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Behavior Modification Through Positive Reinforcement

author image S. Grey
S. Grey has a Master of Science in counseling psychology from the University of Central Arkansas. He is also pursuing a PhD and has a love for psychology, comic books and social justice. He has been published in a text on social psychology and regularly presents research at regional psychology conferences.
Behavior Modification Through Positive Reinforcement
Family smiling and talking at the dinner table. Photo Credit: JackF/iStock/Getty Images

B. F. Skinner, the theorist behind operant conditioning, proposed positive reinforcement as a useful method of modifying behavior. This method can be useful for strengthening behaviors you want to see. Positive reinforcement is often an effective way to change behavior without implementing unpleasant methods. This skill can prove valuable not only with others, but also with increasing your own behaviors.

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Positively Reinforcing

People tend to have misconceptions of positive reinforcement, but it is rather simple in principle. Positive reinforcement is simply adding something to someone's environment that consequently increases how much or often she behaves in a certain way. For example, if you give your child a piece of candy and she, in turn, does her homework more often, you can say that the candy is a positive reinforcer for her behavior. While this form of reinforcement often takes the form of something pleasurable, it can be anything that increases a particular behavior.

Know Your ABCs

No matter your method, the process of behavior modification starts by identifying a behavior you want to increase and the circumstances around it. Pick your target behavior and notice what happens before and after it. This process is called the Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence Model, or simply the ABC Model. This framework forms the core of your focus while using behavior modification. Take note of how often a behavior occurs, because this serves as the basis of behavior modification -- the behavior will increase in number from this baseline if your reinforcement works. To use positive reinforcement with this model, you change the consequence of a behavior by giving something to someone, which can have the effect of increasing the frequency of the behavior.


Applying positive reinforcement as behavior modification can take many different forms. A prime example is getting a child to complete homework. When a child comes home from school, he may rush to the television rather than doing his homework. Leave the television off until he finishes his assigned homework. Once he is done, allow him to watch television, effectively adding the television into his environment. This simple process will increase the frequency of the boy doing his homework after school. Using positive reinforcement is often done with children, but you can use it with others, too, such as partners, family members, your pets and even yourself.

Contingency Plans

Keeping tabs on target behaviors gives your potential reinforcers the most power, but also keeps them from having unintended effects. When using positive reinforcers, keep these ideas in mind: reinforcement needs to be immediate, consistent, tailored to the individual, and powerful enough to motivate. These factors all have a significant impact on attempts at behavior modification and can make or break even the best plan. Also, notice how your planned reinforcer works on the behavior. According to Skinner's operant conditioning theory, a stimulus that actually reduces rather than increases a behavior is considered a punisher rather than a reinforcer. If your plan ends up reducing the target behavior, modify it and find new approaches that will increase the behavior rather than decrease it.

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