What Degree Do You Need to Be a Behavioral Psychologist?

What Does Behavioral Psychology Focus On?

Behavioral psychology (also known as behaviorism) focuses upon observable behaviors rather than upon internal factors like thoughts, beliefs or feelings. One of its basic tenets is that a person’s behavior is a byproduct of acquired conditioning.

The original spark for the development of this type of psychology came from the experiments of the physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who, after discovering that his dogs salivated at the sight of food, started ringing a bell every time his dogs were fed. The dogs eventually started salivated at the sound of the bell even when they weren’t being fed.

The primary objective of behavioral psychology is to re-condition patients in order to train them into better behavioral patterns. One of the primary means of achieving this is through a system of rewards and punishment, though there are also other techniques that have proven effective.

In order to treat patients, behavioral psychology draws upon many other disciplines, such as anthropology, education, law and even the science of nutrition. Students of this discipline must acquire a broad-based education in order to comprehend the many aspects of the human condition.

What are the Advantages of Studying Developmental Psychology?

Some students hesitate to commit to a profession in psychology because of the huge investment necessary for obtaining a doctoral degree; but one advantage of embarking upon a study of developmental psychology is that, because behavioral techniques are useful in many fields, it’s easy for behavioral students to shift into a completely different field than psychology halfway through their undergraduate studies.

Another advantage is that there are a wide variety of specialties available, from becoming a criminal investigator to becoming a youth mental health counselor. This variety offers behavioral students the flexibility of being able to study various areas of the field before committing to a specialty. Many professionals in this field choose to become counselors; but even they have several options, such as becoming a marriage counselor, academic counselor, family counselor or substance abuse counselor.

Behavioral psychology uses pragmatic methods of treatment that commonly achieve faster results than most other types of psychological treatment, so this is a rewarding field for those who like to feel they’ve made a difference in the lives of others.

What Necessary Skills are Required?

Psychologists need to develop a healthy skepticism, meaning they mustn’t accept a claim unless it’s supported by strong evidence. They need to keep a clear and rational approach to their patients, not allowing themselves to be taken in by strong emotions or unsubstantiated claims.

But this skepticism must be balanced by an open-mindedness that is willing to weigh the possible validity of any claim. As Carl Sagan wrote: “At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes—an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and the most ruthlessly skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense.”

Psychologists must also possess a deep understanding of human nature in order to better understand their own limitations and to become more tolerant of the limitations of others. Behaviorists must be able to dispassionately evaluate a patient’s beliefs and behaviors in order to gain the proper perspective for effectively treating the patient.

What are the Educational Requirements?

The first step in becoming a psychologist is to obtain a bachelor’s degree at a four-year university. Your exact coursework can vary according to whether your main interest is in counseling, research, social work or teaching. The normal major is psychology, but depending upon the psychology specialty, you might get a degree in sociology, education, anthropology or social work, with a minor or second major in psychology.

Many bachelor programs require some type of fieldwork; you might be able to satisfy this requirement in a school, community services agency, mental health institute, drug abuse center or a similar setting.

You’ll also need to obtain a doctoral degree, which normally takes an additional 4-7 years. Some schools don’t offer master’s degrees in psychology, instead combining them into the doctoral program; these combined programs generally take less time to complete than separate programs.


After receiving a doctoral degree, you’ll normally need to enter a supervised residency program, though in some cases you can substitute two years of professional experience (supervised experience hours requirement for licensure vary from state to state). Next, you’ll need to apply for licensure and undergo a credentials review. Then you’ll need to take an exam in regards to your core competencies:

  • Assessment—diagnosing and defining patients’ issues.
  • Intervention—developing and implementing treatment.
  • Consultation—providing guidance toward a patient’s goals.
  • Application—producing relevant scientific knowledge.

You might need to demonstrate your abilities in one or more of the four areas of emphasis in behavioral psychology: Applied Behavior Analysis, Behavior Therapy, Cognitive-Behavior Therapy and Cognitive Therapy. If you pass these exams, you’ll receive your license; but if you plan to go into teaching or management, you’ll have to undergo further testing.

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