Behavior modification is a therapeutic approach that seeks to change or shape undesirable behaviors and encourage target behaviors.
This psychological concept is based on the principles of operant conditioning and often involves establishing clear connections between behaviors and their consequences to promote desired actions.
Examples of Behavior Modification Techniques
1. Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement involves adding a desirable stimulus to increase the likelihood of a behavior.
When a specific behavior is followed by a positive outcome, the behavior becomes more likely to occur in the future. This is a foundational concept in behavior modification and is used to strengthen desired behaviors.
The reinforcer should be appropriate and meaningful to the individual.
Positive Reinforcement Example: A student receives praise and a sticker from their teacher every time they complete their homework on time, making them more likely to continue doing their homework promptly.
2. Negative Reinforcement
Negative reinforcement involves removing an aversive stimulus to increase the likelihood of a behavior.
When a specific behavior results in the removal or avoidance of something unpleasant, the behavior becomes more likely to occur in the future.
It’s important to note that negative reinforcement strengthens behavior, similar to positive reinforcement, but through the removal of a negative stimulus.
Negative Reinforcement Example: A car’s annoying seatbelt alarm stops sounding once the driver buckles up, reinforcing the behavior of wearing the seatbelt.
3. Positive Punishment
Positive punishment involves adding an aversive stimulus to decrease the likelihood of a behavior.
When a specific behavior is followed by an undesirable outcome, the behavior becomes less likely to occur in the future.
This is used to weaken or suppress undesired behaviors. However, it should be used with caution, as it can have unintended negative consequences.
Positive Punishment Example: A child touches a hot stove and gets burned. The pain (aversive stimulus) added after the behavior makes it less likely the child will touch the stove again.
4. Negative Punishment
Negative punishment involves removing a desirable stimulus to decrease the likelihood of a behavior.
When a specific behavior results in the loss of something pleasant or desired, the behavior becomes less likely to occur in the future. It’s used to weaken or suppress undesired behaviors without introducing an aversive stimulus.
Negative Punishment Example: A teenager comes home past curfew, so their parents take away their phone privileges for a week. The loss of phone access serves to decrease the likelihood of the teenager coming home late again.
Extinction involves the discontinuation of a reinforcement that previously maintained a behavior, leading to the decrease or elimination of that behavior.
When a behavior that was previously reinforced no longer receives reinforcement, it becomes less likely to occur over time. It’s important to note that before the behavior disappears, there might be an “extinction burst,” where the behavior temporarily increases in frequency or intensity.
Extinction Example: A child used to receive candy every time they cried in a store. When the parent stops giving candy in response to crying, the child’s crying behavior eventually decreases.
Shaping involves reinforcing successive approximations of a desired behavior until the full behavior is achieved.
By rewarding closer and closer approximations to the target behavior, the individual is guided toward exhibiting the final desired behavior. It’s a step-by-step process that allows for the development of complex behaviors.
Shaping Example: A dog owner wants their pet to roll over. They first reward the dog for lying down, then for turning to the side, and finally for completing the full roll-over.
Fading is the gradual reduction of prompts or cues that are used to guide an individual toward a desired behavior.
As the individual becomes more proficient in performing the behavior, the prompts are lessened until they can perform the behavior independently. The goal is to ensure that the individual doesn’t become overly reliant on extrinsic rewards to perform positive behaviors.
Fading Example: A child learning to tie their shoes is initially guided hand-over-hand by a parent. Over time, the parent provides less physical guidance until the child can tie their shoes without assistance.
Chaining involves breaking down a complex behavior into smaller, sequential steps and teaching each step individually.
Once one step is mastered, the next step is introduced, and so on, until the entire sequence is learned and can be performed as a whole. Chaining can be done from the first step to the last (forward chaining) or from the last step to the first (backward chaining).
Chaining Example: A person learning to make a sandwich might first learn to spread butter, then add the fillings, and finally close the sandwich. Each step is taught and reinforced in sequence until the entire sandwich-making process is mastered.
9. Stimulus Generalization Training
Generalization is a behavior modification technique where a response to one stimulus becomes associated with other similar stimuli.
This means that once a behavior is learned in one context, it can be applied or occurs in other similar contexts without specific training.
It’s a natural process that helps in transferring learned behaviors across various situations. However, it can also lead to unwanted behaviors if not managed properly.
Stimulus Generalization Example: A child learns to say “thank you” when given a toy. Soon, the child starts saying “thank you” when given any gift, even if it’s not a toy.
10. stimulus Discrimination Training
Discrimination training involves teaching an individual to respond differently to different stimuli.
This technique ensures that a specific behavior is only exhibited in the presence of a particular stimulus, and not others.
It requires consistent reinforcement when the desired behavior is shown in the presence of the target stimulus and withholding reinforcement otherwise.
Over time, the individual learns to discriminate between stimuli and responds appropriately.
Stimulus Discrimination Example: A dog is trained to sit only when it hears the command “sit” and not when it hears other words. The dog receives a treat only when it sits on hearing “sit”, teaching it to discriminate between commands.
Overcorrection is a technique where an individual is required to engage in an exaggerated correction of an inappropriate behavior.
This method often involves two components:
- Restitution: This is where the individual corrects the consequences of their behavior.
- Positive practice: This is where they repeatedly practice the correct behavior.
The goal is to make the inappropriate behavior less appealing and reinforce the appropriate behavior. It’s commonly used with children and individuals with developmental disabilities.
Overcorrection Example: A child spills juice on the floor. As a part of overcorrection, the child is not only required to clean up the spilled juice but also to practice pouring juice correctly several times.
12. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
Applied Behavior Analysis is a systematic approach to understanding and changing behavior using principles of operant conditioning.
ABA involves observing behaviors, identifying triggers and consequences, and then implementing interventions to increase or decrease specific behaviors.
It’s evidence-based and often used for individuals with autism to teach communication, social skills, and other functional behaviors. Data collection and analysis are crucial components of ABA to measure progress.
ABA Example: A therapist uses ABA to help a child with autism learn to communicate their needs using picture cards. The therapist reinforces the child’s correct use of the cards with praise or a preferred item.
13. Modeling (with Observational Learning)
Modeling involves demonstrating a desired behavior so that an individual can learn by observing.
Observational learning is the process by which individuals learn new behaviors by watching others perform them. The model, who demonstrates the behavior, can be a peer, adult, or even a character in media.
The effectiveness of modeling is influenced by the observer’s attention, retention, ability to reproduce the behavior, and motivation.
Behavior Modeling Example: A teacher demonstrates to her students how to solve a math problem on the board. By watching her, the students learn the steps and can replicate the process on their own.
Prompting is a technique where cues or hints are provided to help an individual initiate or complete a specific behavior.
Prompts can be verbal, physical, gestural, or visual and are used to guide the individual towards the desired response. Over time, prompts are typically faded or reduced as the individual becomes more independent in performing the behavior.
It’s essential to use the least intrusive prompt necessary to achieve the desired behavior.
Prompting Example: A parent verbally prompts their child by saying “What do we say?” to remind the child to say “thank you” after receiving a gift.
15. Contingency Contracting (Behavior Contract)
Contingency contracting involves a formal written agreement between two parties, where one agrees to perform a specific behavior, and the other agrees to provide a specific reward or consequence based on the behavior’s occurrence.
The contract clearly defines the behavior, the reward or consequence, and the conditions under which it will be provided. This technique helps in clarifying expectations and ensuring accountability. It’s often used in educational settings and therapy.
Contingency Contracting Example: A student and teacher create a contract stating that if the student completes all their homework for a week, they will earn 10 minutes of free time on Friday.
16. Habit Reversal Training
Habit Reversal Training (HRT) is a multi-component intervention designed to reduce unwanted repetitive behaviors.
It involves the following steps:
- Awareness training (recognizing the habit)
- Developing a competing response (a behavior that’s incompatible with the habit)
- Social support (getting others to help reinforce the new behavior).
HRT is often used for behaviors like nail-biting, hair-pulling, and tics. The goal is to replace the unwanted habit with a more neutral or positive behavior.
Habit Reversal Training Example: A person who habitually bites their nails is trained to recognize when they’re about to bite and instead place their hands flat on a table, making nail-biting impossible.
17. Behavioral Momentum
Behavioral momentum refers to the strategy of reinforcing compliance with several easy tasks or commands before presenting a more challenging request.
By gradually ramping up the requests, the individual builds a “momentum” of compliance, making it more likely they’ll comply with the harder task.
This is based on the principle that a history of reinforcement can increase the likelihood of future compliance. This technique is especially useful with individuals who might be resistant to certain tasks.
Behavioral Momentum Example: A teacher asks a student to complete three simple tasks they regularly do, like putting away a book, straightening their desk, and writing their name. After these, the teacher asks the student to tackle a more challenging math problem, leveraging the built momentum.
18. Stimulus Control (Environmental Conditioning)
Stimulus control involves modifying the environment to increase the likelihood of a desired behavior or decrease the chances of an undesired one.
By controlling the antecedents (triggers) that lead to a behavior, one can influence the behavior itself. This can involve adding or removing certain stimuli from the environment. The goal is to make the desired behavior more likely and the undesired behavior less likely.
Stimulus Control Example: To encourage studying, a student creates a dedicated study space free from distractions like their phone, TV, or noisy siblings.
19. Escape Conditioning
Escape conditioning is a form of learning where an individual performs a behavior to cause an ongoing, aversive stimulus, to cease.
In other words, when you do one task, something unpleasant disappears. This increases your likelihood of doing this task.
Essentially, the individual learns that by engaging in a specific behavior, they can “escape” from an undesirable situation or sensation. This type of conditioning can be both naturally occurring or intentionally implemented.
Escape Conditioning Example: I can use this in my own life – I do legs days in the gym because I know weight training for my legs will help reduce hip pain, which is otherwise always there when I’m not weight training regularly.
20. Avoidance Conditioning
Avoidance conditioning involves learning to perform a behavior to prevent the onset of an aversive stimulus.
Unlike escape conditioning, where the behavior stops an ongoing stimulus, in avoidance conditioning, the behavior prevents the aversive stimulus from starting in the first place. The behavior is reinforced by the absence or delay of the aversive event. Over time, the individual learns to consistently engage in the behavior to avoid the potential negative outcome.
Avoidance Conditioning Example: A student studies regularly for tests to avoid the potential anxiety and stress of last-minute cramming.
21. Non-contingent Reinforcement
Non-contingent reinforcement is a behavior modification technique where rewards (reinforcers) are delivered at random times, regardless of the individual’s behavior.
The goal is often to decrease problematic behaviors by providing the individual with the desired reinforcer without it being linked to the undesired behavior.
This can reduce the individual’s motivation to engage in the problematic behavior since they receive the reinforcer without it. It’s essential to ensure that the reinforcer isn’t accidentally strengthening undesired behaviors.
Non-Contingent Reinforcement Example: A teacher gives a restless student a break to play at random intervals, regardless of their behavior, reducing the student’s disruptive attempts to leave their seat.
22. Behavioral Activation
Behavioral activation is a therapeutic approach aimed at increasing engagement in positive and meaningful activities, especially for people experiencing depression.
The idea is to counteract the tendency of those with depression to avoid activities and social interactions. By gradually increasing participation in rewarding activities, it can help improve mood and reduce depressive symptoms. The activities are chosen based on their potential to bring joy, satisfaction, or a sense of accomplishment.
Behavioral Activation Example: A therapist helps a depressed individual identify activities they once enjoyed, like painting or hiking, and creates a plan to gradually reintroduce these activities into their routine.
Flooding is an exposure therapy technique used to treat phobias and anxiety disorders. It involves exposing the individual to the feared stimulus in a controlled environment for an extended period, without any opportunity to escape.
The idea is that prolonged exposure will lead to the individual realizing that their fear is irrational, as the feared outcome doesn’t occur. It’s an intense method and should be conducted with care and consent.
Flooding Example: A person with a severe fear of spiders is placed in a room with harmless spiders for an extended period until their anxiety decreases and they realize the spiders won’t harm them.
24. Systematic Desensitization
Systematic desensitization is a therapeutic technique used to treat phobias and anxiety disorders. It involves gradually exposing the individual to the feared stimulus while they practice relaxation techniques.
Starting with the least anxiety-provoking situations and gradually moving to more challenging ones, the goal is to replace the fear response with a relaxation response. Over time, the individual becomes desensitized to the stimulus and experiences reduced anxiety.
Systematic Desensitization Example: A person with a fear of flying first visualizes being on a plane while practicing deep breathing. Over time, they progress to watching videos of flights, visiting an airport, and eventually taking short flights, all while practicing relaxation techniques.
Bonus: Popular Techniques for Behavior Modification in the Classroom
25. Token Economy
A token economy is a behavior modification system where individuals earn tokens for displaying desired behaviors.
These tokens can later be exchanged for rewards or privileges. The tokens serve as a tangible representation of reinforcement and can be particularly effective in structured environments. Over time, the goal is to phase out the tokens and have the individual maintain the desired behavior without them.
Token Economy Example: In a classroom setting, students earn tokens for completing assignments or behaving appropriately. At the end of the week, they can exchange their tokens for extra playtime, stickers, or other rewards.
26. Premack Principle (or “Grandma’s Rule”)
The Premack Principle, often referred to as “Grandma’s Rule,” is the idea that a more preferred activity can be used as a reinforcer for a less preferred activity.
In essence, the opportunity to do something enjoyable can be used to motivate an individual to complete a less desirable task. It’s a way of saying, “First do what you have to do, then you can do what you want to do.”
Premack Principle Example: A parent tells their child, “First finish your homework, and then you can play video games.” Here, playing video games (a preferred activity) is used to reinforce completing homework (a less preferred activity).
27. Response Cost
Response cost is a behavior modification technique where something desirable is taken away as a consequence for undesired behavior.
This is a form of negative punishment, as the removal of something positive serves to decrease the likelihood of the undesired behavior occurring again. The “cost” is the loss of a specific reward or privilege.
Response Cost Example: A child who speaks out of turn in class might lose a star from their reward chart. The loss of the star serves to decrease the likelihood of the child interrupting in the future.
Time-out is a behavior modification technique where an individual is temporarily removed from a reinforcing environment as a consequence for undesired behavior.
By placing the individual in a neutral setting where they don’t have access to positive reinforcers, the undesired behavior is not rewarded. The goal is to decrease the frequency of the undesired behavior by removing the opportunity for reinforcement.
Time Out Example: A child who throws a toy in anger is asked to sit quietly in a designated “time-out” spot for a few minutes, away from toys and play, to reflect on their behavior.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]