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Instrumental Behavior

Behavior exhibited by persons in response to certain stimuli.

Instrumental behavior is a concept that grew out of the behavior therapy movement, originating in the 1950s with the work of H.J. Eysenck. Behavior therapy asserts that neuroses are not the symptoms of underlying disorders (as Sigmund Freud theorized), but are in fact disorders in and of themselves. Further, these disorders are learned responses to traumatic experiences in much the same way that animals can be demonstrated to learn a response to instrumental, or operant, conditioning.

In the classic behaviorist experiments of Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner, it was shown that animals could be trained to respond in a learned way to external stimuli. Humans also respond in a similar manner. If, for instance, a child has a difficult, painful relationship with his older brother, who is athletic and popular, he may develop a fear or hatred of all popular, athletic males that will stay with him throughout life—even after the original stimuli for the reaction (his older brother) is absent. This behavior is referred to as instrumental behavior.

In treating a patient to eliminate instrumental behaviors, behavioral therapists rely on several fairly well-tested techniques. Perhaps the most popular is counter-conditioning, a process in which a therapist links the stimuli to a different instrumental behavior, or conditioned response. Other methods include flooding and modeling. In flooding, a therapist will attempt to expose a patient to an overload of the anxiety-producing stimuli in order to lessen its effect. In modeling, the patient is exposed to someone who has successfully dealt with a similar anxiety-producing stimuli.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Ibn Bajjah (Abu-Bakr Muhammad ibn-Yahya ibn-al-Saʼigh, c.1106–38) Biography to Perception: cultural differences