What is behavior modification therapy?

Medically reviewed by April Justice
Updated January 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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There are five broad categories of therapy with many subcategories within them, outlined by the American Psychological Association (APA). With so many options available, it can be challenging to figure out what method might work best for you. One method available to children, teens, and adults is called behavioral modification therapy, a type of behavioral therapy. Learning about this method may help you narrow down your options as you navigate the search for treatment.

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What is behavior modification therapy?

In behavior modification therapy, a licensed therapist uses behavior modification techniques to support a client in changing unhealthy or unwanted behaviors to produce healthier outcomes in various areas of the individual’s life. They can suggest various behavior modification techniques to the client to discourage negative behavior and encourage positive behavior. This process is often completed by providing positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement to reward desired behaviors and give consequences to unwanted behavior. 

Behavior modification therapy stems from B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. He believed prior conditionings would affect behavior based on positive or negative consequences. In this theory, Skinner demonstrated that positive consequences are given for desired behavior to promote its repetition in the future, and negative consequences are given to prevent unwanted behaviors. Behavior modification psychology relates to using this theory and a person’s behavior patterns to potentially eliminate negative behavior and/or develop a new, positive habit.

In some instances, behavior therapy can help an individual change a target behavior that they consider harmful or undesirable. This particular behavior modification focuses on an individual’s negative behaviors that cause distress and can be worked on with a therapist or another mental health professional.

This type of behavioral modification can be used for many mental health conditions and behavioral disorders, including but not limited to the following:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Phobias
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) 
  • Disruptive behaviors
  • Separation anxiety
  • Depression 
  • Personality disorders 

In these situations and conditions, the individual may learn to stop or reduce negative or problematic behaviors. This process could support them in improving their quality of life and overcoming behaviors they do not wish to practice any longer.

How behavior modification functions 

Behavioral therapy is related to consequences and rewards and can be similar to some parenting techniques. This type of technique targets negative behavior and positive behavior. When parents give their children consequences for bad behavior, they utilize behavioral modification techniques. Positive reinforcement psychology for good behavior is intended to lead to the subject repeating that target behavior in the future. Over time, the subject will associate desired behaviors with positive outcomes. Negative reinforcement is intended to prevent the repetition of unwanted behaviors and lead to a mental association of unwanted behavior with negative consequences and a negative outcome.

In therapy, the therapist helps the client recognize behaviors that may be considered harmful or positive. The behavior modification process then focuses on how specific consequences can positively alter the subject’s behaviors. Those consequences can help an individual learn how to react appropriately in a given situation and eliminate specific behaviors. 

Where a parent might teach their children to get home by curfew or not to yell, a behavioral therapist can use a behavior modification technique to teach you to experience less fear in specific situations or remain calm in tense environments. They may also give you techniques for improving relationships. 

What are some examples of behavior modification?

One of the most common uses of behavior modification can be seen in teaching young children. Often, teachers have a reward system to encourage desired behaviors. They may give a sticker or a treat every time a child shows a wanted behavior like waiting patiently in line or picking up after themselves. If a child exhibits unwanted behaviors, such as throwing items in class, the teacher may make a rule to remove a sticker from their chart or reduce their privileges. Removing a sticker is a negative punishment because something is being taken away.

In this scenario, a certain number of stickers may result in a positive outcome, such as a party or extra free time. If the child acts out in class, the stickers may be removed, or they might be required to work on homework during recess. However, positive reinforcement may have a more significant impact on children and adults. One study found that reward motivations were highly effective in creating habits. 

Adults may also benefit from rewards and consequences. For example, some adults might use this type of conditioning to stop using social media when they must focus. Certain apps can monitor this usage. When someone has reached their time limit on an app, it may prevent them from opening more social media apps. To use the apps more, they may have to pay a fee through the app or lose certain app privileges. To avoid consequences, people may practice using social media less often. 

What is the most effective method of behavior modification?

Positive reinforcement and negative consequences can be effective methods of behavior modification. For example, a sticker chart is a behavior modification technique. You can add a sticker to the chart when a desired behavior is achieved. Once you have added ten or more stickers, you may get an expected reward of high value. 

For instance, you might use a sticker chart if you have difficulty brushing your teeth. When you have brushed your teeth for seven days in a row, you could get a treat or buy a new video game you’ve been wanting. Choose a significantly desirable reward; otherwise, you might not have the urge to complete the behavior.

Both positive and negative operant conditioning can benefit different people, so you might also consider the consequences of not brushing your teeth. For every day you miss brushing your teeth, react by taking away your weekly stickers and starting the chart over. This aspect of behavior therapy can encourage desired behavior and discourage unwanted behavior through positive punishment.

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Can behavior modification be used for substance use?

Substance use behavior modification may be possible. Positive and negative reinforcement may be utilized when quitting a substance or trying to avoid one. For example, heavily rewarding yourself for one week free of substance use may be beneficial. Evidence-based research shows that rewards encourage people who have trouble with substance use or addiction to develop the coping skills necessary to stay substance-free.

If you are experiencing issues with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

Methods of behavior modification

Several methods are utilized to help an individual change their behavior in specific situations. By working with you individually, a therapist may be able to figure out which of these methods works best for your situation. It could take trial and error to figure out the perfect method, or a combination of different methods may be used. 

Modeling

You might model another person to achieve behavior modification through the modeling method of modification. To practice, your therapist may ask you to watch someone perform a particular task or react in a specific way. Then you may be given the task of repeating their actions. Outside of therapy, you can practice modeling others you look up to or people you believe model healthy behaviors. 

Cueing 

Through cueing, you may receive a cue to prompt you to change. To begin, your therapist might connect stimuli to a behavior. For example, a clicker, alarm, or buzzer could go off at a particular time to remind you to complete a specific behavior. You could have an alarm at the same time each day that reminds you to take out the trash or wash the dishes. 

Discrimination 

Stimulus discrimination often involves associating the difference between what behaviors receive a reward and which do not. For example, you may expect a reward for completing half of your homework assignments. However, if you only receive a grade for completing all of your assignments, you may learn over time that completing half of your assignments is not a behavior that brings a reward. 

Substitution

In substitution, you may learn to substitute a new type of reinforcement if an old one stops working for any reason. For instance, if you have been rewarding yourself with a snack each time you do a school assignment, you might find that the snack no longer feels rewarding over time, so you might replace it with another item or experience. 

Satiation 

In satiation, you may learn about self-soothing. Satiation can mean letting a behavior run its course without reacting to it. This method can be similar to allowing a baby to cry themselves to sleep. If you want to stop reacting angrily to a partner, you might go off on your own and let your anger out by screaming into a pillow or journaling about your feelings. Your actions may not hurt your partner since you’re alone, and you can focus on feeling your emotions without negatively or positively reinforcing negative behaviors.

Avoidance 

Avoidance is a technique to teach clients how to avoid specific situations that may trigger a specific reaction. In this case, you would avoid any situation, relationship, or person that makes you feel distressed or causes you to want to partake in unhelpful behaviors. 

Positive reinforcement 

Positive reinforcement can mean receiving rewards or benefits in response to an action or reaction. The reward you receive may encourage you to complete the same behaviors in the future if you return to a similar situation. 

Negative reinforcement 

Negative reinforcement can be a healthy punishment or consequence for a behavior, often self-imposed. The reinforcement may show you that you do not gain rewards for acting in a certain way. For example, you could turn off your cell phone and not use it for the day if you procrastinate on your work. 

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Counseling options 

Behavior modification therapy can be an effective method of challenging problematic, unhealthy, or unwanted behaviors. You may also use it to increase desired behaviors. Many therapists offer this type of therapy, which may be utilized in other forms, like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). However, if you face barriers to receiving treatment in your area, you can also consider CBT online. 

One study, which focused on relieving feelings of depression, found that online therapy can be an effective way for patients to receive cognitive-behavioral therapy. The researchers found that adaptive care may be most effective in reducing symptoms and that counseling may be best when the therapist tailors treatment to a client’s needs. 

If you’re interested in internet-based counseling, consider signing up through a platform like BetterHelp. BetterHelp offers over 30,000 therapists and many therapy methods, including CBT and behavior therapy. You can also choose between phone, video, and live chat sessions with your licensed therapist. 

Takeaway

Behavior modification therapy focuses on teaching individuals how to reward positive behaviors and reduce unwanted behaviors through many conditioning techniques. If you’re interested in learning more about this process, consider contacting a licensed therapist for further information and support.

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