Behavioral Activation Therapy: Let’s Just Skip the Cognitions

This is a short excerpt from the text: Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice

It describes a research-based behavioral approach to counseling and psychotherapy.

Over half a century ago, Skinner suggested that depression was caused by an interruption of healthy behavioral activities that had previously been maintained through positive reinforcement. Later, this idea was expanded based on the initial work of Ferster (1973) and Lewinsohn (1974; Lewinsohn & Libet, 1972). The focus was on observations that:

“. . . depressed individuals find fewer activities pleasant, engage in pleasant activities less frequently, and obtain therefore less positive reinforcement than other individuals.” (Cuijpers, van Straten, & Warmerdam, 2007, p. 319)

From the behavioral perspective, the thinking goes like this:
1.   Observation: Individuals experiencing depression engage in fewer pleasant activities and obtain less daily positive reinforcement.

2.   Hypothesis: Individuals with depressive symptoms might improve or recover if they change their behavior (while not paying any attention to their thoughts or feelings associated with depression).

Like the good scientists they are, behavior therapists have tested this hypothesis and found that behavior change—all by itself—can produce positive treatment outcomes among clients with depression. The main point is to get clients with depressive symptoms to change their behavior patterns so they engage in more pleasant activities and experience more positive reinforcement
Originally, behavioral activation was referred to as activity scheduling and used as a component of various cognitive and behavioral treatments for depression (A. T. Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery, 1979; Lewinsohn, Steinmetz, Antonuccio, & Teri, 1984). During this time activity scheduling was viewed as one piece or part of an overall cognitive behavior treatment (CBT) for depression.
However, in 1996, Jacobson and colleagues conducted a dismantling study on CBT for depression. They compared the whole CBT package with activity scheduling (which they referred to as behavioral activation), with behavioral activation (BA) only, and with CBT for automatic thoughts only. Somewhat surprisingly, BA by itself was equivalent to the other treatment components—even at two-year follow-up (Gortner, Gollan, Dobson, & Jacobson, 1998; Jacobson et al., 1996).

As is often the case, this exciting research finding stimulated further exploration and research associated with behavioral activation. In particular, two separate research teams developed treatment manuals focusing on behavioral activation. Jacobson and colleagues (Jacobson, Martell, & Dimidjian, 2001) developed an expanded BA protocol and Lejuez, Hopko, Hopko, and McNeil (2001) developed a brief (12 session) behavioral activation treatment for depression (BATD) manual and a more recent 10 session revised manual (Lejuez, Hopko, Acierno, Daughters, & Pagoto, 2011).

Implementation of the BATD protocol is described in a short vignette later in the behavioral theory and therapy chapter in the text: Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice by John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan. See:

Or, on Amazon:

Several people engaging in behavioral activation therapy at a wedding.



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