How does Behavior Therapy Work?

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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 21 October 2019
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Behavior therapy works in a few different ways that serve to reinforce positive behavior and attempt to reduce negative behaviors. One way in which this therapy works is through social interactions and reinforcement and punishment through external sources, such as a therapist. Behavior therapy also works due to biological reasons and there is evidence to indicate that chemical neurological processes occur when rewards are provided to an individual.

In psychological terms, behavior therapy refers to any type of therapy that applies the principals of conditioning in a therapeutic system to help a person change his or her behavior. Behavior therapy typically involves the application of reinforcement and punishment, through positive and negative methods, to help a person learn different behaviors. This can be done to help someone learn new behavior that may be more beneficial for him or her or more socially acceptable or to cease behaviors that are destructive or harmful.

Behavior therapy can work through social modification and external sources that help apply reinforcement and punishment for behavior. This is typically provided by a therapist or other psychological professional. Positive reinforcement is the giving of some kind of reward as a result of good behavior, while negative reinforcement is taking away something undesired as a reward for good behavior. In contrast, positive punishment is giving someone a punishment he or she may not way in response to undesired behavior, while negative punishment is taking away something someone likes due to poor behavior.


For simple reasons this type of behavior therapy often works because someone wants things and situations that are desired and does not want things or situations that are unpleasant. This is the principal behind punishment systems like prison or fines, and reward systems such as payment for work. Since many of these rewards and punishments also carry social aspects to them, such as prestige for someone who makes a lot of money for his or her work and stigmas against people who have been in prison, behavior therapy can often be reinforced by society.

In a biological sense, behavior therapy is thought to work because of how the human brain responds to rewards. When good behavior is reinforced through reward, the brain releases dopamine and similar neurochemicals into a person’s body, creating a feeling of well-being and happiness. This creates a physiological response that a person wants to repeat, even though he or she may not consciously understand why the feeling occurred. A therapist typically makes a concerted effort to ensure this response occurs in proximity to desired behavior, making repeated rewarded behavior more likely on a neurological level.


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