Although behaviorism focuses on observable behaviors and the external stimuli that dictate them and has been largely overshadowed by newer psychological approaches, it still maintains a crucial role in understanding human behavior. Two such approaches that have gained prominence are cognitive psychology and positive psychology:
- Cognitive Psychology: This approach delves into the inner workings of the mind, focusing on mental processes such as thinking, memory, perception, and problem-solving. Instead of observing external behaviors like behaviorism, cognitive psychology seeks to understand the internal mental mechanisms that drive those behaviors.
- Positive Psychology: A relatively newer field, positive psychology emphasizes strengths, virtues, and factors contributing to a fulfilling and meaningful life. It seeks to understand and promote qualities that lead individuals and communities to thrive.
Despite these advancements, many psychologists remain deeply interested in the foundational principles of behaviorism and continue to explore the study of behavior and the application of behavioral psychology. What does a behavioral psychologist do? Keep reading to learn more about what this career looks like and how you can become a behavioral psychologist!
What Does a Behavioral Psychologist Do?
Behavioral psychologist study, observes, and applies their knowledge of behaviorism to change behavior and offer support for this field of psychology. Behavioral psychologists focus on how people interact with their environment and how those interactions shape a person’s behavior.
Although behavioral psychologists may gather or share that information with students, they may also apply their knowledge to help correct or influence behavior. Some correctional facilities or health care providers may prefer a behavioral approach over other approaches in clinical psychology. This is the true beauty of psychology - there is always another way to approach a problem.
What Is Behaviorism?
Over the years, psychology has evolved, and different schools of thought have taken center stage. This doesn’t mean that the “old school” way of thinking is erased forever - it may just take on different names, become a subset of a larger psychology degree, or might be harder to find in traditional healthcare facilities or universities. This is where behavioral psychology and psychologists stand right now.
Behaviorism, often referred to as behavioral psychology, is a theory of learning founded on the belief that all behaviors are acquired through conditioning. It asserts that behaviors are responses to environmental stimuli not determined by internal cognitive processes. This perspective emphasizes the role of environmental factors in shaping and modulating human behavior. It's predicated on observable behaviors and the external stimuli in the environment rather than internal processes like thinking and emotion.
It became popular in the early 20th century when psychologists like John B. Watson posited that they could “train” subjects (including humans and animals) to perform certain behaviors. This marked a large shift from the previously-center-stage theories of psychoanalysis. Through foundational concepts like operant (by B.F. Skinner) and classical conditioning (by Ivan Pavlov), practitioners, parents, and employers discovered that they could shape another person’s behavior and possibly treat certain disorders.
A behavioral psychologist may take a strictly behavioral approach or study cognitive-behavioral psychology. This combination is more popular, and organizations are more likely to hire someone who understands CBT.
To get a job as a psychologist, regardless of your specialty, you must get a college degree. You might need quite a few. Most psychology positions require a Ph.D. or PsyD in Clinical Psychology.
Once you graduate, you are expected to take on an internship to receive your board certification and license to practice. Licensure looks different in every state but generally requires your doctorate and an exam's completion.
Other job requirements will vary depending on the team and clients that you work with. Leadership skills, knowledge of working with people of different age groups, and familiarity with different assessment tools may be part of the requirements for your desired position.
Behavioral Psychologist Reported Salary
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Schools for Behavioral Psychology Degrees
These programs can usually be found under the “Behavioral Science.” Behavioral science is an umbrella term for the study of behavior - psychology is a subdiscipline within the larger study of behavioral science. The degree may also be labeled “Behavioral Neuroscience.) As you search for colleges, meet directly with professors and advisors to discuss the courses involved in each degree program.
Some of the best behavioral science and psychology programs can be found at:
- Harvard University (Cambridge, MA)
- Tulane University (New Orleans, LA)
- The University of Texas - Austin (Austin, TX)
- The Ohio State University (Columbus, OH)
- The University of Kansas (Lawrence, KS)
- Columbia University (New York, NY)
- University of Florida (Gainesville, FL)
- University of Illinois (Champaign, IL)
- Northeastern University (Boston, MA)
- Arizona State University (Temple, AZ)
Companies That Hire Behavioral Psychologists
Where can a behavioral psychologist work? Many different places! There is a job for you out there! The following companies and organizations may be looking for behavioral psychologists:
- Correctional centers
- Schools and school districts
- Colleges and universities
- Consulting firms
- Research facilities
Jobs with similar responsibilities may appear under similar names, such as “Clinical Psychologist,” “Behavioral Health Assistant,” or “Mental Health Clinician.” Reach out to employers before you apply for jobs in behavioral psychology.
A behavioral psychologist may also start their practice specializing in behaviorism.
Interviews with a Behavioral Psychologist
How can you become a behavioral psychologist? Psychologists are ready to tell you! Look at videos on YouTube recorded by behavioral psychologists like Dr. Eldad Farhy.
This interview with a neuroscientist gives you a look at what a day in postdoc life looks like!
Once you’ve received your degree, you can also start making videos like this! The Behavioral Science Guys also have some advice for you - they use their expertise to educate others on how to know if you’re being manipulated!
Famous Behavioral Psychologists
These behavioral psychologists shaped the study of Behaviorism, which once was the leading approach to psychology. Although psychologists have moved “beyond” looking strictly through the lens of behaviorism, the work of these psychologists made an enormous impact on psychology:
- B.F. Skinner created the “Skinner Box,” where he conducted experiments on animals and developed the theory of operant conditioning.
- Edward Thorndike worked on learning theory, paving the way for modern educational psychology and the theory of operant conditioning.
- Ivan Pavlov helped to develop the idea of classical conditioning through his well-known experiments with dogs.
- John B. Watson established Behaviorism as a school of psychology.
- Dr. Aaron T. Beck is the “father” of cognitive behavioral therapy.
Behavioral Psychology Examples
A behavioral psychologist may hold different job responsibilities depending on the day and their job position:
- Teaching a class on behavioral psychology at a local college
- Researching how rewards influence social media behavior
- Talking to business leaders about employee morale and behavior
- Work with social workers to help addicts understand how they can change their behavior.
- Engaging with individual clients through CBT methods
Longitudinal Methods: Tracing Behavioral Changes Over Time
In psychology, researchers and behaviorists often grapple with understanding how behavior evolves. Whether observing the long-term effects of an intervention or charting the natural progression of a particular behavior, one of the most robust research methods employed is the longitudinal method.
What is the Longitudinal Method?
A longitudinal study, in essence, involves repeated observations or measurements of the same individuals over extended periods — often years or even decades. Unlike cross-sectional studies, which simultaneously take a 'snapshot' of participants, longitudinal studies 'track' participants, offering a 'movie' of their lives.
Why Do Behaviorists Use Longitudinal Methods?
- Consistency and Change: Behaviorists are keenly interested in both consistency and change. Observing the same individuals over time, behaviorists can determine which behaviors remain stable and which evolve.
- Causality Insights: Although not without its challenges, longitudinal data can provide stronger evidence of causality than cross-sectional data. Behaviorists can infer potential causal relationships between variables by monitoring when changes occur and what precedes them.
- Developmental and Life-Course Perspectives: Behavior, whether a cognitive process or an observable action, often changes as individuals age or navigate different life events. Longitudinal methods allow behaviorists to map out these developmental trajectories.
Challenges of Longitudinal Studies:
While powerful, longitudinal studies aren't without their challenges:
- Attrition: Over time, participants might drop out of the study, leading to potentially biased results.
- Cost and Time-Intensive: Tracking participants for years requires significant resources.
- Cohort Effects: Changes observed might be due to broader societal changes rather than individual development.
Applications in Behavioral Psychology:
Many landmark studies in behavioral psychology use longitudinal methods. For example:
- Tracking the long-term effects of behavioral interventions in schools to promote positive behavior.
- Observing the evolution of behavioral disorders over time.
- Understanding the lifelong impacts of early-life experiences or traumas on behavior.
In conclusion, longitudinal methods are indispensable for behaviorists who are keen on understanding the intricate dance of time, environment, and behavior. They provide a dynamic, in-depth view of behavioral evolution, offering insights that might remain hidden in more fleeting, snapshot-style approaches.