Don’t let your Philosophical Beliefs Make you Less Professionally Competent


This is just a short rant that may find itself a home in a Putting It in Practice Box of the 6th Edition of Clinical Interviewing.

Over the years I’ve noticed students and professionals sometimes eschew what they view as the cold and rigid application of behaviorism in therapy. This is problematic for two big reasons. First, behavioral science isn’t necessarily cold and rigid. When applied to human clients, it can—and should be—warm and flexible. The idea that behaviorally informed therapists must be cold and rigid is patently false. They can be, but then they’re just being bad therapists.

Second, behavioral principles are operating everywhere all the time. Ignoring them won’t make them go away. Behavioral principles are so ubiquitous that we now label behavioral ignorance as “backward behavior modification” (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2011, p. 39). Backward behavior modification occurs when individuals unintentionally reinforce undesirable behavior and ignore or punish desirable behavior. This often happens with parents and families and within individuals. Occasionally I want to shout out things like: “Of course you’re having trouble controlling your anxiety . . . IT’S BECAUSE YOU KEEP REWARDING YOURSELF FOR BEING ANXIOUS!!”

I’m not saying you shouldn’t be broadly existential or compassionately person-centered or dogmatically eclectic. You can be those and more. I’m also not saying everyone should become behavior therapists. That’s a dreadfully depressing idea. Our point: Please, don’t ignore one of the foundational sources of knowledge in the helping professions. We ARE social and behavioral scientists. And although sometimes the science doesn’t fit, if you ignore behavioral principles out of an allegiance to an alternative philosophical perspective, you do so at the expense of your own competence. Even worse, you do so at the expense of your clients’ welfare.

Mary Cover Jones

This is a photo of Mary Cover Jones. She was a behaviorist. She was neither cold nor rigid. Just thought you should know.

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