Behaviour therapy had its beginnings in the early 1900’s and became established as a psychological approach in the 1950s and 1960s. At this time, it received much resistance from the current school of thought, psychoanalysis.

There have been a number of people that that have contributed to the development of behavioural therapy:

Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936)

Pavlov’s contributions to behavioural therapy were accidental. He was originally studying the digestive process of dogs when he discovered that associations can develop when pairing a stimulus (food) that has a response (dog salivates) with a stimulus that has no response (bell). The stimulus with no response (bell) eventually develops the same response (dog salivates) as the stimuli that has the response (food). This type of learning is known as classical conditioning (Seligman, 2006).

John B. Watson (1878-1958)

Watson has been described as the “father” of behaviourism (McLeod). He used Pavlov’s principles of classical conditioning as well as emphasizing that all behaviour could be understood as a result of learning. Watson’s research involved the study of a young child called “Albert”. “Albert” was initially not scared of rats. However, Watson paired the rat with a loud noise and this frightened “Albert”.

After this was repeated numerous times, “Albert” developed a fear of rats. He also developed a fear of things similar to a rat such as men with beards, dogs, and fur coats. This fear was extinguished after a month of not repeating the experiment (McLeod, n.d.a).

B.F. Skinner (1904-1958)

Skinner developed the theory of operant reinforcement theory which is the notion that how often a behaviour is executed depends on the events that follow the behaviour (Seligman, 2006). For example, if the behaviour is reinforced, the behaviour is more likely to be repeated. He emphasised observable behaviour and rejected the notion of “inner causes” for behaviour (McLeod, n.d.a)

John Dollard (1900-1980) & Neal Miller (1909-2002)

Dollard and Miller provided more understanding to behavioural theory. They believed that when a stimulus and response are frequently paired together and rewarded, the more likely it is for an individual to repeat the behaviour (Seligman, 2006). They identified this as a habitual response. Dollard and Miller also identified four elements in behaviour: drive, cue, response, and reinforcement (Seligman, 2006)

Joseph Wolpe (1915-1977)

Wolpe described a process known as reciprocal inhibition which is when “eliciting a novel response brings about a decrease in the strength of a concurrent response” (Seligman, 2006). Wolpe also developed the therapeutic tool of systematic desensitization which is used in the treatment of phobias (to be discussed further down).

Albert Bandura (1925)

Bandura applied the principles of classical and operant conditioning to social learning. Basically, people learn behaviours through observation of other’s behaviour, also known as modelling (Seligman, 2006).

Current Focus

The traditional behavioural approach is no longer used as it once was. It has moved towards a more collaborative treatment with cognitive therapy and as such this has meant a more applicable approach (Seligman, 2006).