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Behavioral activation is a third generation behavior therapy for treating depression. It is one of many functional analytic psychotherapies which are based on a Skinnerian psychological model of behavior change, generally referred to as applied behavior analysis. This area is also a part of what is called clinical behavior analysis (CBA) and makes up one of the most effective practices in the professional practice of behavior analysis.

Theoretical underpinnings

Behavioral activation emerged from a component analysis of cognitive behavioral therapy. This analysis found that the cognitive component added little to the overall treatment of depression.[1]. The behavioral component had existed as a stand-alone treatment in the early work of Peter Lewisohn[2] and thus a group of behaviorists decided that it might be more efficient to pursue a purer behavioral 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 behavioral activation[3][4] for depression is Charles Ferster's functional analysis of depression.[5][6] 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,[7] as well as a look at behavior analysis of child development in order to determine long-term patterns which may lead to dysthymia. These appraoches may be seen as developing B.F. Skinner's idea of depression, within his analysis of motivation, as a lack of reinforcement.


The behavioral activation (BA) approach to depression was as follows:[8] 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 behavioral activation treatment were markedly superior to those of the persons in the control group. Multiple clinics have since piloted [9] and developed the treatment [10]

Research support

A recent review of behavioral activation studies for depression found that it has a robust effect and that policy makers should consider it an effective treatment.[10] A large-scale treatment study found behavioral activation to be more effective than cognitive therapy and on a par with medication for treating depression.[11]

Recently, behavioral activation has been applied to anxiety and appears to give promising results.[12] One study found it to be effective with Fibromyalgia-related pain anxiety.[13].

Future direction

Several proponents of behavior therapy believe that behavioral activation will have much to offer other areas such as post-traumatic stress disorder.[14]

See also

  • Third generation generation behavior therapies


  1. Jacobson, N. S., Dobson, K. S., Truax, P. A., Addis, M. E., Koerner, K., Gollan, J. K., Gortner, E., & Prince, S. E. (1996). A component analysis of cognitive-behavioral treatment for depression.. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 64 (2): 295–304.
  2. Lewinsohn, P. M. (1975). The behavioral study and treatment of depression. In M. Hersen, R. M., Eisler, & P. M. Miller (Eds.), Progress in behavioral modification (Vol. 1, pp. 19-65).New York: Academic.
  3. Jacobson, N. S., Martell, C. R., & Dimidjian, S. (2001). Behavioral Activation for depression:Returning to contextual roots. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 8, 255-270
  4. Martell, C. R., Addis, M. E., & Jacobson, N. S. (2001). Depression in context: Strategies for guided action. New York: W. W. Norton.
  5. Ferster, C. B. (1973). A functional analysis of depression. American Psychologist 28 (10): 857–870.
  6. Kanter, J. W. Callaghan, G. M., Landes, S. J., Busch, A. M., & Brown, K. R. (2004). Behavior analytic conceptualization and treatment of depression: Traditional models and recent advances. The Behavior Analyst Today, 5, 255-274.
  7. Kanter, J.W., Cautilli, J.D., Busch, A.M. and Baruch, D.E. (2005). Toward a Comprehensive Functional Analysis of Depressive Behavior: Five Environmental Factors and a Possible Sixth and Seventh. The Behavior Analyst Today, 6(1), 65- 81. [1]
  8. Hopko, D. R., Lejuez, C. W., Lepage, J. P., Hopko, S. D., & McNeil, D. W. (2004). A Brief Behavioral Activation Treatment for Depression. Behavior Modification 27: 458–469.
  9. Cullen, J.M., Spates, C.R., Pagoto, S. and Doran, N. (2006). Behavioral Activation Treatment for Major Depressive Disorder: A Pilot Investigation - The Behavior Analyst Today, 7.(1), 151-165.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Spates, C. R., Pagoto, S. and Kalata, A. (2006). A Qualitative And Quantitative Review of Behavioral Activation Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder. The Behavior Analyst Today, 7(4), 508-518
  11. Dimidjian, S., et al. (2006). Randomized Trial of Behavioral Activation, Cognitive Therapy, and Antidepressant Medication in the Acute Treatment of Adults With Major Depression. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 74 (4): 658–670.
  12. Hopko, D.R., Robertson, S.M.C. & Lejuez, C.W. (2006). Behavioral Activation for Anxiety Disorders. The Behavior Analyst Today, 7.(2), 212-224 BAO
  13. Lundervold, D.A, Talley, C. & Buermann, M. (2006). Effect of Behavioral Activation Treatment on Fibromyalgia-Related Pain Anxiety and Cognition. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy 2(1): 73–78.
  14. Mulick, P.S., Landes, S.J. and Kanter, J.W. (2005). Contextual Behavior Therapies in the Treatment of PTSD: A Review - IJBCT, 1.(3), 223-229 [2]

Further reading


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