Behavior Theory (BT) and Cognitive Theory (CT) are both very important in the field of social work. The combination has led to one of the most widely used therapies for those struggling with mental health. Both have had large impacts on the development of therapy and theories that are used with many different disorders. There are many similarities and many differences when analyzing behavior and cognitive theories. This paper will address those by first addressing what they are and the history of each.
To discuss the history of either theory or therapy one must first understand what it is. Behavior theorist believes that there is a stimulus and then a reaction. Whereas Cognitive theorist believes there are thoughts and feelings that influence behavior. Both theories have impacted the field of social work and psychology immensely and contribute important information to clinicians.
Behavior theory/therapy (BT) is ultimately training someone to react to stimuli in the desired way. Stimulus control is a key component of this therapy, as is a restriction of the behavior. At large, behaviorist believes that most individuals are born with a “blank slate” which therefore means all undesired behavior is learned and can be unlearned. When these behaviors occur, they have either been positively or negatively enforced for the individual. In behavior therapy, they work at the moment to eliminate the agreed upon unwanted behavior.
Theoretical assumptions of BT. Behaviorist tends to believe that all behavior is learned. They strongly focus on the environmental factors and how those are affecting someone. Behavior theorist believed that Psychology should be viewed as a science. Since they believed cognition could not be measured, the cognitive theory was not respected in the past. They also strongly endorsed Pavlov’s theory of conditioned stimuli. They believe that human behavior is like that of animal behavior and can be conditioned like so. Lastly, they assume behavior is all a result of the stimulus. (McLeod, 2010)
Main branches of BT. Systematic Desensitization, Aversion Therapy, and Flooding are examples of branches of BT. Systematic Desensitization is having someone gradually become used to the idea of something. Someone may be afraid of a spider so therefore they begin with talking about a spider, then looking at a picture of a spider, then looking at a spider in a cage, etc. until eventually, the person is no longer afraid of the spider. This is still a common behavior therapy that is used with phobias. Aversion Therapy is the idea that you start to associate an undesirable behavior with an unpleasant stimulus, such as an electric shock. Lastly, flooding is the total immersion into the fear. This is not widely used or accepted as best practice. (McLeod, 2010)
BT Theorists. Ivan Pavlov is known for his research in classical conditioning. His famous dog experiment with the food and bell is widely known throughout social work and psychology departments. This was the beginning of the idea that humans and animals learn the same and through classic conditioning, anything can be taught. Another main behaviorist theorist was E. L. Thorndike. He was an active participant in the development of information on operant conditioning. This focuses on rewards and punishments and how this affects future behavior. (American Psychological Association, 2018).
Cognitive theory/therapy (CT) focuses on ones thought processes. It was developed by those who did not fully agree with the behaviorist approach as these theorists believed there were internal factors affecting individuals. The goal was to focus on understanding how humans process information. It was not immediately accepted as many researchers argued cognition cannot be measured so there for it cannot be scientifically researched.
Theoretical assumptions of CT. It is the assumption of cognitive theorists that there is a mediational process that occurs between the stimulus and the response. Second, they believed that CT should be a science and research conducted as though it is. Lastly, their assumptions are that humans are information processes. Therefore they think the information comes in through an input the is stored and then there is an output which would be whatever behavior presents.
Main branches of CT. The main branch of cognitive therapy now would be Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Which focuses on how thought, feelings, and behavior are all interconnected. Another cognitive therapy is rational emotive which focuses on taking action against the negative maladaptive thoughts. Through the ABC technique. A. the activating event, B. the behavior as a result of the event and C. the consequence (Counseling Directory, 2010). Third, is the practice of mindfulness.
CT Theorists. For Cognitive Theory, Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck are the two main theorists. “Ellis developed a form of cognitive therapy known as rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) – an action-oriented approach to managing irrational beliefs and behaviors.” (Counseling Directory, 2018). Aaron Beck is credited as a founder of CT. It is a form of psychotherapy and was developed in the early 1960’s. He created a “structured, short-term, present-oriented psychotherapy for depression. Directed toward solving current problems and modifying dysfunctional thinking and behavior (Beck, 2011, p. 2)” According to the text Cognitive Behavior Therapy CT has been adapted for more diverse populations and disorders but the theoretical assumptions have remained the same. If derived from Beck’s model they will have a cognitive formulation, treatment is based on the conceptualization of the patient and their beliefs. Ultimately, he wants the therapist to produce cognitive change by modifying patients thinking and belief system to bring about change (Beck, 2011, P.2).
Both theories have some strengths and weaknesses. It is important as a therapist to recognize these as they may be barriers to working with clients. Strengths of Behaviorism is that since it is so widely researched it has been widely excepted. It is very black and white which allows researchers to provide clear predictions and their explanations can be proven. Others can retest this theory relatively easy as well. The measurement is objective. Some of the weaknesses are that it does not consider someone’s thoughts or feelings and how those play a role in behavior. It also ignores biology. Lastly, although a strength also a weakness, it can be too black and white cause it to be too deterministic. (McLeod, 2017)
Cognitive theory strengths are that although some have said it could not be scientifically proven, the cognitive theorist has worked extra hard to make sure their research is supported by evidence. Another strength is how widely it can be used. Once you understand the core principles it can be relatively easy to use on yourself to reverse thought and then behavior. Lastly, it is easily interrelated with other approaches, such as behaviorism and biology. Like any theory, it has weaknesses some of these include, that focuses mainly on mental processes. It is not easily transferable to the behavior of animals because you cannot ask a dog how it feels. Another weakness is the great emphasis on the relation of the brain and a computer. There are some that question this as they believe the brain must be much more complicated than a computer. (McLeod, 2015).
One major belief that seems consistent through both theories is the need to explain behavior and why it happens. Also, the desire to change undesired behavior. Another similarity between both is they both are scientific and theorist under both concentrations have worked hard to make it so. The key difference is one focuses on the thoughts and feelings that may affect a behavior and the other does not. However other major differences are how therapist approach clients differently. With BT they are going to talk and expose you to the situation, so you become immune or accustomed to it. Whereas, CT they are going to challenge you to think about what you were feeling and why and how to alter those feelings.
Core Beliefs and Automatic Thought. Core beliefs and automatic thoughts are very important in cognitive therapy and something Beck puts a heavy emphasis on. Core beliefs are an assumption people make of the world around them and mistake them for a fact. Automatic thoughts are pop into our head when we experience or hear something. They appear without conscious thought. These two concepts are different but they both tell us very important information about a client and can tell us what avenue to explore for therapy.
Positive Negative Reinforcement and Punishment. Positive and negative reinforcements in addition to punishments are discussed by Behaviorists as operant conditioning. An important thing to remember with reinforcement is that it always increases the behavior whether it is a positive or negative reinforcement. The difference is with the positive reinforcement you are providing a reward that enforces the behavior to continue whereas with negative you are removing an unpleasant stimulus to increase a behavior. Punishment, however, is the opposite of reinforcement and is used to decrease a behavior.
All in all, there are many differences and similarities between these two theories. The research is done, and theorist involved have greatly impacted the field and provided us with a wealth of knowledge to help future clients. Understanding how these two theories came to be and how they have developed into one shows how powerful and influential this process could be on an individual who is willing to participate and engage in these sessions.