Behavioral psychology is the study of human behavior through experimental research. It relies on the principle that all human behavior is learned and can therefore be changed through various forms of conditioning. Psychologists who practice this discipline use their knowledge on how people learn new behaviors to help them improve psychological disorders.
Patients who want to change a certain behavior, such as smoking, may turn to a behavioral psychologist for help. This type of psychotherapy is also typically used for patients with anxiety disorders and phobias. The psychologist uses behavior therapy to teach patients to modify and control self-destructive behaviors. It may also be implemented in treating children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in order to teach them techniques for controlling distractions and outbursts.
One of the main methods used by the psychologist is classical conditioning, which is based on the idea that environmental stimuli can help alter behavioral responses. For instance, a patient with a phobia has learned to associate a particular object with feeling frightened, even though the object is not inherently dangerous. To help a patient overcome his or her phobia, a psychologist will use classical conditioning and expose the patient to his or her phobia in a controlled environment. This method is intended to teach him or her to change the negative feelings he or she associates with that object. After being repeatedly exposed to the phobia object in a calm environment, the patient may then become desensitized to the phobia over time because it no longer is associated with fear.
A behavioral psychologist may also use operant conditioning, which is generally used to change undesired behaviors, such as overeating or smoking. Operant conditioning is based on the notion that behavior can be modified through punishments and rewards. During a session, a psychologist will guide a patient on how to implement a punishment when he or she smokes, as well as reward him or her for abstaining from cigarettes. Punishments and rewards depend on the patient, but can be as simple as losing some type of privilege as a deterrent or receiving praise as encouragement.
Some psychologists may concentrate on research and experimentation rather than providing psychotherapy to patients. They may study people with disorders, such as autism, and how effectively they respond to behavioral treatments. Psychologists may also perform research to discover what types of disorders are physical and cannot be treated with behavioral therapy.