What Is Behavior Modification? Psychology, Definition, Techniques & Applications

By Sarah Cocchimiglio|Updated April 25, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Lauren Guilbeault, LMHC

What Is Behavior Modification?

What Is Behavior Modification Used For?

Behavior modification is the process of changing patterns of human behavior over the long term using various motivational techniques, mainly consequences (negative reinforcement) and rewards (positive reinforcement). The ultimate goal is to swap objectionable, problematic, or disagreeable behaviors with more positive, desirable behaviors. Behavior modification works with just about everyone and has many potential applications, from improving a child’s behavior to motivating employees to work more efficiently.

Behavior modification is also used often to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), irrational fears, drug and alcohol addiction issues, generalized anxiety disorder, and separation anxiety disorder.

It’s easy to make a change. The hard part comes in making the change stick. Anyone can say they’re going to quit smoking and then ignore one or two cravings, or commit to an exercise regimen and then hit the gym twice in a week. The challenge is to stick with the new habit, which is not so easy. This is where behavior modification comes in.

Behavior modification says that we can change the way we act, or react, by learning and by attaching consequences to our actions. You can’t force someone to change their behavior. You can, however, motivate them to change their behavior by changing the environment and offering incentives.

The psychologist B.F. Skinner, known for his research on operant conditioning (the precursor to behavior modification), postulated that if the consequences of an action are negative, there is a good chance the action or behavior will not be repeated, and if the consequences are positive, the chances are better that the action or behavior will be repeated. He referred to this concept as “the principle of reinforcement.”

Put simply, Skinner’s behavior modification model is a way to change habits by following actions up with positive or negative consequences to either break bad habits or reinforce good habits to continue.

You can try to develop and implement a behavior modification plan on your own, or you can find a counselor or therapist who specializes in behavior modification therapy.

Techniques For Behavior Modification

  • Positive reinforcement: Just like it sounds, positive reinforcement is rewarding good behavior with some kind of motivator. This might take the form of verbal praise, extending a privilege, or offering some kind of remuneration. Examples include a student who receives a dollar for each A or B on their report car or a salesperson earning a weekend getaway for reaching a sales goal.
  • Negative reinforcement: Two types of negative reinforcement are positive punishment, where adding a consequence is supposed to deter future repetition of bad behavior, and negative punishment, which involves taking something away. Examples of positive punishment are adding another two days to your workout schedule next week for lazing through a day at the gym this week and making a child vacuum the whole house after dumping a snack on the living room floor. Negative punishments might be taking recess away from a child who forgot their homework or not allowing a teen to go to the mall with friends after they were caught by sneaking in after curfew last weekend.
  • Extinction: When the reinforcements for curbing or encouraging behavior are decreased or discontinued altogether, this is known as extinction. This is most often used in terms of a parent giving attention to a child who has an attention-seeking habit. If the parent reacts every time the child exhibits this particular habit, the child will most likely continue to perform the annoying habit to continue receiving the attention – even though it is negative attention – from the parent. If, on the other hand, the parent begins to ignore the child when they do this obnoxious thing, the child will be to realize their actions will no longer produce the reaction – the positive reinforcement in the form of attention – from the parent. Eventually, knowing she’ll no longer get the reaction they seek, the obnoxious behavior will discontinue.
  • Shaping: The process of shaping reinforces behaviors that are similar to a new, more desirable behavior. This usually occurs in steps and is often applied in cases where the ultimate goal is to overcome irrational fears or manage anxiety disorders. An example of shaping might be for someone who hasarachnophobia (afraid of spiders) to look at a picture of a spider, then work their way up to holding a stuffed animal spider, to remove the fear’s power and desensitize the individual with the phobia.
  • Fading:Also referred to as conditioning, fading is the process of gradually withdrawing the reinforcement until artificial motivation is no longer needed. After all, the ultimate goal is for the habit to become secondnature – you want your child to get A’s on every report card, eventually without having to give them money every time. Fading gradually removes the old stimulus, getting money in exchange for good grades, when it is replaced with a new stimulus, such as pride in getting straight A’s and making the most of their education.
  • Chaining: Behavior chains link individual behaviors to form a larger behavior. By breaking down a task into its simplest and most basic steps, it minimizes the potentially overwhelming factor of seeing the larger behavior by itself. A behavior chain for forming a habit of going to the gym might include steps like sign up for gym membership, purchase or gather workout clothes, pack gym bag, fill water bottle, drive to the gym, check in, do 15 minutes of cardio, spend 15 minutes on free weights, stay for yoga class.

Keys To Successful Behavior Modification

Consistency is especially important when using behavior modification to change or establish behaviors in children. The process is most effective when whatever motivation you choose to use is used each time until the habit is established. For example, if you use a sticker chart to praise a child for making their bed in the morning, they should get a sticker every morning that they make their bed. If you forget or run out of stickers, the chances are good that they will eventually lose motivation to keep the habit going.

Negative consequences should be administered with predictable frequency as well. If punishment is doled out inconsistently, a child will learn that they will only experience consequences once in a while when performing a bad behavior.What you want them to learn is that the bad behavior will be followed by the negative consequence. They will only learn to associate the behavior with the consequence if the consequence follows the behavior every time. Think of a toddler who is biting other children. If their teacher only sits them in the time-out chair once out of every three times they bite another child, it is unlikely they will begin to associate biting with time out, and he will continue to bite others. If the teacher sits the child in time-out every time they bite another child, they will start to realize that they have to sit every time they bite, and they will learn that to avoid having to sit, they need not to bite other children.

It’s also important to have consistency across the board– that is, having parents, grandparents, teachers, and other care providers all working together to give a child the same consequences and rewards. The consistent application of the behavior modification plan will help the child change their behavior quickly.

Once a bad habit is broken, or a good habit is established, you can’t just rest on your laurels. Although it seems like establishing the new behavior pattern might be the most difficult part, it requires continuity or perpetuation for the new behavior to stick in the long term. This is known as maintenance.

Don’t get discouraged, though, if you fall back into bad habits at some point. This happens, and in some cases, may be inevitable. In fact, you may even want to prepare for relapse as if it were just another step in the behavior modification process rather than as a failure of the process. If you truly want to make a change, you can start again and unlearn a bad habit or learn a good one.

Applications For Behavior Modification

What Is Behavior Modification Used For?

Behavior modification is often thought of in terms of children, students, or classroom management for teachers because it is used effectively with children. It is also often used by therapists and healthcare professionals. Behavior modification can also be effective in other circumstances with many demographics; in fact, just about anyone can use behavior modification to break bad habits or create healthy habits. Many adults have used behavior modification programs to quit smoking, eat healthily, exercise regularly, work harder, and reach other various goals.

Because no two people are alike, behavior modification plans and programs are never 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 medications or other types of therapy. If you need additional help creating or modifying behavior modification plans, visit BetterHelp.com to connect with a licensed therapist.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is one type of therapy that your counselor may try with you. This is where you identify unhealthy, unhelpful behaviors and thought patterns and work to replace them with healthy, helpful behaviors and thought patterns. Because CBT is so common, plenty of research also has been done on how well it works online. A recent publicationconsidered more than 2,500 of those studies to come to the conclusion that CBT therapy delivered on a computer is just as effective.

There are plenty of additional pros to online therapy. Online therapy tends to be more flexible, and you may be able to reach out to your counselor via messaging or some other format when you need additional support with changing a habit. With no wait list, you’re often connected with your counselor more quickly in the beginning as well; BetterHelp connects most people within 24 hours.

Here are some recent reviews by BetterHelp users dealing with similar experiences about their counselors:

“Cynthia is kind and warm. Also very knowledgeable on how to help me focus on what is important. She has helped me to create healthy habits and coping mechanism. I appreciate her very much.” Read more on Cynthia Luellen.

“Dr Sawyer is an excellent therapist. She is empathetic to my needs, hears me unlike any other, truly cares for me, and helps me to take action toward better mental health overall. It is so refreshing to have someone on my team – rooting for me, cheering me on, but still challenging my poor mindset and bad habits while helping me develop new skills and implement new healthy habits.” Read more on Terri Sawyer.

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