Developed from the work of B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning, behavioral modification seeks to change or shape behavior through a set of stimuli and response actions. Operant conditioning works under the premise that the best way to understand a person’s behavior is to look at the reason for action and the consequences of said action. Skinner believed that there were three types of responses: neutral, reinforcing and punishing. Neutral responses, of course, were not positive or negative. Reinforcing responses, on the other hand, were considered to be positive while punishing responses were thought to be negative.
The general theory of behavior modification was also shaped by the work of Edward Thorndike, who actually came before Skinner in this theory. His Law of Effect posits that certain actions in a situation are made as a result of the available consequences. For example, the probability of you touching a hot burner voluntarily is going to decrease based on the consequence that the burner is hot and you’d scorch your hand.
What Is Behavior Modification?
Behavior modification is a therapeutic approach designed to change a particular undesirable negative behavior.
By using a system of positive or negative consequences, an individual learns the correct set of responses for any given stimulus. The practice has several offshoots that attempt to alter behavior through different actions and has developed throughout the years. Behavior modification has been found to be successful in treating disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), phobias, separation anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), disruptive behavior and autism, among other conditions.
This isn’t quite the Pavlovian dog salivation scheme you may be familiar with. That’s classical conditioning. The way operant conditioning and thus behavior modification in this sense differs is in the nature of the responses. Unlike Pavlovian conditioning, which generally deals with elicited or reflexive responses, Skinner’s theory works with voluntary responses. Behavior modification is commonly used in schools and at home, as well as in rehabilitation settings.
The belief behind behavior modification is that all behaviors can be observed and measured, and used as targets for change. As a result of those consequences (positive or negative), a person can learn, shape or eliminate certain behaviors. Before we delve into the different approaches of behavior modification, let’s look at some key terms to avoid confusion:
- Antecedent. An antecedent comes prior to the (un)desired behavior. It is changeable and can consequently be altered or removed in order to affect the behavior.
- Consequence. Consequences usually indicate something bad, but in this context consequences can be good or bad. These occur after the behavior occurs and can change as well. These are also referred to as reinforcers (to strengthen behavior) or punishments (to weaken behavior). Since both reinforcement and punishment can be good or bad, here are some more details to uncomplicated the explanation:
- Positive reinforcement is given when a desired behavior occurs and strengthens that behavior. For example, if Bobby eats all his carrots, he will then get dessert.
- Negative reinforcement occurs when an unpleasant stimuli is removed for the desired behavior and strengthens behavior. For example, each morning Bobby’s mom comes in and wakes him up for school by singing. Bobby doesn’t want to hear her sing in the morning so he learns to wake up before she comes in the room.
- Response cost is like a punishment because a positive stimulus is removed. A response cost is designed to weaken undesirable behavior. For example, Bobby doesn’t want to share toys with his sister, so his mother takes one away as a result.
- Punishment occurs when a negative stimulus is added to weaken behavior. Using our earlier example thread, if Bobby doesn’t want to share or play nicely with his sister, punishment might include a timeout.
- Extinction happens when there is no reinforcement for behavior, thus weakening the response.
These are only a few of the basic terms used in behavior modification. They might seem a little confusing at first, but human nature doesn’t always respond to one set of stimuli. The varying terms help clinicians and counselors to understand what types of actions warrant certain responses and help them to figure out what exactly are our motivations for acting the way we do.
Principles and Approaches
Because behavior isn’t merely cut and dry, behaviorists developed different approaches and schedules for shaping behavior. Through imitation, schedules or routines, or by doing nothing at all, they were able to learn how we learn and change our behaviors. We’ve already gone over the types of positive and negative reinforcements and punishments, so let’s look at some other methods, as listed by Educational Psychology Interactive:
- Modeling. This approach entails teaching an individual to emulate a certain behavior. As an example, modeling might occur in the employment industry when a new employee gets trained by a more experienced colleague.
- Cueing. Like the name suggests, cueing is reminding a person to perform a certain action at a given time.
- Discrimination. Discrimination teaches a person to behave in a certain way for a particular set of stimuli, but not for another. The reward, or reinforcement, occurs only after the appropriate response has been given.
- Substitution. When a current reinforcer no longer prompts the desired behavior, a substitution may occur in which a new reinforcer is presented.
- Satiation. Consider this akin to letting a baby cry at night for a little while until he goes to sleep. Satiation means letting a person tire of performing an undesired behavior. In the case of addiction, this generally does not work as the undesired action would be the administration of the drug or alcohol.
- Avoidance. Avoidance means teaching a person to avoid an unpleasant situation.
- Fear reduction. Fear reduction techniques can be very helpful managing phobias. It works in such that a person is incrementally exposed to a stimulus that may induce fear at first. Eventually, the idea is that the individual will grow comfortable or more relaxed in the presence of the once-feared stimulus.
In addition to these, behavior modification techniques can also work on schedules or intervals, in such that certain responses are shaped to occur at different times or that particular reinforcers or punishments may be administered at varying intervals in order to alter behavior. It should be noted that not all behavior modification techniques will work with every individual, nor will every individual’s behavior warrant singular approaches. In some cases, a combination of techniques may prove beneficial.
Getting Help for Dual Diagnosis
For persons experiencing co-occurring disorders, it can be difficult to manage both one’s behavior and substance abuse or addiction problem. Certain symptoms of both illnesses can impact the other and cause a person to be resistant or non-compliant to treatment methods.
If you or someone you know has a co-occurring disorder and may need help, call us today. We have an expert staff of treatment admissions coordinators who are available to talk to you and understand your individual needs and goals for recovery. Working with you to develop a personalized treatment plan, we can move forward together to find treatment approaches that best suit your unique needs. You can call us at any time of day or night and speak confidentially with one of our representatives. There is no reason to delay getting you or a loved one the appropriate treatment for a Dual Diagnosis. Call us today and learn more.
Further Reading About Behavioral Modification
- A Vouchers Approach to Addiction Treatment
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
- Adventure Therapy
- Art Therapy
- Behavioral Modification
- Cognitive Analytic Therapy
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Concentrative Movement Therapy
- Dance Therapy
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy
- Evidence-Based Treatment Practices
- Holistic Treatment
- Mindfulness in Recovery
- Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET)
- The Matrix Model
- Yoga and Recovery
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David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton