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What Is Behavior Modification?

author image Elizabeth Halper, Ph.D.
Dr. Elizabeth Halper obtained her B.A. from Bryn Mawr College and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Gallaudet University. Areas of interest include the deaf community, research, and psychological assessment. Dr. Halper has publications in the "Behavior Analyst Today," "The Gallaudet Chronicle of Psychology," and at LIVESTRONG.
What Is Behavior Modification?
Two businesswoman are having a conversation. Photo Credit Ryan McVay/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Behavior modification is a therapeutic technique based on the work of B.F. Skinner, a famous psychologist who is known as the “Father of Behaviorism.” Skinner developed a theory of operant conditioning, which states that all behavior is governed by reinforcing and punishing stimuli. Behavior modification uses a scheduled approach that rewards desired behavior and “punishes” undesirable behavior. This technique continues to be used in therapy and is used in many psychological settings.

Applications of Behavior Modification

Behavior modification is an effective technique used to treat many disorders such as attention deficit disorder, autism or oppositional defiant disorder. Furthermore, the fundamentals of behavior modification can be used to increase desired behaviors in any individual, regardless of functional level. For example, an individual who wants to quit smoking cigarettes, or a parent who wants her child to consistently make the bed, may use behavioral techniques to help achieve those goals. Behavior modification can also be implemented on a systematic scale to increase productivity within organizations and businesses. Articles such as “A Behavior Modification Perspective on Marketing” outline how behavior modification theories can be used as a viable method of analyzing the economic market.

Defining Behavior in Behavior Modification Techniques

In behavior modification theory, all behavior is defined as being externally controlled by aspects of the environment. In this sense, both inside and outside of our body constitutes an environment. For example, behaviorists believe that if a person sees a lion and runs away, he is not running because he is “scared.” Instead, he is running because those that did not run in the past died, and therefore the urge to run is a result of the survival of those that ran and lived to pass on their genes. In addition, the subjective feeling of being “scared” is considered a flight or fight reflex, not an emotion. The heart races and adrenaline increases as the central nervous system reacts to the “environment” of the body. Therefore, anything a person does, from snoring to talking, can be target for behavior modification.

Reinforcement and Punishment

Like the definition of behavior, the concept of reinforcement and punishment is used differently in behavior modification than in everyday language. Anything that increases a behavior is considered reinforcement and anything that decreases behavior is considered punishment. The tricky part is that both reinforcement and punishment can be positive or negative. Positive refers to something added to the environment and negative is something taken away. An example of positive reinforcement might be giving a child a hug when she does a good job. An example of negative reinforcement might be turning off an annoying sound when the child does a good job. Likewise, an example of positive punishment is making a child do extra chores after she does something bad. An example of negative punishment is taking away the child’s favorite toy when she is bad.

How to Use Reinforcement in Therapy

To modify behavior, good behavior must be reinforced and poor behavior must be punished. However, behaviors themselves are typically broken down into components so that the individual gets reinforced for every action that more closely approximates the desired behavior. For example, if a therapist’s goal is to teach an autistic child how to say “Mom,” he might start on day one with a goal of the child saying “Mmmm.” Every time the child makes the “mmm” sound on cue, she gets reinforced with something she likes (typically an opportunity to play for 30 seconds or a small piece of candy). Then once that goal has been consistently achieved the therapist no longer reinforces just the “mmmm,” he now only reinforces a “maa” sound. In situations like this, if the child reverts back to a prior step, such as saying “mmm” after she has already said “maa” several times, punishment consists of a lack of reinforcement coupled with the therapist looking away and ignoring the child for 10 seconds.

Behavior Modification in Everyday Life

Although the concept of behavior modification may seem theoretically complicated, its real life application is actually quite simple. If a person is reinforced every single time she does something good, eventually the reinforcement loses its power. When using behavior modification with the general population, such as your coworkers or family, initially reinforce what you want with consistency, then as they start to respond, change your schedule of reinforcement to every third time they do what you want. After a while, change it again to every fifth time. For example, if you want your husband to open the car door for you then first arrange a situation where he has to open the door, such as holding a huge bag of groceries. Once he opens the door the first time, look at him in the eye and tell him what an amazing person he is. Don’t explicitly connect the comment to the door opening, but do make sure that the comment directly follows the desired behavior. It might take some time but eventually he will open the car door on a fairly consistent basis. Once that happens do not compliment him every time. Instead, change from a modification stage to a “maintenance” stage and compliment on average every third to seventh time he opens the door.

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