Behavior Modification

What Is Behavior Modification?

Behavior modification refers to the techniques used to try and decrease or increase a particular type of behavior or reaction. This might sound very technical, but it’s used very frequently by all of us. Parents use this to teach their children right from wrong. Therapists use it to promote healthy behaviors in their patients. Animal trainers use it to develop obedience between a pet and its owner. We even use it in our relationships with friends and significant others. Our responses to them teach them what we like and what we don’t.

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. 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. The Seven characteristics of behavior modification, identified by Martin and Pear, include:

  • A strong emphasis on defining problems in terms of measurable behavior


  • Making environmental adjustments to improve functioning


  • Precise methods and rationales


  • Dynamic real-life application of techniques


  • Techniques grounded in learning and behavior theory


  • Scientific demonstration linking the imposed technique with behavior change


  • Strong emphasis on accountability.


Origin of the Theory

Behavior modification relies on the concept of conditioning. Conditioning is a form of learning. There are two major types of conditioning; classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning: relies on a particular stimulus or signal. An example of this would be if a family member came to the kitchen every time you baked cookies because of the delicious smell.

Operant conditioning: involves using a system of rewards and/or punishments. Dog trainers use this technique all the time when they reward a dog with a special treat after they obey a command.

Behavior modification was developed from these theories because they supported the idea that just as behaviors can be learned, they also can be unlearned. As a result, many different techniques were developed to either assist in eliciting a behavior or stopping it. This is how behavior modification was formed.



The purpose behind behavior modification is not to understand why or how a particular behavior started. Instead, it only focuses on changing the behavior, and there are various different methods used to accomplish it. This includes:


  • Positive reinforcement
  • Negative reinforcement
  • Punishment
  • Flooding
  • Systematic desensitization
  • Aversion therapy
  • Extinction


Positive reinforcement: is pairing a positive stimulus to a behavior. A good example of this is when teachers reward their students for getting a good grade with stickers. Positive reinforcement is also often used in training dogs. Pairing a click with a good behavior, then rewarding with a treat, is positive reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement: is the opposite and is the pairing of a behavior to the removal of a negative stimulus. A child that throws a tantrum because he or she doesn’t want to eat vegetables and has his or her vegetables taken away would be a good example.

Punishment: is designed to weaken behaviors by pairing an unpleasant stimulus to a behavior. Receiving a detention for bad behavior is a good example of a punishment.

Flooding: involves exposing people to fear-invoking objects or situations intensely and rapidly. Forcing someone with a fear of snakes to hold one for 10 minutes would be an example of flooding.

Systematic desensitization: is also used to treat phobias and involves teaching a client to remain calm while focusing on these fears. For example, someone with an intense fear of bridges might start by looking at a photo of a bridge, then thinking about standing on a bridge, and eventually walking over a real bridge.

Aversion therapy: is the pairing of an unpleasant stimulus to an unwanted behavior in order to eliminate that behavior. Some people bite their finger nails, and in order to stop this behavior, there’s a clear substance you can paint on your finger nails that makes them taste awful. Painting your nails with it helps stop the behavior of biting nails.

Extinction: is the removal of all reinforcement that might be associated with a behavior. This is a powerful tool and works well, especially with young children.


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.


Uses of Behavior Modification

Behavior modification usually seeks to extinguish, or stop, an unwanted behavior and replace that behavior with a desired behavior. Using the principles of reinforcement, therapists assist clients and parents in constructing ways to reinforce desired behaviors while constructing ways to extinguish unwanted behaviors. 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 the following disorders;



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