An Overview Of Behavior Modification

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 24, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Behavior modification is generally thought of as the process of changing patterns of human behavior using various motivational techniques, such as negative and positive reinforcement, extinction, fading, shaping, and chaining. It can be a useful tool to encourage desirable behaviors in yourself, your children, or your employees. There are strategies that may improve the effectiveness of behavior modification, and a therapist may help you determine the best ones to achieve your desired change.  

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Behavior modification may help you achieve your goals

What is behavior modification?

Many people make New Year’s resolutions, but it’s estimated that 80% of those people no longer follow their resolutions by the end of the first month. Behavior modification through extinction psychology generally focuses on changing associations with the undesired or desired behaviors to make it more likely that you will stick with your goals.

The theory behind behavior modification identifies that we can change the way we act or react by attaching consequences to our actions and learning from those consequences. The psychologist B.F. Skinner, known for his research on behavioral analysis, postulated that if the consequences of an action are unfavorable, there is a good chance the action or behavior will not be repeated, and if the consequences are favorable, the chances are better that the action or behavior will be repeated. He referred to this concept as “the principle of reinforcement.” Skinner's introduction of reinforcement in his framework became the basis of the development of many modern ideas in reinforcement psychology.

At a fundamental level, Skinner’s behavior analysis modification model can be a way to change habits by following actions with positive or negative consequences to either break bad habits or reinforce good habits.

For many disorders, such as ADHD, behavior therapy has been shown to be effective, and it may improve both behavior and self-esteem. Behavior modification is often used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), irrational fears, substance use disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and separation anxiety disorder in clinical settings. You may develop and implement a behavior modification plan on your own, or you can find a therapist who specializes in behavior modification therapy for additional guidance and support.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

Behavior modification techniques

There are several evidence-based ways to approach modifying behavior. Some of the techniques below are best implemented within specific contexts or with certain age ranges or developmental stages. Keep in mind that what works for one person will not always work for another person, and a licensed mental health care provider can provide guidance regarding behavior modification goals.


Positive reinforcement and positive punishment

In psychology, you can think about the concepts of positive and negative as mathematical symbols. You might keep in mind that taking something away is considered negative, and adding something is seen as positive. 

Generally, positive reinforcement adds a stimulus that reinforces good behavior. For example, you could positively reinforce the behavior of a student by awarding them a prize for doing well on their exam. Positive punishment, on the other hand, describes an added stimulus that decreases the likelihood of an undesired behavior occurring. For example, putting lemon juice (a stimulus) on your fingernails may discourage you from biting your nails (an undesired behavior). Positive punishment also includes corporal punishment, such as spanking, which is often seen as a harmful and unproductive form of behavior modification.

Negative reinforcement and negative punishment

As mentioned above, negative typically means that a stimulus is removed. Negative reinforcement can occur when you remove a stimulus to increase a desired behavior. 

For example, an infant’s cries (a stimulus) may be removed when a parent picks the infant up (the desired behavior). As a result, the parent may be encouraged to pick up their infant more often when they cry. 

Negative punishment can occur when a stimulus is taken away to reduce the frequency of an undesired behavior occurring. For example, a teenager’s cell phone (the stimulus) could be taken away when they stay out past their curfew (the undesired behavior).


A behavior can become extinct when a stimulus or reinforcer is removed. For example, if your child becomes accustomed to getting a new toy (stimulus) every time they throw a tantrum (undesired behavior), you might refrain from buying your child a toy when they throw a tantrum. When done consistently, your child is likely to learn that the behavior never produces the desired outcome, and the behavior may become extinct.


The process of shaping can reinforce behaviors that are closer to a desired behavior. For example, a child learning to walk typically involves several stages (sitting up, crawling, standing, walking). Parents might reinforce a child learning to walk through shaping by giving a child encouragement when they engage in new steps in this process.


Fading is usually thought of as the process of gradually shifting from one stimulus to another. For example, if a parent encourages their child to get good grades on report cards with a positive stimulus, such as rewarding money for good grades, they may eventually seek to find a more sustainable stimulus to maintain good academic performance. Fading removes the old stimulus, getting money in exchange for good grades, and replaces it with a new stimulus, such as satisfaction in learning new material.


Behavior chains can link individual behaviors to form a larger behavior. By breaking down a task into its simplest steps, a complex behavior may become more consistently achievable. 

Keys to success

Consistency can be crucial for achieving long-term behavior change. Once a desired behavior is established, consistent reinforcement is typically required to maintain it. When using behavior modification techniques for children, it may be helpful to discuss strategies with teachers, grandparents, and other caregivers to clearly establish rewards and consequences for behavior.

Perfect consistency can be difficult to achieve and, though it may be discouraging if you return to an undesired behavior at some point, setbacks can be very normal. Behavior modification can be thought of as a process of improvement, rather than an end goal.

Applications for behavior modification

Behavior modification may help you achieve your goals

Behavior modification is often thought of as a parenting tool. However, while commonly used for children and adolescents, behavior modification can be effective for many demographics. For example, many adults use behavioral therapy to quit smoking, eat healthily, exercise regularly, and work more efficiently.

Because no two people are alike, behavior modification plans and programs are usually not one-size-fits-all. You may need to tweak or substitute elements of one plan or another to best suit your situation and your ultimate goals, and behavior modification therapy may work best in conjunction with other types of therapy.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one type of therapy that a mental health professional may suggest. In CBT, you typically identify unhelpful behaviors and thought patterns and work to replace them with healthy, helpful behaviors and thought patterns. Many studies have been conducted that support the effectiveness of online CBT. For example, a recent publication considered more than 2,500 of those studies and found that online CBT therapy could be as effective as in-person therapy.

Online therapy platforms may offer CBT, and taking advantage of these services can help you understand why you engage in undesired behaviors and create a plan to modify your behavior. Online therapy tends to be more flexible, so you may be able to meet outside of standard business hours. Additionally, in-app communication may allow you to reach out to your therapist when setbacks occur, so you don’t have to wait until your session to bring up challenges.


Many people, from infants to seniors, can exhibit undesired behaviors. Behavior modification techniques can be helpful tools to create a framework for encouraging desired behavior and discouraging unwanted behavior. When implemented consistently, behavioral modification can successfully reduce the likelihood that you return to undesired behavior. A therapist can help you create a plan to implement behavioral modification, and you may want to try cognitive-behavioral therapy in person or online to understand the underlying feelings that drive your behaviors. 
Target disruptive behavior in therapy
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