Summary: Behavior Therapies

Behavior therapies use the conditioning principles discussed in Chapter 5 in attempts to change problem behaviors. CERs (conditional emotional responses) are often associated with psychological problems. In fact, Hans Eysenck proclaimed that all neuroses are due to CERs. A CER occurs when a stimulus is associated with an emotional response. For example, a person who has been in a severe automobile accident may experience fear and anxiety when exposed to stimuli associated with cars, such as the smell of a new car interior, or the act of riding in a car.

Almost all therapies can be construed as extinction therapies, in part, because almost all therapies lead a client to confront previously-avoided emotional issues in a safe therapeutic environment. The result, predictably, is a diminished emotional response. This allows rational thinking and problem-solving.

Desensitization is a therapy aimed at eliminating unwanted emotional responses. Relaxation is used to "counter" the effects of anxiety. In the classic version of desensitization, a client imagines gradually more fearsome scenes, while fully relaxed, until able to tolerate the most fearsome images.

Researchers explored many variations on the classical desensitization procedure. Flooding is direct exposure to a feared stimulus at a high intensity. In vivo desensitization uses a real life situation rather than imagined scenes. The two techniques were combined into exposure therapy, one of the most commonly used behavior therapies in the 2000s.

Sensitization is the opposite of desensitization. Whereas desensitization decreases response to a stimulus, sensitization increases it. A classic example is O. Hobart Mowrer's anti-bedwetting apparatus, which sounds a loud alarm when urine hits a bed pad sensitive to moisture. Soon the feeling of a full bladder awakens the child as an anticipatory response. Sensitization is also used in marriage therapies, to rekindle romantic feelings. Couples are encouraged to set up stimulus conditions which become cues predicting positive romantic encounters.

Modeling and behavior rehearsal were embraced by behavior therapists when social learning concepts became popular in American psychology. Behavior rehearsal is illustrated by a case history from Wolpe and Lazarus (1966)) in which a man is taught how to present himself in an interview.

Beck's therapy for depression also aims to modify thoughts, as a way of "restructuring experience." Clients learn to recognize and eliminate destructive patterns of thinking. Realistic appraisals of life situations are encouraged instead. Behavior therapists often use behavioral contracting to help clients achieve change on their own or in family settings.


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