What is Clinical Behaviour Analysis?

Introduction

Clinical behaviour analysis (CBA; a third-generation behaviour therapy) is the clinical application of behaviour analysis (ABA). CBA represents a movement in behaviour therapy away from methodological behaviourism and back toward radical behaviourism and the use of functional analytic models of verbal behaviour – particularly, relational frame theory (RFT).

Current Models

CBA therapies include acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), behavioural medicine (such as behavioural gerontology and paediatric feeding therapy), community reinforcement approach and family training (CRAFT), exposure therapies/desensitisation (such as systematic desensitisation), functional analytic psychotherapy (FAP, such as behavioural activation (BA) and integrative behavioural couples therapy), and voucher-based contingency management.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Acceptance and commitment therapy is probably the most well-researched of all the third-generation behaviour therapy models. Its development co-occurred with that of relational frame theory, with several researchers such as Steven C Hayes being involved with both. ACT has been argued to be based on relational frame theory, although this is a matter of some debate within the community. Originally this approach was referred to as comprehensive distancing. Every practitioner mixes acceptance with a commitment to one’s values. These ingredients become enmeshed into the treatment in different ways which leads to ACT being either more on the mindfulness side or more on the behaviour-changing side. ACT has, as of May 2021, been evaluated in over 600 randomised clinical trials for a variety of client problems. Overall, when compared to other active treatments designed or known to be helpful, the effect size for ACT is a Cohen’s d of around 0.6, which is considered a medium effect size.

Behavioural Activation

Behavioural activation emerged from a component analysis of cognitive behaviour therapy. This research found no additive effect for the cognitive component. Behavioural activation is based on a matching law model of reinforcement. A recent review of the research supports the notion that the use of behavioural activation is clinically important for the treatment of depression.

Community Reinforcement Approach and Family Training

Community reinforcement approach and family training (CRAFT) is a model developed by Robert Meyer and based on the community reinforcement approach (CRA) first developed by Nathan Azrin and Hunt. The model focuses on the use of functional behavioural assessment to reduce drinking behaviour. CRAFT combines CRA with family therapy.

Functional Analytic Psychotherapy

Functional analytic psychotherapy is based on a functional analysis of the therapeutic relationship. It places a greater emphasis on the therapeutic context and returns to the use of in-session reinforcement. The basic FAP analysis utilises what is called the clinically relevant behaviour (CRB1), which is the client’s presenting problem as presented in-session. Client in-session actions that improve their CRB1s are referred to as CRB2s. Client statements, or verbal behaviour, about CRBs are referred to as CRB3s. In general, 40 years of research supports the idea that in-session reinforcement of behaviour can lead to behavioural change.

Integrative Behavioural Couples Therapy

Integrative behavioural couples therapy developed from dissatisfaction with traditional behavioural couples therapy. Integrative behavioural couples therapy looks to Skinner (1966) for the difference between contingency shaped and rule-governed behaviour. It couples this analysis with a thorough functional assessment of the couples relationship. Recent efforts have used radical behavioural concepts to interpret a number of clinical phenomena including forgiveness.

Clinical Formulation

As with all behaviour therapy, clinical behaviour analysis relies on a functional analysis of problem behaviour. Depending on the clinical model this analysis draws on B.F Skinner’s model of Verbal Behaviour or relational frame theory.

Professional Organisations

The Association for Behaviour Analysis International has a special interest group in clinical behaviour analysis ABA:I. ABA:I serves as the core intellectual home for behaviour analysts.

The Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) also has an interest group in behaviour analysis, which focuses on clinical behaviour analysis.

The Association for Contextual Behavioural Science is devoted to third-generation therapies and basic research on derived relational responding and relational frame theory.

What is Behavioural Activation?

Introduction

Behavioural activation (BA) is a third generation behaviour therapy for treating depression.

It is one functional analytic psychotherapy which are based on a Skinnerian psychological model of behaviour change, generally referred to as applied behaviour analysis. This area is also a part of what is called clinical behaviour analysis (CBA) and makes up one of the most effective practices in the professional practice of behaviour analysis. The technique can also be used from a cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) framework.

Overview

The Beck Institute describes BA as “getting clients more active and involved in life by scheduling activities that have the potential to improve their mood.”

Theoretical Underpinnings

Behavioural activation emerged from a component analysis of cognitive behavioural therapy. This analysis found that any cognitive component added little to the overall treatment of depression. The behavioural component had existed as a stand-alone treatment in the early work of Peter Lewinsohn and thus a group of behaviourists decided that it might be more efficient to pursue a purer behavioural treatment for the disorder. The theory holds that not enough environmental reinforcement or too much environmental punishment can contribute to depression. The goal of the intervention is to increase environmental reinforcement and reduce punishment.

The theoretical underpinnings of behavioural activation for depression is Charles Ferster’s functional analysis of depression. Ferster’s basic model has been strengthened by further development in the study of reinforcement principles which led to the matching law and continuing theoretical advances in the possible functions of depression, as well as a look at behaviour analysis of child development in order to determine long-term patterns which may lead to dysthymia.

Methods

One behavioural activation approach to depression was as follows: participants were asked to create a hierarchy of reinforcing activities which were then rank-ordered by difficulty; participants tracked their own goals along with clinicians who used a token economy to reinforce success in moving through the hierarchy of activities; participants were measured before and after by the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and a great effect on their depression was found as a result of their treatment. This was then compared to a control group who did not receive the same treatment. The results of those who received behavioural activation treatment were markedly superior to those of the persons in the control group. Multiple clinics have since piloted and developed the treatment.

Another behavioural activation approach utilised a different methodology: clients are asked to develop an understanding of the relationship between actions and emotions, with actions being seen as the cause of emotions. An hourly self-monitoring chart is created to track activities and the impact on the mood they create for a full week. A rating scale from 1 to 10 is used for each mood change per hour. The goal is to identify depression loops. A depression loop is when a temporary coping method reduces the overall depression, such as the temporary relief provided by alcohol or other drugs, escape or avoidance or rumination. When patterns of dysfunctional responding, or loops, are identified alternative coping responses are attempted to break the loop. This method is described with the acronym “TRAP” (Trigger, Response, Avoidance Pattern) which is to be replaced with a “TRAC” (Trigger, Response, Alternate Coping response). Particular attention is given to rumination, which is provided with its own acronym RCA (Rumination Cues Action). Rumination is identified as a particularly common avoidance behaviour which worsens mood. The client is to evaluate the rumination in terms of it having improved the thing being ruminated about, providing understanding, and its emotional effects on the client. Attending to experience is suggested as an alternative to rumination as well as other possible distracting or mood improving actions.

The general program is described with the acronym ACTION (Assess behaviour/mood, Choose alternate responses, Try out those alternate responses, Integrate these alternatives, Observe results and (Now) evaluate). The goal being the understanding of the relationship between actions and emotional consequences and a systematic replacement of dysfunctional patterns with adaptive ones. Additionally, focus is given to quality sleep, and improving social functioning.

Research Support

Depression

Reviews of behavioural activation studies for depression found that it has a robust effect and that policy makers should consider it an effective treatment. A large-scale treatment study found behavioural activation to be more effective than cognitive therapy and on par with medication for treating depression. A meta-analysis study comprising 34 Randomised Control Trials found that while Behavioural Activation treatment of adults with depression showed significantly greater beneficial effect compared with control participants, compared to participants treated with CT/CBT, at post treatment there were no statistically significant differences between treatment groups. A 2009 meta-analysis showed a medium post-treatment effect size compared to psychotherapy and other treatments.

Anxiety

A 2006 study of behavioural activation being applied to anxiety appeared to give promising results. One study found it to be effective with fibromyalgia-related pain anxiety.

In the Context of Third Generation Behaviour Therapies

Behavioural activation comes under the heading clinical behaviour analysis or what is often termed third generation behaviour therapy. Other behaviour therapies are acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), as well as dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) and functional analytic psychotherapy (FAP). Behavioural activation owes its basis to Charles Ferster’s Functional Analysis of Depression (1973) which developed B.F. Skinner’s idea of depression, within his analysis of motivation, as a lack of reinforcement.

Professional Organisations

The Association for Behaviour Analysis International has a special interest group for practitioner issues, behavioural counselling, and clinical behaviour analysis. The association has larger special interest groups for behavioural medicine. It also serves as the core intellectual home for behaviour analysts.

The Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) also has an interest group in behaviour analysis, which focuses on clinical behaviour analysis.

Doctoral level behaviour analysts who are psychologists belong to the American Psychological Association’s division 25 -Behaviour analysis. APA offers a diplomate in behavioural psychology.

BA in Virtual Reality

Due to a lack of access to trained providers, physical constraints or financial reasons, many patients are not able to attend BA therapy. Researchers are trying to overcome these challenges by providing BA via Virtual Reality. The idea of the concept is to enable especially elderly adults to participate in engaging activities that they would not attend it without VR. Possibly, the so-called “BA-inspired VR protocols” will mitigate the lower mood, life satisfaction, and likelihood of depressions.

What is Experiential Avoidance?

Introduction

Experiential avoidance (EA) has been broadly defined as attempts to avoid thoughts, feelings, memories, physical sensations, and other internal experiences – even when doing so creates harm in the long-run.

The process of EA is thought to be maintained through negative reinforcement – that is, short-term relief of discomfort is achieved through avoidance, thereby increasing the likelihood that the behaviour will persist. Importantly, the current conceptualisation of EA suggests that it is not negative thoughts, emotions, and sensations that are problematic, but how one responds to them that can cause difficulties. In particular, a habitual and persistent unwillingness to experience uncomfortable thoughts and feelings (and the associated avoidance and inhibition of these experiences) is thought to be linked to a wide range of problems.

Background

EA has been popularised by recent third-wave cognitive-behavioural theories such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). However, the general concept has roots in many other theories of psychopathology and intervention.

Psychodynamic

Defence mechanisms were originally conceptualised as ways to avoid unpleasant affect and discomfort that resulted from conflicting motivations. These processes were thought to contribute to the expression of various types of psychopathology. Gradual removal of these defensive processes are thought to be a key aspect of treatment and eventually return to psychological health.

Process-Experiential

Process-experiential therapy merges client-centred, existential, and Gestalt approaches. Gestalt theory outlines the benefits of being fully aware of and open to one’s entire experience. One job of the psychotherapist is to:

“explore and become fully aware of [the patient’s] grounds for avoidance” and to “[lead] the patient back to that which he wishes to avoid”.

Similar ideas are expressed by early humanistic theory:

“Whether the stimulus was the impact of a configuration of form, color, or sound in the environment on the sensory nerves, or a memory trace from the past, or a visceral sensation of fear or pleasure or disgust, the person would be ‘living’ it, would have it completely available to awareness…he is more open to his feelings of fear and discouragement and pain…he is more able fully to live the experiences of his organism rather than shutting them out of awareness.”

Behavioural

Traditional behaviour therapy utilises exposure to habituate the patient to various types of fears and anxieties, eventually resulting in a marked reduction in psychopathology. In this way, exposure can be thought of as “counter-acting” avoidance, in that it involves individuals repeatedly encountering and remaining in contact with that which causes distress and discomfort.

Cognitive

In cognitive theory, avoidance interferes with reappraisals of negative thought patterns and schema, thereby perpetuating distorted beliefs. These distorted beliefs are thought to contribute and maintain many types of psychopathology.

Third-Wave Cognitive-Behavioural

The concept of EA is explicitly described and targeted in more recent CBT modalities including acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), functional analytic psychotherapy (FAP), and behavioural activation (BA).

Associated Problems

  • Distress is an inextricable part of life; therefore, avoidance is often only a temporary solution.
  • Avoidance reinforces the notion that discomfort, distress and anxiety are bad, or dangerous.
  • Sustaining avoidance often requires effort and energy.
  • Avoidance limits one’s focus at the expense of fully experiencing what is going on in the present.
  • Avoidance may get in the way of other important, valued aspects of life.

Empirical Evidence

  • Laboratory-based thought suppression studies suggest avoidance is paradoxical, in that concerted attempts at suppression of a particular thought often leads to an increase of that thought.
  • Studies examining emotional suppression and pain suppression suggest that avoidance is ineffective in the long-run. Conversely, expressing unpleasant emotion results in short-term increases in arousal, but long-term decreases in arousal.
  • Exposure-based therapy techniques have been shown to be effective in treating a wide range of psychiatric disorders.
  • Numerous self-report studies have linked EA and related constructs (avoidance coping, thought suppression) to psychopathology and other forms of dysfunction.

Relevance to Psychopathology

Seemingly disparate forms of pathological behaviour can be understood by their common function (i.e., attempts to avoid distress). Some examples can be seen in the Table below.

DiagnosisExample BehavioursTarget of Avoidance
Major Depressive DisorderIsolation/suicideFeelings of sadness, guilt, and/or low self-worth.
PTSDAvoiding trauma reminders, hypervigilanceMemories, anxiety, concerns of safety.
Social PhobiaAvoiding social situationsAnxiety, concerns of judgement from others.
Panic DisorderAvoiding situations that might induce panicFear, physiological sensations.
AgoraphobiaRestricting travel outside of home or other ‘safe areas’Anxiety, fear of having symptoms of panic.
Obsessive-Compulsive DisorderChecking/ritualsWorry of consequences (e.g. contamination).
Substance Use DisordersAbusing alcohol/drugsEmotions, memories, withdrawal symptoms
Eating DisordersRestricting food intake, purgingWorry about becoming ‘overweight’, fear of losing control.
Borderline Personality DisorderSelf-harm (e.g. cutting)High emotional arousal.

Relevance to Quality of Life

Perhaps the most significant impact of EA is its potential to disrupt and interfere with important, valued aspects of an individual’s life. That is, EA is seen as particularly problematic when it occurs at the expense of a person’s deeply held values. Some examples include:

  • Putting off an important task because of the discomfort it evokes.
  • Not taking advantage of an important opportunity due to attempts to avoid worries of failure or disappointment.
  • Not engaging in physical activity/exercise, meaningful hobbies, or other recreational activities due to the effort they demand.
  • Avoiding social gatherings or interactions with others because of the anxiety and negative thoughts they evoke.
  • Not being a full participant in social gatherings due to attempts to regulate anxiety relating to how others are perceiving you.
  • Being unable to fully engage in meaningful conversations with others because one is scanning for signs of danger in the environment (attempting to avoid feeling “unsafe”).
  • Inability to “connect” and sustain a close relationship because of attempts to avoid feelings of vulnerability.
  • Staying in a “bad” relationship to try to avoid discomfort, guilt, and potential feelings of loneliness a break-up might entail.
  • Losing a marriage or contact with children due to an unwillingness to experience uncomfortable feelings (e.g. achieved through drug or alcohol abuse) or symptoms of withdrawal.
  • Not attending an important graduation, wedding, funeral, or other family event to try to avoid anxiety or symptoms of panic.
  • Engaging in self-destructive behaviours in an attempt to avoid feelings of boredom, emptiness, worthlessness.
  • Not functioning or taking care of basic responsibilities (e.g. personal hygiene, waking up, showing up to work, shopping for food) because of the effort they demand and/or distress they evoke.
  • Spending so much time attempting to avoid discomfort that one has little time for anyone or anything else in life.

Measurement

Self-Report

The Acceptance and Action Questionnaire (AAQ) was the first self-report measure explicitly designed to measure EA, but has since been re-conceptualised as a measure of “psychological flexibility”. The 62-item Multidimensional Experiential Avoidance Questionnaire (MEAQ) was developed to measure different aspects of EA. The Brief Experiential Avoidance Questionnaire (BEAQ) is a 15-item measure developed using MEAQ items, which has become the most widely used measure of experiential avoidance.

What is Functional Analytic Psychotherapy?

Introduction

Functional analytic psychotherapy (FAP) is a psychotherapeutic approach based on clinical behaviour analysis (CBA) that focuses on the therapeutic relationship as a means to maximise client change. Specifically, FAP suggests that in-session contingent responding to client target behaviours leads to significant therapeutic improvements.

FAP was first conceptualised in the 1980s by psychologists Robert Kohlenberg and Mavis Tsai who, after noticing a clinically significant association between client outcomes and the quality of the therapeutic relationship, set out to develop a theoretical and psychodynamic model of behavioural psychotherapy based on these concepts. Behavioural principles (e.g. reinforcement, generalisation) form the basis of FAP (See The five rules below).

FAP is an idiographic (as opposed to nomothetic) approach to psychotherapy. This means that FAP therapists focus on the function of a client’s behaviour instead of the form. The aim is to change a broad class of behaviours that might look different on the surface but all serve the same function. It is idiographic in that the client and therapist work together to form a unique clinical formulation of the client’s therapeutic goals, rather than one therapeutic target for every client who enters therapy.

The Basics

FAP posits that client behaviours that occur in their out-of-session interpersonal relationships (i.e. in the “real world”) will, if clients are given a therapeutic relationship of sufficiently high quality, occur in the therapy session as well. Based on these in-session behaviours, FAP therapists, in collaboration with their client, develop a case formulation that includes classes of behaviours (based on their function not their form) that the client wishes to increase and decrease.

In-session occurrence of a client’s problematic behaviour is called clinically relevant behaviour 1 (CRB1). In-session occurrence of improvements is called clinically relevant behaviour 2 (CRB2). The goal of FAP therapy is to decrease the frequency of CRB1s and increase the frequency of CRB2s.

The FAP therapist evokes (i.e. sets the context for) CRB1s and in response gradually shapes CRB2s.

The five Rules

“The five rules” operationalise the FAP therapist’s behaviour with respect to this goal. It is important to note that the five rules are not rules in the traditional sense of the word, but instead a set of guidelines for the FAP therapist.

  • Rule 1 – Watch for CRBs:
    • Therapists focus their attention on the occurrence of CRBs that are in-session problems (CRB1s) and improvements (CRB2s).
  • Rule 2 – Evoke CRBs:
    • Therapists set a context which evoke the client’s CRBs.
  • Rule 3 – Reinforce CRB2s naturally:
    • Therapists reinforce the occurrence of CRB2s (in-session improvements), increasing the probability that these behaviours will occur more frequently.
  • Rule 4 – Observe therapist impact in relation to client CRBs:
    • Therapists assess the degree to which they actually reinforced behavioural improvements by noting the client’s behaviour subsequent behaviour after Rule 3.
    • This is similar to the behaviour analytic concept of performing a functional analysis.
  • Rule 5 – Provide functional interpretations and generalise:
    • Therapists work with the client to generalise in-session behavioural improvements to the client’s out-of-session relationships.
    • This can include, but is not limited to, providing homework assignments.

The ACL Model

Researchers at the Centre for the Science of Social Connection at the University of Washington are developing a model of social connection that they believe is relevant to FAP. This model – called the ACL model – delineates behaviours relevant to social connection based on decades of scientific research.

  • Awareness (A):
    • Behaviours include paying attention to your own and the other’s needs and values within an interpersonal relationship.
  • Courage (C):
    • Behaviours include experiencing emotion in the presence of another person, asking for what you need, and sharing deep, vulnerable experiences with another person in the service of improving the relationship.
  • Love (L):
    • Behaviours involve responding to another’s courage behaviours with attunement to what that person needs in the moment. These include providing safety and acceptance in response to a client’s vulnerability.

FAP has the potential to target awareness, courage, and love behaviours as they occur in session as described by the five rules above. More research is needed to confirm the utility of the ACL model.

Research Support

Radical behaviourism and the field of clinical behaviour analysis have strong scientific support. Additionally, researchers have conducted a number of case studies, component process analyses, a study with non-randomised design on FAP-enhanced cognitive therapy for depression, and a randomised controlled trial on FAP-enhanced acceptance and commitment therapy for smoking cessation.

Third Generation behaviour Therapy

FAP belongs to a group of therapies referred to as third-generation behaviour therapies (or third-wave behaviour therapies) that includes dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), behavioural activation (BA), and integrative behavioural couples therapy (IBCT).

Criticism

FAP has been criticised for “being ahead of the data”, i.e. having not enough empirical support to justify its widespread use. Challenges encountered by FAP researchers are widely discussed There is also criticism of using the ACL model as it detracts from the idiographic nature of FAP.