According to the bible of Behavioural Experiments, the Oxford Guide to Behavioural Experiments in Cognitive Therapy,
"Behavioural experiments are amongst the most powerful methods for bringing change in cognitive therapy".
In this article I will
- Answer the question "What is a behavioural experiment?"
- Explain why and when to use behavioural experiments
- Give an example of a good behavioural experiment
- Advise on some Dos and Don'ts for setting up effective behavioural experiments
- Provide further resources on behavioural experiments in CBT, including handouts and record sheets.
What is a Behavioural Experiment?
Behavioural Experiments are planned activities , based on experimentation or observation, undertaken by clients in session or between sessions. They test existing beliefs and/or help test more adaptive beliefs. Their design is derived from the formulation.
Put most simply
A behavioural experiment is when the client gets to test something out.
When I give a presentation it is obvious I am very nervous and everybody thinks I am a terrible presenter
Julie believes this is true with a certainty of 90%.A thought record gives her the alternative perspective that this may be mind-reading and extreme thinking.
She constructs an alternative belief
Although I am very nervous it may be that not everyone notices this and maybe some people think this I am an OK presenter
After consideration she says she believes this 25% and the original belief goes down to 75%. As a result her anxiety is somewhat reduced.Whilst this represents some progress, notice that Julie still doesn't really believe the second belief very strongly.
Julie needs to test out which belief is true - she needs to do a behavioural experiment.
Her therapist and her design the following behavioural experiment. Julie will design a survey to give to colleagues after she does her next presentation. The survey asks for two questions to be answered honestly
1. On a scale of 0-10 (10 very nervous) how nervous do I look when presenting?
2. On a scale of 0-10 (10 very good) how good am I at presenting?
Julie predicts she will score 9 out of 10 for nervousness and 2 out of 10 for being good at presenting.
She is amazed when she gets the feedback forms back from her survey and discovers she scores 4 out of 10 for nervousness and 6 out of 10 for being good at presenting. Notice that her colleagues don't say that she is completely nerveless or that she is a fantastic presenter - but they say enough to disprove her extreme thinking.
When asked to re-rate her original beliefs she now says rerates the positive belief at 75% and the more negative belief only 25%
As if often the case, a behavioural experiment has made a much greater impact that thethought record.
More good free resources on Behavioural Experiments in Cognitive Therapy
Introductory chapter (Historical and conceptual underpinnings) from Bennett-Levy, Butler, Fennell, Hackmann, Mueller & Westbrook Oxford Guide to Behavioural Experiments in Cognitive Therapy
Chapter on Behavioural Experiments for Depression by Fennell, Bennett-Levy & Westbrook from their book Oxford Guide to Behavioural Experiments in Cognitive Therapy (Chapter 10)
Good handout on behavioural experiments to give to clients
Good powerpoint presentation on Behavioural Experiments
Behavioural Experiment Worksheet
Another behavioural experiment worksheet from Good Medicine (recommended site)
Good Behavioural Experiments FAQ
Video demonstration of setting up a behavioural experiment
Manual including behavioural experiments for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and ME
Systematic review suggesting some evidence that behavioural experiments may be more effective than exposure alone