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What Is Behavioral Psychology?

Behavioral psychology involves the study of problematic human behaviors and thoughts. Read on for a detailed behavioral psychology definition and information on careers in this field.

What is Behavioral Psychology?

Behavioral psychology focuses on understanding and modifying individuals' thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Behavioral psychologists rely heavily on empirical evidence and theories of human behavior and cognition. Professionals in this area often work as psychologists or counselors. Others may choose a career in education and psychological research. Entering the field usually requires a graduate degree and, in many cases, licensure.

Required Education Master's or doctoral degree
Average Salary (2019) $75,100*
Licensure Required; specific requirements vary by state
Key Skills Interpersonal skills, communication abilities, compassion, patience

Source: *Payscale.com

Behavioral Psychology Definition

Often linked with cognitive psychology, behavioral psychology is a branch of psychology concerned with human behaviors and methods of changing problematic behaviors. The field draws from theories of human learning and behavior like social learning theory, conditioning theories, and models of information processing. Psychologists and counselors practicing in this area typically assess patients and devise treatment approaches with strong support from prior empirical research. Their work helps patients address a range of issues including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Response to trauma
  • Aggression
  • Substance abuse
  • Emotional regulation

Careers in Behavioral Psychology

Behavioral psychologists work in a wide range of settings including schools, hospitals, clinics, and correctional institutions. Some behavioral psychology practitioners work as counselors. In this capacity, they meet with clients to address problematic habits or behaviors. They assess clients' behaviors and create a treatment plan to help clients identify and modify problematic behaviors. To accomplish this, counselors may conduct individual or group sessions with patients. They can also educate clients' family members on the nature of the problem and how to support the client in recovery. Prospective counselors can consider specializing in a particular area of interest; for example, some choose to become addiction counselors.

Those interested in the field might also wish to become child psychologists focused on cognitive-behavioral psychology. Practicing child psychologists work with children to identify problematic behaviors and meet with them to discuss behavioral problems. Their assessment processes can include psychological testing. Like counselors, child psychologists design treatment plans aimed at modifying behaviors. Psychologists may also conduct research in the field by performing experiments, analyzing the results, composing research reports or papers and publishing them in industry journals.

Required Education

Although requirements vary, applicants to counseling positions often need to have a master's degree, and a career as a psychologist typically requires a doctoral degree. At the master's level, psychology students learn practical approaches to helping clients address behavioral issues. Some psychology programs offer concentrations in areas directly related to behavioral psychology, like applied behavior analysis. These programs emphasize relevant assessment and treatment techniques along with foundational psychological theories. In addition to coursework, students may need to compose a thesis or pass a comprehensive examination.

At the doctoral level, students can find relevant Ph.D. or Psy.D. programs in fields such as cognitive psychology, clinical psychology, and behavioral neuroscience. Depending on their focus, programs prepare graduates for careers in clinical practice, academic research, or both. Graduate programs at this level heavily emphasize research, and students can expect courses in psychological research methods and approaches to data analysis. Typical curricula also include advanced coursework in psychological theories, personality, learning, and human development. After finishing their coursework, doctoral students usually need to pass comprehensive examinations and complete a dissertation.