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Behavioral Psychology, Cognitive Psychology, and Mental Health

Behavioral Psychology, Cognitive Psychology, and Mental Health

This article focuses on two distinct psychological approaches to human behavior: behavioral psychology and cognitive psychology. Although the disciplines are widely considered irreconcilable, there is much to be learned if we can understand the everyday implications of the differences between these disciplinary perspectives. In other words, this article focuses on how we can understand ourselves better by drawing from the best of these approaches.

Why do the two approaches seem irreconcilable? Because cognitive psychology directs us inward, whereas behavioral psychology asks us to look exclusively at external stimuli. More on this later. Essentially, this article aims to show how we can better examine and understand mental health by synthesizing the insights generated by these disciplines.

What follows is in no way an exhaustive account of these disciplines. This is a brief account of the benefits we can draw from them, and this necessarily requires an understanding of their limitations, too.

What We Can Learn from Behavioral Psychology

Behavioral psychology, also referred to as behaviorism in some quarters, attempts to establish links between human behavior and the external world. It is based on the assumption that all human behavior is a direct consequence of external stimuli. In other words, the discipline holds that there can be no behavior without external stimuli. Indeed, advocates of this approach prefer “behavior” to the more purposeful “action.” Understandably, this view has come under some criticism, mainly because it seems to suggest that human behavior is mere reaction.

Behaviorism, moreover, is rigidly scientific and mainly aims to predict human behavior, given a situation. The approach is also widely employed to study, document, and predict the behavior of nonhuman animals as well. Advocates argue that the best way to predict human behavior is by modifying and conditioning it. Therefore, it is not surprising that behaviorist principles have been widely applied in the corporate sector to boost productivity or reduce workplace stress: disciplines such as Management and Industrial Psychology draw heavily from behaviorism. Notably, behaviorism has also been widely applied in classrooms to condition student behavior.

The limitations of behaviorist principles, however, become evident when seen in the context of managing employees’ behavior and productivity. Since the discipline holds that there can be no reaction without external stimuli, it tends to proffer generalized solutions. This is problematic because a generalized solution may not elicit the same reaction or behavior from all people. That is, a hack or stimulus that allows some employees to be more productive might hamper others’ productivity; in fact, it may even turn out to be counterproductive and cause undue stress.

To be sure, meticulous behaviorists do seek to understand why a certain stimulus fails to elicit the desired behavior from some subjects. In fact, this is precisely where they rely on conditioning. That is, they try to modify behavior by introducing new aspects or by eliminating certain aspects from a given environment or stimulus. This can be an arduous process.

Nonetheless, we, the general public, can draw the following benefits from the behaviorist approach:

1) If we find ourselves agitated or experiencing stress, it would be deeply beneficial to identify the external triggers. Knowing what causes anxiety or stress is the first step toward understanding why certain events or stimuli act as triggers. At the very least, this knowledge may allow us to avoid situations that tend to make us vulnerable.

2) Conversely, we can also identify and surround ourselves with feel-good stimuli.

3) Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that we can, whenever possible, make changes to our surroundings to ensure sound mental health. This may even allow us to thrive in what might otherwise be a debilitating environment.

What We Can Learn from Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology, as mentioned above, focuses on the internal—that is, it studies cognitive aspects such as memory, language use, perception, attention span, and creativity. Surprisingly, as Bruce Goldstein shows in his work on cognition and everyday human action, the discipline is deeply relevant when it comes to making sense of daily experience. Here’s why.

Among other things, this approach focuses on how memories are formed, accessed, and experienced. This aspect of cognitive psychology is especially salient when it comes to understanding and dealing effectively with mental trauma, which is often accompanied by a great deal of stress and anxiety. Most of us who experience stress or suffer from anxiety disorders become adept at spotting their physical symptoms. This in turn allows us to exert reasonable control over the situation.

Cognitive psychology urges us to go a step further: it asks us to evaluate these symptoms in relation to the mental states that accompany them. This involves trying to observe the thoughts and thought patterns that might accompany these symptoms. Admittedly, this is a call for higher-order thinking, which is an essential aspect of critical thinking. At this juncture, it is also worth noting that critical thinking may be a very potent tool for battling depression.

In fact, this is not an outlandish claim. Cognitive therapists mainly aim to enable clients to become proficient critical thinkers when it comes to assessing their own mental health. In this context, being a critical thinker also involves monitoring our use of language, which is especially important when it comes to depression. This is because sadness and despair are among the primary symptoms of depression, and both are discernible from one’s use of language.

How can we benefit by monitoring our mental states and use of language?

1) This strategy is especially useful when we cannot control external stimuli. It is essential to have or develop coping strategies to address such situations. The simplest way is to take deep breaths and try to observe our thought process. Taking deep breaths reduces the severity of physical symptoms and also improves our capacity to observe our thoughts.

2) It also shows that we are not necessarily controlled and limited by our environment and other external factors. We can, to a reasonable extent, control how we feel and think. In fact, much of cognitive therapy involves:
(a) learning how to observe thoughts and feelings and;
(b) learning how to control them and develop positive thinking.

Admittedly, neither discipline presents a total, unerring picture of what it is to be a human being. Nonetheless we can learn invaluable things about ourselves from the insights they’ve generated.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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Author Bio: Dennis Welsey is an independent researcher and blogger. His interests include STEM, the Humanities, and mental health, especially interdisciplinary practices and methods. You can follow his personal blog here.


Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash

The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.

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