What is Behavioral Psychology?

Understanding why people act in specific ways has always been a significant focus for psychologists. They often attempt to look into the mind and brain and uncover what is there and why. This is what behavioral psychology is all about – how human behaviors and actions relate to the mind. Behavioral psychology looks at behavior through the lens of psychology and draws a connection between the two.

Behavioral psychology emerged as a subspeciality in the field in 1913, when John B. Watson states that psychologists should study an individual’s observable behavior, rather than the invisible inner workings of the mind, as Freud proposed. (Imotions.com)

If you are interested in a career in behavioral psychology, it is necessary to earn your master’s and/or Ph.D. in behavioral psychology. Before embarking on your education, learn more on this page about what behavioral psychology is, how it helps people, job demand, and more.

Behavioral Psychology Overview

Behavioral psychology is a learning theory based on the concept that all behaviors are learned through conditioning. This conditioning happens as we interact with our environment. Behavioral psychologists believe responses to environmental stimuli shape how we act. (Verywellmind.com)

According to the theories of behavioral psychology, behavior should be studied in a systematic and observable way, no matter what the internal mental state is. This perspective holds that only a person’s observable behavior should be studied; emotions, cognitions, and moods are too subjective.

Psychologists who adhere strictly to behaviorism think that anyone can be trained to perform a task, no matter their personal background, personality, or internal thoughts. Only the proper conditioning is required.

There are two types of conditioning these psychologists study:

  • Classical conditioning: Used often in behavioral training where a neutral stimulus is combined with a naturally occurring stimulus. The neutral stimulus eventually will cause the same response as the naturally occurring ones.
  • Operant conditioning: Sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning, this form is a way of learning that happens through reinforcements and punishments. In operant conditioning, associations are made between the behavior and the behavior’s consequence.
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How Does a Behavioral Psychologist Help the Patient?

Behavioral psychology can be used to treat many mental health disorders. This type of therapy intends to identify and try to change possibly self-destructive and unhealthy behaviors. A behavioral psychologist operates under the assumption that all behaviors are learned and unhealthy ones can be changed. (Healthline.com)

Behavioral therapy can help patients with many types of disorders, such as anxiety, panic disorders, anger problems, and depression. It also can help to treat the following conditions and disorders:

  • Eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia
  • PTSD
  • Bipolar disorder
  • ADHD
  • Social phobias
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Self-harm
  • Substance abuse

Research suggests that behavioral psychology can be successful to treat many mental health conditions.

Approximately 75% of patients who undergo behavioral psychology treatments benefit from the therapy. (APA.org). Behavioral therapy is frequently used as a mainline treatment for people who are afflicted with serious behavioral problems, both young and old.

Behavioral psychology therapies also can be effective with children. Treatments involve teaching the child different ways to respond to situations in a more positive manner. A significant aspect of this type of therapy is rewarding good behavior and punishing negative behavior.

How Can You Become a Behavioral Psychologist?

The first step to becoming a behavioral psychologist is to obtain your bachelor’s degree in psychology. You can expect to take courses in general, developmental, and behavioral psychology. You also will often take courses in research methods and statistics.

While some behavioral psychologist students earn their master’s degree, many decide to earn their doctoral degree next. After you earn your doctorate in four or five years, you will need to complete at least a year or two of supervised clinical work by the holder of a doctoral degree in psychology. After that, you can apply for licensure in your state by taking a state examination.

Some of the coursework you may take in a behavioral psychology Ph.D. program are: (Psychology.ASU.edu)

  • Advanced Learning
  • Neuroanatomy
  • Psychopharmacology
  • Intermediate Statistics
  • Regression Analysis
  • Cognitive Psychology
  • Clinical Neuroscience
  • Psychopathology
  • Reading and Conference

What Do You Need to Apply to the Program?

Every admissions office has different standards for its applicants, but most will require most of the following to apply for Ph.D. in behavioral psychology program.

  • College transcripts: Official transcripts from all previous college work, including bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
  • Standardized test scores: Many Ph.D. in psychology programs require you to submit GRE or GMAT scores. Others may not require them, or offer waivers to students with a high GPA and/or significant related work experience.
  • Letters of recommendation: Behavioral psychology doctoral programs are competitive and you need to have excellent recommendations. Some require recommendations from both professors and employers.
  • Prerequisites: If you have a bachelor’s in psychology or a related field, you probably will have the prerequisites you need to be admitted to a doctoral program, but check with your department supervisor. If you are entering without a master’s degree, it is possible you will need some prerequisite courses in psychology.
  • Personal essay: How well you write is critical to be admitted to a Ph.D. in psychology program.

What Do Exams and Licensing Involve?

It is required to have a license to practice as a behavioral psychologist in the US. While requirements vary by state, the typical requirements are a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology, and 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical practice. After these items are completed, you need to pass a state examination to practice as a behavioral psychologist.

Is the Job Demand for Behavioral Psychologists Good?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports jobs for all psychologists will increase by 14% by 2028, much faster than average. Employment of clinical psychologists, counseling psychologists, and other psychologists will be higher in the coming years because there is more demand for psychological services in hospitals, schools, mental health centers, and social service agencies.

Demand will rise as people are turning more often to psychologists for help with their mental health issues. More psychologists will be needed to offer services to the aging US population, and we can expect more behavioral psychologists will be needed to treat major psychological disorders such as depression, memory loss, PTSD, anxiety, eating disorders, etc. Behavioral psychology has been shown to be highly effective to treat serious mental health problems, so there should be a healthy demand for your clinical services.

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Further Resources for Candidates in Behavioral Psychology

Do you want to learn more about becoming a behavioral psychologist? Below are resources to explore:

  • Psychology Careers Guide: The APA offers this comprehensive guide to various psychology careers in many specialties.
  • Definition of Behavioral Analysis: A good explanation of what behavioral analysis is, which is important in the practice of behavioral psychology.
  • Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies: This Center is an excellent resource because it harnesses the expertise of many behavioral psychologists and scientists to solve complex mental health and behavior problems in the home, community, school, and workplace.

Now that you have a solid understanding of what behavioral psychology is, how to become one, job demand, and other vital information, you may want to start thinking about where to earn your doctoral degree in the field.