A Behavioral Approach to Depression

· February 27, 2017

Depression is an illness that affects the mind, but in most cases it develops due to a series of external events and is maintained through certain patterns of behavior that reserve a space for it in the person’s life. Although the cognitive part is important, in this article we’re going to focus on the main types of behavioral therapy and the logic behind how they work.

It can be logical, up to a point, for a depressed person to seek a more “deep and philosophical” explanation for their emotional disarray. Explanations that refer to more intrapsychic and complex causes can be tremendously enticing, just like the sadness that fills every second of their existence.

Highly emotional and literary stories seem to give a more attractive and poetic spin to their suffering, even though they don’t resolve or relieve anything at all. Simpler, more concrete explanations for their pain seem too cold and cutting.

“It is a surprising fact that those who object most violently to the manipulation of behaviour nevertheless make the most vigorous effort to manipulate minds.”

-B. F. Skinner-

This is why psychologists have a professional and academic obligation to introduce people to purely behavioral treatments, even though they won’t be granted many conferences or attract a larger audience a priori.

Because rigor in psychology means therapeutic hope for millions of people, it’s worth knowing how depression can be explained by behaviorism and how to choose a psychologist who specializes in this approach to help people clearly and concisely operationalize the solution to their problems.

Sadness that comes from life experiences

Giving a detailed explanation of the behavioral approach won’t be of any use. However, it is important to provide at least a general idea, sort of like “behaviorism for dummies.” So without further ado, we’ll explain how to understand depression through behaviorism.

woman with head in hands


What is the most characteristic symptom of depression? you might ask. Without a doubt, sadness is the symptom that is most quickly associated with depression. This idea isn’t completely mistaken, but it’s important to explain it more thoroughly. In a broad sense, behaviorism says that sadness is a product of experiences.

Behaviorism doesn’t rule out that there are individual differences when it comes to dealing with hardships, at both the cognitive and biological level, but for the most part, these basic differences also originate from environmental factors. If this were not so, the responsibility for digging deeper into these differences would not fall on a psychologist, but rather another medical professional who explores organic causes.

Even if you don’t know how to recognize it, everything is related

Sometimes it’s almost impossible to believe that the most severe psychological disorders can originate from a vague network of stimuli and associated responses, but that’s how it is. The way someone interprets stimuli is also determined by their reaction to previous similar experiences.

Therefore, a network of catastrophic events with catastrophic interpretations can completely condition a person’s life forever. Behaviorism attempts to identify that network of catastrophic associations to find alternative behaviors that can mitigate the suffering that feeds back into itself.

Let’s look at an example. Imagine that a child wants to eat the entire chocolate cake in front of them. They try to grab it, but their behavior is prevented by the adult in charge of them. Upon the impossibility of obtaining this pleasure, the child might react with a huge tantrum. If the adult responds to their crying by giving them what they want, the idea of having a tantrum will be reinforced.

This is what’s known as the negative reinforcement trap, because the unpleasantness of the tantrum is avoided in the short term, but it gets reinforced, so it’s much more likely to happen again in the future. Proceeding in this way will lead to more difficult behaviors in the future, such as the inability to tolerate frustration, or the immediate search for pleasure with a lack of impulse control.

Classic behavioral theories that explain depression

Keeping the above in mind, let’s look at a few of the most relevant behavioral theories, which don’t even touch on purely cognitive factors, believing that psychology should not address these as a priority.

Skinner said that mood disorders are caused by a reduction in the frequency of behaviors. Here are three of the most representative behavioral theories that elaborate on this idea:

Ferster’s functional analysis of depression

This model proposes that mood disorders can be explained by the reduced frequency of positively reinforced behaviors that serve to control the person’s environment. The origin is not only the absence of reinforcers, but also the presence of avoidant behaviors that maintain a very marked pattern of behavioral inhibition.

hair surrounding face

Costello’s theory

This model explains that instead of lacking reinforcers in the environment, the reinforcements have stopped being effective, whether it’s due to internal changes in the individual or the loss of a reinforcer in a chain of behaviors.

To go back to the previous example, imagine a child who has lost their sense of taste due to some illness, or a child who rejects their food because it wasn’t given to them by their principal caregiver. This reduction in reinforcer effectiveness will lead to a disinterest in their surroundings.

Lewinsohn’s theory

This model states that there is a lack of association between positive reinforcement and behavior. He points out various causes that could explain why positive reinforcers aren’t associated with the proper behaviors.

For example, it could be that the environment does not offer sufficient reinforcement, the person lacks the skills to acquire the necessary reinforcements, or the person has social anxiety, which prevents them from enjoying themselves. This theory also explains how depression is reinforced through social attention on one hand and social avoidance on the other.

New behavioral perspectives on depression: the introduction of cognitive variables

We’ve seen a broad view of the approaches that promote behaviorism as an explanation for depression, but today these theories have been enriched by numerous developments and the addition of more cognitive factors. Included among them are Rehm’s theory of self-control and Lewinsohn’s theory of self-awareness.

Rehm’s self-control theory integrates elements of the theories proposed by Beck, Lewinsohn, and Seligman. It is considered to be a diathesis-stress model of the individual and understands depression as a loss of association between external reinforcers and the control of one’s own behavior.

Lewinsohn’s self-awareness theory emphasizes environmental factors as the cause of depression, but stresses that there’s an increase in the person’s self-awareness of their own inability to cope, which would cause even more distress in their life.

In short, behavioral and cognitive-behavioral models provide such a satisfactory explanation of mood disorders that the challenge for psychology professionals today is getting the information out there with the same fervor as certain other theories with less scientific backing have received.

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