Behavioural therapy for abnormality
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Behavioural therapy for abnormality. Basic Assumptions. The behavioural model of abnormality emphasises the role of learning and experience in causing psychological disorders.

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Basic assumptions
Basic Assumptions

  • The behavioural model of abnormality emphasises the role of learning and experience in causing psychological disorders.

  • Behaviourists deals with three main forms of learning; classical conditioning, operant conditioning and social learning.

Behaviour therapy
Behaviour Therapy

  • Because the behavioural approach is one that assumes that disordered behaviour is learnt though classical and operant conditioning, that the approach to therapy is to try and alter behaviour using the principles of conditioning.

  • The aim of behaviour therapy is to remove or extinguish the conditioned association between fear and the situation or object.

  • Therapies based on classical conditioning include systematic desensitisation, flooding and aversion therapy.

Systematic desensitization
Systematic Desensitization

  • This is the most popular form of behaviour therapy. Introduced by Wople (1958) it is a form of counter conditioning, where the therapist attempts to replace the fear response by an alternative and harmless response. It is done in a gradual or graded fashion.

  • This therapy involves using a hierarchy of fearful situations. For instance a therapist would ask their client to list situations associated with their fear from the highest to the lowest. The client is then worked through the hierarchy to the highest fear situation. Where they can cope with all situations linked with the fear.


  • This involves inescapable exposure to the feared object or situation that lasts until the fear response disappears.

  • The procedure assumes that very high levels of fear or anxiety cannot be sustained and will eventually fall. If a session ends too quickly then it can have the opposite effect where the phobia is reinforced rather than extinguished.

  • An claustrophobic subjected to flooding therapy would be put in a small room for long periods of time.

  • An issue specific to flooding is that is it clearly a highly threatening and stressful procedure. However it advantage is that it is very quick, assuming that it works.

Aversion therapy
Aversion Therapy

  • Aversion therapy aims to associate undesirable behaviour with an unpleasant stimulus. It has a controversial history as in the 1950s it was used to try and ‘cure’ homosexuality by pairing electric shocks with pictures of naked men.

  • Nowadays aversion therapy is used for addictive states, to help a person get rid of a habit such as smoking. This can be done through giving the client pills that make them feel sick simultaneously with their smoking.

  • Through classical conditioning the feeling of sickness is associated with smoking and should act to prevent smoking in future.


  • Because this approach assumes that all behaviours are learned though relatively simple conditioning principles, the therapy does not address any deeper psychological or emotional issues. These therapies focus on symptoms rather than on any deeper underlying causes.

  • Systematic desensitisation can be particularly effective in the treatment of simple phobias. However, there is no evidence for whether the improvements are permanent or temporary.

  • There are significant ethical issues with flooding and aversion therapy as clients are subjected to intense fear and anxiety. Even desensitisation requires a person to visualise their fears. This means that there should be careful monitoring to ensure that there are no long-term negative consequences for the client.