Stimulus Response Learning Theory and Conditioning in Behavior Therapy

There is increasing evidence that behavior therapy is firmly based on neither theories nor principles of conditioning. Conditioning is devoid of precise meaning. The differentiation between classical and operant conditioning remains equivocal. The relationships between conditioning in the laboratory, conditioning in the clinic, and conditioning in daily life are complex and open to diverse interpretations. No general factor of conditionability has as yet been demonstrated, even though it is an implicit assumption underlying much of behavior therapy. Neither classical conditioning, operant conditioning, nor applied behavioral analysis accounts adequately for the many complexities of neuroses. Attempts to update conditioning theory in terms of cognition, subjective experience, or interaction response patterns could complicate rather than clarify the issue.

Thus the evidence for conditioning as an explanatory concept in behavior therapy is, at best, equivocal.

Were it to be granted that behavior therapy is based on theories of learning, there is still little agreement about which learning theories or principles are applicable. Whether the prevailing concepts of conditioning are adequate to account for covert, inner-directed processes is yet unresolved. It is occasionally proposed that the foundation of behavior therapy be broadened to include knowledge drawn from social psychology, physiology, and sociology rather than relying exclusively on conditioning-based learning theory. To do so would be to change radically some of the premises on which behavior therapy is based.

A unifying factor in behavior therapy is generally considered to be its derivation from experimentally established procedures and principles that conform to the characteristic methodology of the behavioral scientist. Unfortunately, much of behavior therapy rests on limited scientific evidence. At best, behavior therapy is based on empirical validation rather than derivation from theory, and occasionally on little more than prevailing notions arising out of the clinical experience of the practitioner. Swan and MacDonald found that behavior therapy as actually conducted is not always consistent with the theories and principles espoused by the practitioners concerned.

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