Behavior Analysis and Social Work

  • Bruce A. ThyerEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Social Work book series (SOWO)


This chapter provides an overview of the social work applications of the practice approach known as behavior analysis to the field of mental health. Behavior analysis has been an empirically supported approach to mental health practice for over 50 years, and its general principles have been accepted within social work since the 1930s. The chapter distinguishes between the philosophical foundations of this approach, known as behaviorism, from the practice applications derived from learning theory, and its hallmark approach to evaluation of clinical practice known as single-system research designs. Behavior analysis makes use of the theoretical principles of respondent, operant, and observational learning and through these concepts has derived a very wide array of empirically supported methods of mental health assessment and treatment. The focus on behavior analysis is on a client’s behavior, but behavior includes not only overt, publicly observable actions but also one’s emotions and thoughts, since these too are functions of the human body. Behavior analysis has always been concerned with promoting functional behavior of clients, but also the enhancement of positive feelings and thoughts, with parallel efforts to reduce dysfunctional behavior, maladaptive thinking, and dysphoric affect. The widespread belief that behavior analysis is solely focused on overt behavior is a harmful myth. Some clinical social workers are complete, or radical, behavior analysts, accepting the philosophy of science called behaviorism, the conceptual framework of social learning theory, and the research approach of single-subject designs. Others borrow selectively from among these principles to improve their practice in a more eclectic manner.


Social work Behavior analysis Evidence-based practice Clinical practice Empirical Social learning theory 


  1. American Psychiatric Association (2013) Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 5th edn. Author, Washington, DCCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Arhin A, Thyer BA (2004) The causes of racial prejudice: a behavior analytic perspective. In: Chin JL (ed) The psychology of prejudice and discrimination: volume I, Racism in America. Praeger, Westport, pp 1–19Google Scholar
  3. Barker R (ed) (2014) The social work dictionary, 6th edn. National Association of Social Workers, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  4. Berman L (1927) The religion called behaviorism. Boni and Liveright, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  5. Bruno F (1936) The theory of social work. DC Health, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  6. Coelho CM, Purkis H (2009) The origins of specific phobias: influential theories and current perspectives. Rev Gen Psychol 13:335–348CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cuijpers P, Munoz RF, Clarke GN, Lewinsohn PM (2009) Psychoeducational treatment and prevention of depression: the “Coping with Depression” course thirty years later. Clin Psychol Rev 29:449–458CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Elmhurst K, Thyer BA (2019) Self-conducted and Skype-mediated exposure therapy of a woman with a severe balloon phobia: a single-case study. Manuscript submitted for publicationGoogle Scholar
  9. Freud S (1909) The analysis of a phobia in a five year old boy. In: Strachey L (ed) Standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. Volume 10. Hogarth Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  10. Grantholm E, Harvey PD (2018) Social skills training for negative symptoms of schizophrenia. Schizophr Bull 44:472–474CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Hackenberg TD (2018) Token reinforcement: translational research and application. J Appl Behav Anal 51:393–435CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Haddock G, Tarrier N, Spaulding W, Yusupoff L, Kinney C, McCarthy E (1998) Individual cognitive–behavior therapy in the treatment of hallucinations and delusions: a review. Clin Psychol Rev 1:821–838CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hayes SC (ed) (1989) Rule-governed behavior: cognition, contingencies, and instructional control. Plenum Press, New York, pp 191–220CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hayes LJ, Ghezzi PM (1997) Investigations in behavioral epistemology. Context Press, RenoGoogle Scholar
  15. Kohlenberg RJ (1973) Behavioristic approach to multiple personality: a case study. Behav Ther 4:137–140CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Lattal KA, Chase PN (eds) (2003) Behavior theory and philosophy. Plenum, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  17. Mazur JE (1998) Learning and behavior, 4th edn. Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle RiverGoogle Scholar
  18. Myers LL, Thyer BA (1997) Should social work clients have the right to effective treatment? Soc Work 42:288–298CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. O’Donnell JM (1985) The origins of behaviorism. New York University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  20. Paul GL, Lentz RJ (1977) Psychosocial treatment of chronic mental patients: milieu versus social-learning programs. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  21. Rachlin H (1991) Introduction to modern behaviorism, 3rd edn. W.H. Freeman, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  22. Richmond M (1917) Social diagnosis. Russell Sage Foundation, PhiladelphiaCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Robinson V (1930) A changing psychology for social casework. University of North Carolina Press, DurhamCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Royse D, Thyer BA, Padgett DK (2016) Program evaluation: an introduction to an evidence-based approach, 6th edn. Cengage, BostonGoogle Scholar
  25. Thyer BA (1995) Promoting an empiricist agenda within the human services: an ethical and humanistic imperative. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry 26:93–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Thyer BA (ed) (1999) The philosophical legacy of behaviorism. Kluwer, DordrechtGoogle Scholar
  27. Thyer BA (2006) It is time to rename the DSM. Ethical Hum Psychol Psychiatry 8:61–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Thyer BA (2012) Respondent learning theory. In: Thyer BA, Dulmus CN, Sowers KM (eds) Human behavior in the social environment: theories for social work practice. Wiley, New York, pp 47–81Google Scholar
  29. Thyer BA (2014) A review of Essentials of psychiatric diagnosis: responding to the challenge of DSM-5 by Allen Francis. Res Soc Work Pract 24:165–169CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Thyer BA (2015) The DSM-5 definition of mental disorder: critique and alternatives. In: Probst B (ed) Critical thinking in clinical assessment and diagnosis. Springer International, Cham, pp 45–68Google Scholar
  31. Thyer BA, Hudson W (1987) Progress in behavioral social work: an introduction. J Soc Serv Res 10(2/3/4):1–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Thyer BA, Myers LM (2007) A social worker’s guide to evaluating practice outcomes. Council on Social Work Education, AlexandriaGoogle Scholar
  33. Turner DT, McGlanaghy E, Cuijpers P, van der Gaag M, Karyotaki E, MacBeth A (2018) A meta-analysis of social skills training and related interventions for psychosis. Schizophr Bull 44:475–491CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Whitaker R (2002) Mad in America: bad science, bad medicine, and the enduring mistreatment of the mentally ill. Basic Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  35. Wong SE (2012) Operant learning theory. In: Thyer BA, Dulmus CN, Sowers KM (eds) Human behavior in the social environment: theories for social work practice. Wiley, New York, pp 83–123Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of Social WorkFlorida State UniversityTallahasseeUSA

Personalised recommendations