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Mental Health Theories: Behaviorism Versus Cognitivism

Theories that focus on the aspect of mental health are intended to help clients understand their issues and deal with them. Mental health specialists can use one and more theories to guide patients towards recovery. Behaviorism, psychodynamic theory, cognitive theory, and humanistic theory are the most common approaches for understanding the needs of patients and developing a treatment for them. The theories differ in their explanations for human actions and decisions as well as the recommended approaches toward treatment. In this paper, behaviorism will be contrasted to cognitivism.

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Behaviorist theories suggest that people’s life experiences determine human actions. Ivan Pavlov made a significant contribution to the development of the theory by discovering the principle of temporal association as related to conditioning that produces different forms of behaviors. When two events occur regularly and close to each other, they can become fused in the mind of a person, leading to the same response for both events. Pavlov is the most famous for his experiment involving dogs, which found the salivation reflex was involuntary and depended on the outside processes (Rehman, Mahabadi, & Rehman, 2019).

Behaviorism within mental health thus aims to identify the behaviors that cause individuals issues and later tries to replace them with modeling, classical, or operant conditioning. For example, in nursing practice, behaviorism can be used for dealing with phobia in patients, with systematic desensitization being used to help patients respond calmly to specific stimuli that used to cause distress. Patients will confront their fears, starting with the least stressful scenario and ending with the most disturbing.

To contrast against behaviorist theories of mental health, the cognitive theory will be discussed further. It asserts that cognitive processes lie at the center of behaviors, emotions, and thoughts. Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck are responsible for shaping the theory as they emphasized the importance of what people think instead of the actions that they take (Cotton, 2019). The focus on cognition as the vital principle of the theory is therefore used for explaining and resolving abnormal behaviors.

In clinical practice, there is a need to understand the assumptions and attitudes of patients that impact the latter’s perceptions and thoughts. Abnormal functioning is developed when a patient exhibits disturbing or inaccurate assumptions as well as illogical thinking. In nursing practice, cognitive theories can be used for recognizing negative assumptions, biased interpretations, and logical errors that lead to mental health issues.

The two theories, behaviorism and cognitivism, differ in their views on behavior. While behaviorism views the actions of individuals as irreducible consequences of their environment and factors that directly influence them, cognitivism views behavior as a point from which mental processes should be abstracted (Cotton, 2019). In terms of the similarities between the theories, they moth use mechanism as the fundamental assumption.

However, the cognitive theory goes beyond behaviorism because it considers the functioning of the mind and not only behaviors. Besides, the two approaches hold a common contradiction. For example, behaviorism considers the role of stimuli and response metaphor for interpreting behaviors. Cognitivism uses information processing as a method for examining how humans perceive and understand external environments.

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It is also notable that cognitivism goes beyond behavioral theories in the sense that they consider human experiences that cannot be explained by behaviors alone. Overall, both theories have application in nursing practice when helping patients overcome mental health challenges. Based on the approach chosen by practitioners, it is possible to identify the reasons behind one’s mental health disturbance and develop interventions to overcome the issue.


Cotton, B. (2019). Environmental psychology: Principles and practices. Waltham Abbey, UK: ED-Tech Press.

Rehman, I., Mahabadi, N., & Rehman, C. (2019). Classical conditioning. Web.

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