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Behavioral Therapy from a Christian Perspective

The following represents Arthur's opinions only and not necessarily those of Christie.

Psychoanalytic Therapy
Adlerian Therapy
Existential Therapy
Person-Centered Therapy
Gestalt Therapy
Reality Therapy
Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Feminist Therapy
Family Systems Therapy

Behavioral Therapy

            Behavior therapy, as it is widely known, has its roots with B.F. Skinner.  The behavioral approach was a significant departure from the present psychoanalytic perspective of the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Skinner had a strong a priori assumption that science is the only means of obtaining truth.  Because of this, he sought to strip all components of psychology that could not be verified with empirical research.  Because only behavior and environment could be directly observed (one of the criteria of the scientific method), Skinner formulated a theory that asserted all human behavior is a direct result of the environment in the form of stimuli, where human behavior strictly complies with the principle of causality.  Concepts such as “soul” or “mind”, because they are non-falsifiable, are therefore irrelevant and without meaning.   Skinner thought of his ideas as the only true scientific theory of personality.  Two of the foremost principles of the behavior approach are classical and operant conditioning.  While classical conditioning was known before Skinner, it was his formulation of operant conditioning that hallmarked his greatest contribution to psychology.

            Classical conditioning is a form of associative learning that occurs when a neutral stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus in order to bring about a conditioned response.  Ivan Pavlov is well known for his classical conditioning of dogs having identified that dogs salivate prior to being fed, he began to ring a bell at the same time as feeding and eventually the dogs associated the bell with salivating for the food and the bell alone trigger the salivation rather than the presence of the food. 

            Operant conditioning utilizes the principles of reinforcement and punishment to bring about a desired response.   For any consequence, the following possibilities exist:

a)      something desired is dispensed (positive reinforcement)

b)      something painful is removed (negative reinforcement)

c)      something desired is removed (negative punishment)

d)      something painful is dispensed (positive punishment)

Operant conditioning occurs when a consequence eventually becomes expected for a particular behavior.  For example, when a child is rewarded for achieving good grades.  The positive outcome of their behavior to study and achieve certain grades is motivated by the expectation of a positive result in addition to the good grades.  In order to teach individuals complex tasks, Skinner proposed a system of successive approximations of operant learning where tasks are broken down into several steps that, when individually learned, summarily progress towards the complex task desired.

            In addition to Skinner’s system, two other forms of behavior therapy include the social learning approach and the cognitive behavioral approach.  Cognitive behavioral therapy integrates the thought of the individual and will be covered later in this paper.   Social learning as proposed by Bandura, occurs through the interactional nature of how individuals respond and adjust their behavior to adapt to the changing environment and others around them.  Cognition, environment, and behavior are interlocked into a system of cause and effect which can affect any component at any time. Bandura called this triangulation “reciprocal determinism.”  Behavior therapy generally sees individuals as both the producer and the product of their own environment.  A basic aim of this theory is to educate people and increase an individual’s freedom.  Dealing with the client’s current problems and the factors that influence them, the counselor adheres to a systematic approach and empirical evaluation to develop a plan to assist the client in making changes.  In order for therapy to be successful, clients are expected to take an active role in changing their situation and learning the skills of self-management to identify problems as they begin to develop.  If the therapist is utilizing social learning theories, concepts such self-efficacy (one’s belief in his ability to do the task) and task mastery will be critical to success.  Clients will be directed to enhance expectancy beliefs and associate with proper models as they modify maladaptive behavior.

            Through the assessment of overt and covert behavior, individuals are made aware of all factors that are contributing to their situation.  This collaborative partnership with the client utilizes practical applications that are unique to individual problem and the resources that are available.  Finally, interventions are considered in a culture specific format. 

            Utilizing these parameters, clients work towards increased personal choice and the development of new healthy conditions for living.  Specific techniques include relaxation, systematic desensitization where by individuals are successively introduced to more anxiety arousing situations to develop less sensitivity to a trigger, and exposure therapy.  Training includes development of assertiveness that helps individuals make the choice to behave in healthy ways in certain situations.  Coaching, training, and modeling are also key ingredients to a successful behavioral therapeutic approach.

            This form of therapy provides a diverse number of techniques to assist clients in achieving the results to live a live more freely.  Additionally, behavior therapy is empirically based with both an emphasis on research and assessment of treatment outcomes.  Emphasis is placed on the client deciding what behaviors need to change, rather than the counselor dictating what needs to be changed. 

            Limitations to this therapy include the lack of change that occurs in feelings.  While the therapy provides change in behavior, this is not manifested in a different attitude or belief system.  This also extends to limiting the relationships that occur in the client’s life.  Since it is only the behavior that is changing, the opportunity to develop depth relationally is not addressed, only removing the symptomatic behavior that is causing problems rather than addressing the underlying issues.  Additionally, clients do not leave therapy with further insights, simply a change in how they behave.  A final criticism of behavior therapy is the use of manipulation and control by the therapist. 

Personal Evaluation

            At its core, behavioral therapy asserts a direct casual link in the form of Stimulus  à Behavior.  Intermediary factors are not considered.  This is because behavioral therapy to me seems to pride itself on being “scientific.”  The problem with the notion that truth can only be proven through science is that such a postulation itself cannot be proven with science; it must stand outside of science.  I exist, and I know I exist.  I hold this to be a self-evident truth:  I have a mind, and my thoughts are ineffable components of who I am and are not dictated by predictable natural law.  I am not a hapless slave that simply reacts in a deterministic fashion to bioelectrical stimuli.  Somwhere within my existence, I have the ability to examine different possible courses of action and independently judge them and make a decision as to which course to choose.  Until I make that judgment, my choice is not naturally predetermined as if it could be confined to scientific predictability.  Skinner can tell me until he is blue in the face that freewill does not exist and that my behavior is ultimately predictable.  But that is his free choice to do so.   It is mine to reject his postulation. 

            A Calvinist may be quick to interject here that Skinner has it right- behavior is predetermined and the notion of freewill is false.  However, the difference is that Skinner’s determinism is naturalistic meaning that behavior is completely predictable from natural law alone.  Calvinistic theology holds that the predictability of behavior is according to supernatural law, a marked difference from Skinner.  So while I reject fully Skinner’s simplistic and mechanistic view of human existence, his theories on operant conditioning and reinforcement are valuable to any therapist.  That operant conditioning is a useful tool and holds true in many instances does not mutually exclude freewill or the existence of mitigating factors between stimulus and behavior.   I therefore do not want to simply discard all of Skinner simply because of his presuppositions.  There is no doubt that aspects of conditioning principles hold true in many circumstances; however it’s not sufficient to explain all of them.