How to Become a Behavioral Psychologist [2024 Online Degrees and Schooling Guide]

Last Updated: June 10, 2024

What is Behavioral Psychology?

Behavioral psychology, also known as behaviorism, studies the link between sensory abilities, thought processes, perceptions, emotions, and behaviors, of course. This type of psychology also examines various behavioral styles, in an effort to develop techniques and methods that change unhealthy, negative and destructive behaviors into more positive, healthier and uplifting ones.

Behavioral psychology also focuses on altering, improving and changing people’s thought processes, actions, emotions and behaviors. This branch theorizes that mental, psychological, and emotional disorders can be improved through a variety of behavior-modifying techniques (i.e. behavioral modeling, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and cognitive restructuring).

The four specialized areas of behavioral psychology are: cognitive therapy, behavioral therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and applied behavioral analysis.


  • Classical conditioning is an action that occurs when two stimuli are repeatedly combined to elicit the same response, during different times. The goal is for the individual to respond the same way to natural situations, as he or she does to behavior-inducing stimuli.
  • Operant conditioning, on the other hand, occurs when an association between voluntary behaviors and consequences is formed (i.e. punishment and rewards).

What Does a a Behavioral Psychologist Do?

Behavioral psychologists examine an individual’s behaviors, and the alteration of those behaviors, particularly the destructive ones.

The leading principle behind behavioral psychology is to utilize research based tactics to improve conditions such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse through the modification of behaviors.

In other words, behavioral psychologists are looking to understand why individuals display the behaviors that they do and develop solutions that will improve their current condition. Often, they will work one on one with individuals to develop behavioral based solutions to their issues.

Behavioral psychologists ultimately work to provide solutions to individuals who are suffering from a wide degree of illnesses by modifying or altering their behaviors to improve their current and future state of being.

This is achieved through the careful analysis and consideration of an individual’s behaviors, paying less attention to the internal cognitive processes in place, and more attention around examining the surrounding stimuli.

In general behavioral psychologists perform a variety of job duties such as:

  • Observing and interpreting the behaviors of clients and patients, in order to develop treatment plans that address their mental illnesses and/or psychological disorders
  • Working closely with clients and patients on a regular basis
  • Helping clients and patients learn how to control and resolve their issues (i.e. addictions, impulsivities, phobias, and anxiety/panic attacks)
  • Observing and interviewing clients and patients, in order to gather information on their signs and symptoms
  • Providing psychological techniques like: psychoanalysis, hypnosis, psychotherapy, and biofeedback with clients and patients
  • Attempting to gain a more in-depth understanding the relationship between human behaviors and cause-and-effect actions
  • Working directly with clients and patients to diagnose and treat mental illnesses and psychological disorders
  • Conducting psychological research studies designed to introduce new elements of human behaviors (in various conditions, and with the use of behavior-provoking stimuli)

Where Does a Behavioral Psychologist Work?

A substantial number of behavioral psychologists go on to open up their own practice, where they will often specialize within an area of behavioral psychology. These specialties may include providing solutions to issues such as substance abuse, obesity, and depression just to name a few.

Often, a behavioral psychologist after being in the field will narrow their focus to provide superior solutions to their clientele.

Some behavioral psychologists seek employment at colleges and universities, while others are employed as school counselors or school psychologists, or pediatric psychologists. In this role, behavioral psychologists work individually with children to address behavioral based issues, such as depression or acting out in destructive manners.

In addition, some seek employment as social workers, as a way to help rehabilitate people addicted to drugs and alcohol, and those engaging in unsafe, impulsive, and/or dangerous behaviors. Moreover, other behavioral psychologists work at businesses and organizations, providing data and insight on consumer trends.

Furthermore, some behavioral psychologists work with law enforcement, providing felons, suspects, and criminals with counseling services.

What are the Careers in Behavioral Psychology?

With a behavioral psychology degree, one can seek employment in the following industries:


With a degree in behavioral psychology, one can work as a sociologist. A sociologist studies social behaviors (i.e. interactions) and how human actions are precipitated by cultural traditions, religious beliefs, economic statuses, educational backgrounds, routines, and society (i.e. families, groups, organizations and social institutions).

Social Work

As mentioned above, one can also become a social worker with a behavioral psychology degree. Social workers help clients and patients manage, cope, deal with, and resolve their issues. A sub-type of social work is a clinical social work. Clinical social workers diagnose and treat a variety of mental illnesses, behavioral disorders and emotional issues.

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors

Lastly, many behavioral psychologists acquire jobs as substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors, who provide substance abuse counseling services to people, suffering from drug addiction, alcoholism, eating disorders, and other behavioral problems. They also help clients modify unhealthy and negative behaviors. Lastly, they provide treatments that help clients heal from the throes of addiction.

What Degree is Needed to Become a Behavioral Psychologist?

To become a behavioral psychologist, one will need to obtain a bachelor’s degree (B.S. or B.A.) in any field, preferably a psychology or social work field, a master’s degree in psychology (with coursework in cognitive and behavioral psychology) or a related field, and a doctorate (Ph.D.) in psychology with a focus on cognitive and behavioral studies.

Many aspiring psychologists, after earning a bachelor’s degree, apply directly to a doctoral program. However, requirements vary by program and not all doctoral programs lead to licensure.

A student with the career goal of becoming a behavioral psychologist will have to choose between a PhD and a Psy.D. Those who would like to focus on research usually obtain a PhD, while those students who enjoy working with patients in treatment choose to pursue a Psy.D. Both doctorates are equally endorsed by the profession.

It normally takes a student 4 years to earn a bachelor’s degree, 2.5 to earn a master’s degree, and between 5 and 7 years to earn a Ph.D.

What Do You Study in Behavioral Psychology?

During a graduate behavioral psychology program, students are introduced to various behavioral psychological theories, principles, approaches, techniques, and methods. They are also taught the difference between performance and cognition.

Most of the coursework centers on human development and research. In addition, these students take an in-depth look at abnormal, social, and personality psychology. Graduate behavioral psychology programs typically last a few years, and involve a thesis, and internship.

At the doctoral level, students are taught various research methods and approaches, in an effort to help them accurately interpret and analyze differing behaviors. They also learn how to detect and address child abuse, child neglect and unhealthy parent-child relationships. Moreover, doctoral students explore the relationship between human behaviors and gender identity.

Furthermore, they learn how to apply what they learned in class to “real world” scenarios. Courses may include: developmental psychology, personality disorders, behavioral problems, applied behavioral analysis, neuropsychology, severe mental illness, and behavioral medicine.

What are the Career Opportunities For New Graduates?

An entry level job for the behavioral psychologist may range from teaching to hospital work. Public agencies that help at-risk people (traumatized veterans, addicts, etc) develop better behaviors may put the just-graduated behavioral psychologist to work.

Public schools, law enforcement agencies and colleges sometimes have behavioral psychologists to talk to people in need of better habits. There are also many jobs in research for the behavioral psychologist – drug companies often need to analyze effects of medications and will use them to do this.

It is possible to be hired by a private practice that specializes in changing bad behavior for people who would like to lose weight, quit smoking or stop other negative habits. Eventually the behavioral psychologist may end up with an organization focused on therapy and changing habits.

How Much Does a Behavioral Psychologist Make?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not provide separate salary data for behavioral psychologist. However, clinical psychologists (which may include behavioral psychologists) on average earn earn $102,740, as of May 2022.

What is the Employment Outlook for Behavioral Psychologists?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychology jobs, in general, are expected to increase approximately 6% by the year 2031, while counseling, clinical, and school psychology jobs are expected to rise approximately 10% by the same year. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder psychology jobs should see a 22% boost in opportunities by 2031.

Lastly, behavioral psychologists, who work at substance abuse treatment centers and private mental health practices are expected to see a 44% increase in in jobs by 2030. This growth will stem from an increased awareness of student and pediatric mental health issues, emotional and physical well-being, drug abuse and addiction, a booming elderly population, dealing with aging, and/or a poor or struggling economy.

What Careers are Similar to Behavioral Psychology?

There are many careers that are related to behavioral psychology and not all of them require advanced degrees or years of education. Behavioral Health is a field where there is always a need for those with various levels of experience and education.

Behavioral Health Case Manager

As a behavioral health case manager, they are a part of a clinical team that assesses the patient and develops a service plan. They also document the patient’s progress as they go through treatment and maintain the clinical records as needed.

In addition to the care that they are receiving, the behavioral health case manager will also coordinate any additional care needed, like health and dental care. To be a behavioral health care manager, employers usually require a Bachelor’s degree in a related major or a combination of education and experience to meet the job requirements.

Behavioral Health Technician

Like the behavioral health case manager, another member of a clinical team is the behavioral health technician.  They are a bit more “hands on” with the patients as they can lead group or individual counseling sessions and play a large role in developing and implementing the service plan for each patient.

Most health technicians are required to have either an Associate’s degree and three years of experience in behavioral health or a Bachelor’s Degree and one year of experience.

Board Certified Behavioral Analysts

A behavioral analyst is another part of the team as well. In addition to contributing to the care plan, they can collect data in case the plan needs to be altered, and oversees the implementation of the plan by the technicians. They can also act as the point of contact for community agencies for outside resources. It is more of a manager’s role than a technician. To be a behavioral analysts, most employers require certification and a year of experience.

Behaviorists and psychologists are both mental health professionals who study human behavior, however, they approach the study of human behavior from different perspectives.

Behaviorists are mainly focused on the study of observable behaviors and the ways in which those behaviors can be modified through external stimuli. Behaviorists believe that behaviors are typically learned through reinforcement and punishment, and that mental processes are not relevant or important to the study of behavior.

Psychologists, on the other hand, are interested in a wider range of mental processes, including cognition, perception, emotion, and personality. Psychologists may use a variety of methods, including observation, experimentation, and introspection, to study these mental processes. While behaviorists focus on observable behavior, psychologists are more interested in the internal thoughts, feelings, and processes that underlie any behavior.

Overall, behaviorists generally tend to be more focused on the study of specific behaviors and their causes, while psychologists manly are more interested in the broader range of mental processes that shape behavior.

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