How is Behavior Therapy Different Than Psychoanalysis?

It can be hard to decide which therapy is best as different approaches use different techniques and have their own pros and cons.

The article discusses the differences between two popular forms of therapy – behavioral therapy and psychoanalysis. 

Behavior therapy – how does it work?

Behavioral therapy has an action-oriented approach to mental health based on the premise that behaviors develop from things learnt in the past. Learned negative behavioral patterns result in distress. 

Thus, because behavior is learnt, it is possible to learn new, preferred behaviors and reduce or eliminate unwanted and harmful behaviors. Behavioral therapy can be used to help people who struggle with:

  • Anxiety
  • Phobias
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Substance use disorder
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Behavioral issues due to communication difficulties
  • Behavioral issues due to emotional challenges
  • Defiant behaviors
behavior therapy
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

Psychoanalysis – How does it work?

Psychoanalysis aims to bring unconscious thoughts, desires, feelings and memories into consciousness as psychological issues are seen to be rooted in these latent disturbances. 

Unresolved issues during development and childhood as well as repressed trauma are seen as contributors to mental health issues. Thus, making the unconscious conscious and gaining insight into it enables people to deal with it and help them solve their problems. 

Psychoanalysis can be used to help people who struggle with:

  • Anxiety
  • Phobias
  • Panic attacks
  • Depression
  • Hypersensitivity
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Workaholism

How is behavior therapy different from psychoanalysis?

Both behavior therapy and psychoanalysis aim to reduce psychological symptoms, improve mental health and the patient’s quality of life. 

Success depends on several factors including type of condition, methods and the client-therapist relationship. 

However, there are some major differences between these two forms of therapy. 

Belief system

Behaviorists believe that harmful and unwanted behaviors are learnt. As such, it is possible for new learning to bring behavioral change. The main goal of behavioral therapy is to reinforce positive behaviors and eliminate negative ones.  A person’s past experiences are not the focus of behavior therapy. 

Psychoanalysis believe that repressed emotions in the unconscious mind is responsible for the mental health issues people face. Thus, for effective, long-term changes to occur, we need to delve into the unconscious mind to bring it to light.  

Time frame

Time frame for behavioral therapy and psychoanalysis differ greatly. Individuals who are being treated with psychoanalysis usually have two or more sessions a week. This can be for several years. 

Behavior therapies are shorter in duration. In fact, some cognitive behavioral therapy courses are completed in five sessions. Note that the duration of both therapies also depend on how the patient responds. 


The behaviorist and psychoanalyst’s approach to therapy differ greatly. Behavioral therapy is highly focused and action based, often with specific measurable goals set during therapy. The therapist helps the client to achieve behavioral change by reinforcing positive or preferred behaviors. 

In psychoanalysis, sessions are largely patient-led. In fact, the analyst may speak very little in some sessions. The patient’s train of thought is central with the goal of releasing pain associated with thoughts, memories and feelings. 

Strategies and techniques

Behavioral therapy techniques are based on the principles of classical conditioning and operant conditioning. These include:

  • Classical conditioning
    • Systematic desensitization
    • Aversion therapy
    • Flooding
  • Operant conditioning
    • Contingency management
    • Token economies
    • Extinction
    • Behavior modeling

Psychoanalytic therapy strategies include:

  • Free association
  • Dream interpretation
  • Inkblot test
  • Transference analysis
inkblot test
Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

How to choose between behavior therapy and psychoanalysis? 

The success of a therapy depends on several factors, including the client’s needs, the condition that is being treated as well as the client-therapist relationship. 

Thus, you should choose a therapy and a therapist that you feel comfortable with. Understanding the difference between these two therapies as well as what each one offers will also help you to determine which is more suitable for you. 

The therapy you choose should suit your needs and be able to help you achieve your goals to improve your quality of life. 

Many therapists train in more than one school of thought, and as such, will be able to tailor treatments to suit your needs. 

These therapists are known as ‘integrative therapists’. They can start with behavioral techniques to help provide symptom relief and move on to more psychoanalytic work with the client’s past experiences later on in the journey. 


Both behavioral therapy and psychoanalysis have their own strengths and weaknesses. 

While they both aim to help people overcome mental health issues, the success and effectiveness depends on several factors including the condition that is being treated. 

If you’re deciding between these two approaches, do check with your mental health practitioner for more information. 

If you’re a therapist, A Space Between offers therapy rooms that are suitable for both individual and group therapies. 

The article is a part of our comprehensive series on “Behavioural therapy

Where private practice meets
A Space Between provides flexible co-working office spaces for rent to therapists and other professionals in Singapore.
A Space Between is a destination for mental health therapy activities. Counsellors utilise our many conducive therapy rooms for consultations. Located conveniently downtown and offering your independent therapists rent by the hour, we house many professional mental health practitioners, including LGBTQ+ friendly ones. To find out more about the therapists practising in A Space Between, write to us at [email protected].
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