Behavioral Psychology Degree Programs


Behavioral psychology, also called behaviorism, is a school of thought within clinical psychology. Strict behaviorists believe that empirical observation of behavior should form the basis of psychological science, and that internal elements like emotions, thoughts and feelings are too subjective to be included in psychological practice. Behavioral purists also believe that all behavior is acquired via environmental conditioning.

Most psychotherapists now believe that behavioral psychotherapy techniques need to be balanced with techniques that address the inner mind, emotions and feelings. Most psychotherapists now use behavior therapy for some patients, cognitive therapy for others and a combination of therapies for still others.

Behavioral therapy is commonly used to treat patients who suffer from phobias or obsessive behavior. It’s also used extensively by industrial-organizational psychologists to re-train employees. It’s effective in treating behavioral problems in young people, particularly those who’ve had brushes with the law.

Behavioral therapy corrects improperly conditioned behavior by re-conditioning it toward a more appropriate behavior. Behaviorists name two main types of conditioning: classical and operant.

Classical conditioning was discovered Pavlov in his famous dog experiment, where he rang a bell every time he fed the dog and thereby eventually conditioned the dog to salivate at the sound of the bell even when the food wasn’t present. Classical conditioning refers to learning a new behavior via association.

Operant conditioning operates through a system of rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior.

Behaviorists depend heavily upon these two types of conditioning in the re-training of aberrant behavior. Here are some of the most common therapies used in behavioral psychotherapy:

Aversion therapy refers to the pairing of an undesirable behavior with a stimulus that a patient has an aversion to. As an example: for an alcohol patient, a therapist might prescribe disulfiram, a drug that induces vomiting and severe headaches when mixed with alcohol. The alcoholic will thus learn to associate alcohol with vomiting and headaches, and he won’t get a buzz from the alcohol.

Systematic desensitization is a method of gradually exposing phobic patients to their phobias while they perform relaxation techniques, which helps them gain control over the phobia.

Prompting and fading refers to the use of a visual or verbal prompt to trigger a positive response in a patient. Because the prompt serves as a prop, it is gradually faded out in steps as the patient learns to respond appropriately.

Shaping refers to the gradual improvement of bad behavior by rewarding patients when they show any slight improvement in it.

Chaining is a method of teaching that breaks a task down into its component parts and then teaches the simplest component first. As soon as a component is learned, the patient is taught the next easiest component, and so on.

Modeling teaches a patient to learn a new behavior by watching someone else do it properly.

Types of Degrees

Since psychology is multidisciplinary, behavioral psychology builds on every facet of the different psychological perspectives. This is why degrees in behavioral psychology cover cognitive, social, developmental, and physiological psychology. You may want to understand phenomena which are possible only through observations, analyze them, conduct research regarding their explanations and reach to a verified conclusion. Typical courses include introductory courses to human behavior along with courses such as neuroscience, philosophy of mind, biology and sociology.

A Bachelor of Arts in psychology is adequate for some counseling jobs in social work, but only constitutes a starting point in a behavioral psychologist’s education. An undergraduate degree typically takes four years to complete. Typical courses included in this degree are general education introductory courses, organizational behavior, human resource management, social psychology, and behavioral research methods. Students can choose their specialization as they advance in the program. Different institutions set varying levels of the minimum GPA required for their programs.

The next step is to get a Master of Arts in clinical psychology with a concentration of coursework in behavioral studies. A master’s degree is adequate for some counseling jobs in psychology, but in order to become a licensed clinical or counseling psychologist, a doctorate is needed. The preferred doctorate is a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree in psychology rather than a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in psychology, because the former has extra courses in counseling while the latter has extra courses in research.

Career Opportunities

Behavioral psychologists normally either become a counseling psychologist or a clinical psychologist. Counseling psychologists are more apt to go into private practice, because few of their patients require institutionalization. Though some clinical psychologists open their own practice, most work in health care institutions like hospitals, clinics, drug rehab centers or mental health facilities.

Some clinical and counseling psychologists, especially those who work in universities, go into teaching and/or research.


According to the Bureau of Labor, the mean annual 2019 wage for clinical, counseling and school psychologist was $87,450. The same site says the mean hourly wage was $42.04.

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