Dr. David Barlow and the Dawn of Behavioral Psychology


Dr. David Barlow is a transformative figure in clinical Psychology and has been so during years for which that sub-discipline has undergone  some rather tremendous change. But we’ll get to that momentarily.

Dr. Barlow introduces himself  in this first excerpt from our conversation:

Like many I’ve spoken with this journey (e.g., Drs. Sidanius, Grotevant, Kramer), Dr. Barlow is a first generation college student. He grew up with the care of his mother and grandparents in Needham, MA, after his father died on an Air Force mission in WWII. As it happens, Needham is home to St. Sebastian’s school for boys and that seems to  have helped steer David first to college and later in his interests for Psychology.  St. Sebastian’s is a classic Latin school — consequently there was a heavy emphasis on the classics. David learned Latin, some Greek,  and he spent a good deal of time developing his interests and abilities with the humanities. St. Sebastian’s also prides itself  for effective college prep.

Those qualities of St. Sebastian’s and their influence on young David are well represented in this next audio clip in which he describes his decision for college, and why he attended Notre Dame.

So how did he get into Psychology as a topic? Notre Dame,  like St. Sebastian’s, is a catholic school. In those days,  Psychology was somewhat outside the scope of the emphasized topics for a curriculum shaped by the papacy. Consequently, Notre Dame did not yet have a Psychology major for David to partake and the topic was partially covered through courses in Philosophy and Sociology.

Here Dr. Barlow discusses his path into Psychology:

Again, for Dr.  Barlow, the humanities and literature led into an interest in character. Then character led  to an interest in  Psychology.

All of that rather sets up the story for Dr. Barlow’s career. So reflect with me for a moment about this time. David is finishing up his degree in Literature and Sociology but he wants to become a Psychologist.  To go to graduate school in Psychology he needed a Psychological course, at least 6 credits, and to complete a lab. So what did he do?

Well,  he did what a lot of people did — he enrolled in an intensive summer course seeking to quickly complete those credits and gain that experience. That course was with an important Psychologist, Dr. Joseph Cautella. The relationship with Dr. Cautella led directly to a summer opportunity while young Davidwas earning his master’s degree to work with Dr. Joseph Wolpe — one of the founding/originating Psychologists who forged  the behavioral  approach to clinical Psychology.


Wolpe is a fairly amazing figure. His work on systematic desensitization was seminal in orienting Psychology to behavioral approaches of therapy, and moving away from the Freudian and Psychoanalytic approaches. Think about how radical this shift was. Freud/Psychoanalysis was a long-term talk therapy approach designed to probe the unconscious recesses of your mind, to release urges you couldn’t admit (even to yourself) via projective tests and soul searching conversations.  During the 1930’s – 1970’s the  therapist’s office with the couch, and long conversations about your  mother (and similarly powerful figures) were dominant  in our understanding of effective therapy. Here comes Wolpe who says to ignore all of that stuff. Instead, we should  draw on the wildy popular behaviorist movement in experimental Psychology, focus on the observable, and try to address Psychological issues with changes in behaviors. Changes in heart rate. Changes in reaction. It was radical and it was derided. It also introduced ideas that were effective in therapy, despite all the controversy they initially caused.

But here is young David. As described in previous audio excerpt, David is not particularly impressed with the Psychoanalytic study of fictional characters. He wants more  evidence, more substance. David works with Dr. Cautella, Cautella knew and had worked with Dr. Wolpe. Cautella sends David to work with Wolpe.

In the clip below, Dr. Barlow expounds on this. The audio excerpt is a few minutes long to allow him to connect the dots between himself, Wolpe, and the changing face of Psychology in the time between that first summer course to more recent times.

From the early days of the field during which Psychoanalysts questioned the ethics of a behavioral approach, to today where the majority of Psychological training programs emphasize that approach. Things have changed a lot. Dr. Barlow had a career that started with the onset of this new emphasis in clinical Psychology. He took that training with Cautella as an undergraduate, he add training with Wolpe as a masters student, then went on to complete an experimental doctoral program in Psychology, and it launched his ability to conduct clinical Psychology that integrated multiple perspectives, and to see his way through to the evidence that supported the dawn of integrative approaches to best practices.

This is also well defined by the revisions to the DSM from 1950 to present, the new definitions of functional and problematic behaviors. The movement from social rejection to tolerance to  support of a range of cultural,  social, and personal issues. Dr. Barlow has been such an influential figure by embracing this change early and fostering the movement of clinical Psychology towards the field it has become.

Below are some wonderful writings from Dr.  Barlow’s career.

Barlow, D. H. (1981). On the relation of clinical research to clinical practice: Current issues, new directionsJournal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology49(2), 147-155.

Barlow, D.H. (1988). Anxiety and its disorders: The nature and treatment
of panic. New York: Guilford Press.

Barlow, D. H. (2000). Unraveling the mysteries of anxiety and its disorders from the perspective of emotion theoryAmerican Psychologist55(11), 1247-1263.

Barlow, D. H. (2007). Principles and practice of stress management. Guilford Press.

Barlow, D. H. (2010). Negative effects from psychological treatments: A perspective. American Psychologist65(1), 13-20.

Barlow, D. H. (Ed.). (2014). Clinical handbook of psychological disorders: A step-by-step treatment manual. Guilford publications.

Barlow, D. H., Allen, L. B., & Choate, M. L. (2004). Toward a unified treatment for emotional disordersBehavior Therapy35(2), 205-230.

Barlow, D. H., & Durand, V. M. (2011). Abnormal psychology: An integrative approach. Nelson Education.

Barlow, D. H., Gorman, J. M., Shear, M. K., & Woods, S. W. (2000). Cognitive-behavioral therapy, imipramine, or their combination for panic disorder: A randomized controlled trialJAMA283(19), 2529-2536.

Barlow, D. H., Vermilyea, J., Blanchard, E. B., Vermilyea, B. B., Di Nardo, P. A., & Cerny, J. A. (1985). The phenomenon of panic. Journal of Abnormal Psychology94(3), 320-328.

Brown, T. A., & Barlow, D. H. (1992). Comorbidity among anxiety disorders: Implications for treatment and DSM-IVJournal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology60(6), 835-844.

Cranston-Cuebas, M. A., & Barlow, D. H. (1990). Cognitive and affective contributions to sexual functioningAnnual Review of Sex Research1(1), 119-161.

Jones, J. C., & Barlow, D. H. (1990). Self-reported frequency of sexual urges, fantasies, and masturbatory fantasies in heterosexual males and femalesArchives of Sexual Behavior19(3), 269-279.

(Pictured is Dr. Barlow in his office at the new Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, Boston University)

6 thoughts on “Dr. David Barlow and the Dawn of Behavioral Psychology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s