or analyzing their behavior. Learning takes place when the behavior receives reinforcement, whether positive or negative. Therapists in the behavioral psychology field seek to change how people react to their environment, which can help change their behaviors.

Related: 22 Different Types of Psychology (With Explanations)

What are the job duties of a behavioral psychologist?

A behavioral psychologist works with clients individually or in groups, analyzing a problem behavior and developing a plan to change it. Here are some job duties they commonly perform:

  • Observing: A behavioral psychologist first gathers information about the stimuli that cause a certain behavior. This includes interviewing or observing the client in a particular setting.

  • Developing a treatment plan: The psychologist considers which principles of behaviorism would be most effective to help the patient change their behavior and plans how they can apply those principles in therapy sessions and daily life.

  • Consulting: The psychologist communicates a treatment plan to the patient and any family members or teachers who may help implement it. They may give feedback, and the psychologist then adjusts the plan to ensure everyone agrees and works toward the same goals.

  • Providing therapy: The treatment plan can involve therapy sessions in which the psychologist provides the patient with coping mechanisms or gentle exposure to stimuli to help them practice better responses.

  • Evaluating therapy: The psychologist evaluates how effective the treatment plan is and adjusts it after consulting with the client and other parties.

  • Contributing to research: The psychologist uses their experiences with patients to better understand human behaviors and may work with researchers to try new techniques or update therapy practices.

Related: 10 Career Options in Behavioral Psychology

What is the focus of behavioral psychology?

Behavioral psychology focuses on observable facts, such as human behaviors, rather than thought processes, emotions or motivations. This involves measuring external behaviors, analyzing how they correspond to environmental stimuli, and then using conditioning to shape or reshape those reactions. Behavioral psychology can be a useful approach for psychological research because researchers can apply conditioning and measure the changes in external behavior more easily than they can measure internal states. Behavioral psychologists work with two types of conditioning, which are classical and operant conditioning. Here's what each involves:

1. Classical conditioning

Ivan Pavlov was the scientist responsible for the discovery of classical conditioning. Classical conditioning recognizes that individuals give a natural response to a natural stimulus. An example of this is a dog beginning to salivate as a natural response when it sees food, which is the natural stimulus. When you combine a natural stimulus and response with a neutral stimulus, the neutral stimulus could provoke a similar natural response on its own. An initial example of this is:

  • Natural stimulus: A dog sees food.

  • Neutral stimulus: The dog also hears an auditory tone, such as a bell or whistle.

  • Natural response: The dog begins to salivate.

Eventually, the dog can begin salivating at the sound of the tone without seeing food because its training leads it to respond in this way.

2. Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning seeks to use consequences to change a particular behavior and its frequency. To accomplish this, it uses reinforcement, punishment and extinction. There are two types of reinforcements:

  • Positive: The reception of a positive consequence following a specific behavior can increase the odds the behavior happens again. An example of this may include if you receive a coupon that gives you a discount on your next purchase after shopping at a store.

  • Negative: The removal of a consequence following a behavior can increase the odds the behavior happens again. An example of this may be your car making a loud noise until you put on your seat belt.

Punishment is the presentation of an unwanted behavior or removing a positive reinforcement to decrease the frequency of a behavior, and this also can be positive or negative. A positive punishment refers to an unwanted stimulus that follows a behavior to decrease the chance the behavior occurs again. Making your child write an apology letter to their teacher for misbehaving at school is an example of this. Negative punishment is the removal of the stimulus after a behavior. An example of this may be if you receive a fine and lose money for driving too fast.

Related: What Is Behavioral Economics? Definitive Guide to Behavioral Economics

What are the specialized areas of behavioral psychology?

Psychologists can apply the principles of behavioral psychology to encourage new behaviors through many methods, which some professionals call cognitive behavioral therapy. Here are some areas in which behavioral psychologists may specialize:

Behavioral therapy

Professionals base behavioral therapy on the theory that people learn behaviors. Behavioral therapy works through targeting flawed behaviors and seeking to change them. It involves techniques like systematic desensitization and exposure and response prevention to help patients unlearn harmful behaviors. Psychologists use it to treat many mental disorders, including eating disorders, impulse-control disorders and phobias.

Related: How To Become a Psychologist

Cognitive therapy

Professionals base cognitive therapy on the idea that thought processes cause emotions and behaviors. Cognitive therapy involves working to change thought processes that lead to negative behaviors or incorrect beliefs. A therapist or psychotherapist works closely with a client to understand their situation and gives them tools to change how they respond to certain thoughts. Cognitive therapy, in combination with behavioral therapy, can be effective in treating substance use disorders, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses.

Related: How To Become a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist in 5 Steps

Applied behavioral analysis

Applied behavioral analysis, or ABA, looks at behavior as a function of its consequences. It involves teaching new behaviors by segmenting them into manageable component tasks or rewarding behaviors that are closer to the behavior you want. Therapists may use ABA techniques to help clients who have autism by teaching social skills with prompts and cues.

Related: Learn About Being a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA)

Behavioral psychology techniques

Here are some behavioral psychology methods therapists, counselors and teachers may use:

  • Exposure and response prevention: This involves exposing an individual to a stimulus and working to prevent bad coping mechanisms.

  • Systematic desensitization: This involves exposing a person to a stimulus gradually while using relaxation techniques to reduce their fear of the stimulus.

  • Token economy: This helps shape behavior by rewarding positive behaviors with tokens, such as coins or gold stars, that earn an individual a larger reward once they earn a certain number of tokens.

  • Contingency management: This rewards an individual for wanted behaviors with money, items or a voucher they can redeem.

  • Modeling: This involves a person learning the proper behavior by watching and then imitating another person or group of people performing the behavior.

  • Chaining: This is when psychologists teach a new process one step at a time to make it more manageable and understandable for the individual.

  • Shaping: This is how professionals reward behaviors that are incrementally closer to the one you want.

  • Prompting: This involves providing a visual or verbal cue before performing the positive behavior to show a person an appropriate response to a specific situation.

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Other fields that use behavioral psychology

Professionals can use behavioral psychology principles when attempting to change human behavior in many situations. Here are some fields that commonly use behavioral principles:


Therapists might enlist teachers to help with treatment plans for specific students, but educators also can use these principles to keep their students engaged and motivated. Parents and childcare professionals use conditioning and help children learn healthy responses in practical settings each time they praise or reward a child for positive behavior. A reward chart, which is present in many classrooms, is a simple example.

Related: 10 Jobs You Can Get With an Associate Degree in Psychology

Product design

Designers often apply principles of behavior psychology when they design products or services for people to use. A physical product that's pleasant to use or look at may make each use feel like a reward to the customer. Apps use positive reinforcement when they send congratulatory notifications when a user places an order. They also use negative reinforcement when sending reminder notifications that stop if the user opens the app.

Related: Color Psychology in Business: How To Choose Brand Colors

Campaign design and marketing

Advertising uses behavioral principles, creating associations between a product and a positive experience like success, comfort or community. Even public service announcements and public health initiatives use behavioral principles. They use massive advertising campaigns and catchy slogans to create social expectations for healthy behaviors and negative associations with illegal or dangerous actions.

Related: Business Psychology Jobs: 7 Careers You Can Pursue

Personal improvement

Many people apply behavioral psychology principles to their personal or professional lives. Many self-help books, articles and websites suggest using conditioning methods to help motivate yourself. Increased productivity, building better habits or reducing procrastination are a few examples of potential target behaviors.

Related: Guide to Self Improvement (With Tips)

Animal training

Many animals learn to do or avoid behaviors with classical or operative conditioning from their trainers. Animal behavior professionals use these techniques to help pets behave and coexist with humans better. Park rangers and animal rehabilitation specialists also use these techniques to teach wild animals to avoid human interaction or leave populated areas.

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