Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Where Psychoanalysis and Behavior Analysis Overlap

Looking at what two opposite sides of clinical psychology have in common.

Throughout the past several decades, psychoanalysis and behavior analysis have been presented as the two opposite sides of clinical psychology. Psychoanalysis focuses on unseen forces and behavior analysis focuses exclusively on what can be seen. One emphasizes the emotional part of human nature and the other emphasizes the behavioral. Taken together, the two views represent the vast majority of psychologists but they are rarely seen as having much overlap.

It is interesting to note how much these two views differ when considering they both have their start in comparative psychology. Psychoanalysis started with Sigmund Freud and his work contained a lot of reference to Darwin and his contemporaries. Some of Freud’s most prominent theories, including the Oedipal Complex theory, were based on what researchers were saying at the time about the nature of animal social behavior. It ended up that a good deal of what Freud took from animal psychologists at the time was wrong, but this does not change the fact that he was basing a good deal of his work on this research.

Behavior analysis had its start in the work of B.F. Skinner and Skinner was largely an animal psychologist. His work emphasized studies of pigeons and rats as ways of understanding the basic constructs underlying behavior. What is particularly fascinating about Skinner was that he was looking to understand “behavior,” regardless of species. Skinner was trying to understand the factors contributing to behaviors and wanted to find the constructs governing behaviors across all animals. This included, but was no limited to, human-animal behavior.

Comparative psychology continued to be a major part of both psychoanalysis and behavior analysis throughout their histories. Attachment theory is one major area of psychology that started with animal studies and now contributes a great deal to modern psychoanalytic theory and practice. Some of the research contributing to the start of attachment theory has been strongly criticized, as it involved studying things like removing young nonhuman animals from their parents, but it did lead to theories that still impact psychoanalytic thought today. On the other side, behavior therapy and behavior analysis continue to gain a great deal from nonhuman animal behavior research published in journals like the Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behavior.

When looking at shared histories of psychoanalysis and behavior analysis, it is noteworthy that the concept of purpose of behavior is emphasized by both. Material from both perspectives looks to find what purpose each behavior serves and what goals humans are reaching with behaviors. Whether it is resolving some sort of internal conflict or obtaining a desired external outcome, every behavior humans exhibit has a purpose. These goals of behaviors are also known as functions and the idea that every behavior has some sort of function associated with it is an idea arising out of comparative psychology. It is not that every function is going to be healthy, effective, or even positive. Every behavior, including internal behaviors like thoughts, has a purpose or function to it, and identifying that purpose or function helps individuals search for more effective and healthier ways of reaching those same outcomes.

One particularly useful therapy approach that focuses on helping individuals find the functions of behaviors, and look for healthier ways of meeting those goals, is called Functional Analytic Psychotherapy. It is an interesting approach to therapy because it is often presented as a combination of psychoanalysis and behavior analysis. Therapy sessions are the opportunity for individuals to follow some of their same behavior patterns, primarily in their relationship and interactions with the therapist, and then use the therapeutic relationship to see whether those patterns are or are not effective. When the ineffectiveness, or outright unhealthy, aspects of behavioral and relationship patterns are made clear then the therapist and patient can go about seeking better alternatives. This is the sort of therapy approach that takes the best that different schools of therapy share and looks for ways to build on their shared histories.

More from Daniel Marston Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today