Criticisms of Early Behavior Therapy

Prior to 1970, behavior therapy was strongly criticized by proponents of other therapeutic schools (typically humanistic or psychodynamic) as being mechanistic and authoritarian. It was alleged, for example, that terms such as behavior control carried with them the implicit, and sometimes explicit, message that irrevocable and often involuntary behavioral changes could be induced by the selective application of conditioning techniques. The protestations of behavior therapists notwithstanding, psychosurgery, electroconvulsive therapy, and the enforced ingestion of psychotropic medications were lumped together with mainstream behavior therapy as further examples of this authoritarian approach to behavior change.

The behavior therapy of this era was also accused of attempting to impose therapy goals on unwilling or unaware clients, and of utilizing punishment and other aversion procedures to bring this about. Behavior therapists, it was believed, had the power to impose their wills upon a hapless society through a sinister manipulation of environmental responses to behavior in the form of carefully chosen rewards and punishments.

Finally, early behavior therapy was viewed by its most extreme critics as a nefarious attempt to maintain an unjust status quo, as an imposition of majority demands upon a socially deviant minority (e.g., prisoners, the developmentally disabled, chronic psychiatric patients) helpless to resist the behavioral juggernaut. Behavior therapists were viewed as willing agents of a ruling class unable to tolerate any deviation from the prevailing ethos.

While a small proportion of early behavior-therapy practice did reflect these values to some extent, most behavior therapists eschewed such methods of coercive behavior change, preferring a much more egalitarian approach to therapeutic goal setting and behavior change. Then, as now, most behavior-therapy techniques lacked the potency to bring about involuntary behavior change. Most behavior therapists, then as now, considered it unethical to "enforce" behavior changes against a client's wishes, even when such changes appeared, from the therapist's perspective, to carry with them potential client benefits. Regardless of theoretical basis, the "humanization" of behavior therapy referred to above has resulted in an increasing emphasis on teaching clients "self-control."

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