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Difference between Behaviorism and Cognitive psychology

Behaviorism vs Cognitive psychology

Behaviorism is a branch of psychology that deals with actions of people based on external environmental influences, whereas cognitive psychology is based on the mental thought process that alters a person’s behavior. Both behaviorism and cognitive psychology are two different schools of thought of the field of psychology. They both deal with human behavior. The difference lies in what they think is the cause behind the behavior.

Behaviorists, that is psychologists belonging to the school of behaviorism, believe that actions are influenced by one’s external environment. Ivan Pavlov added the two methods of conditioning behavior: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. In classical conditioning, a person/animal can be trained or conditioned to act in a particular manner by repetitive practice, that is conditioning. Operant conditioning is partly based on rewarding desirable behaviors and partly on punishment for behavior which needs to be curbed. Cognitive psychology, on the other hand, says actions are based on the mental processes of reasoning, logical thinking, memory, motivational thoughts, positive and negative thoughts, etc. It is a very important aspect of psychology as it differentiates humans from animals. This branch of psychology is based on intellectual and logical reasoning which only humans are capable of.

Let us take an example of a student trying to learn to understand the difference in approach of these two schools of thought. According to behaviorism, the student learns mainly due to the rewards that he gets on learning properly and the punishment he gets if learning is not up to the mark. According to cognitive psychology, students learn due to their motivational thoughts and inner (mental) thought process, which provokes them to study to gain more knowledge.

Both the branches have made tremendous contributions to the field of applied psychology. Behaviorism is useful in detoxification and rehabilitation centers for alcohol and drug addiction. In cases of de-sensitization to stimuli that provoke panic attacks, it has been found to be very helpful. Cognitive psychology is used to treat depression, suicidal tendencies, generalized anxiety disorder and other psychiatric disorders.

For example, if a person with depression gets rejected in an interview, his line of thought will be that he is useless and that he cannot do anything in life, and that he is a failure in all aspects, etc. A normal person with a positive attitude in life will think that the interviewer didn’t pay much attention to his answers or maybe they found someone better than him to appoint, etc. A cognitive psychology therapist will help the depressed person to identify the problem in the situation, logically channelize the train of thoughts to goals which are achievable and improve the thinking so as to have a positive outlook on life. He will counsel the patient, mainly to develop a clearer thought process and break the chain of negative thoughts. In cases of suicidal patients, therapists help to change the attitude of the patient, make them appreciate the good things in life and try to return to a normal life. Rather than prescribing anti-depressants, cognitive psychology aims at understanding the problem and correcting it. It doesn’t provide merely symptomatic relief as is done by psychiatrists.
Summary: Though behaviorism and cognitive psychology are very different, both are needed by therapists and both are important in their own way depending on the patient and the situation. While behaviorism rests on the principle that external environment and circumstances can alter a person’s behavior, cognitive psychology holds that a person’s attitude, logic, reasoning and thinking change the behavior.


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