Behavior modification is a treatment approach, based on the principles of operant conditioning, that replaces undesirable behaviors with more desirable ones through positive or negative reinforcement.
Behavior modification is used to treat a variety of problems in both adults and children. Behavior modification has been successfully used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), phobias, enuresis (bed-wetting), generalized anxiety disorder, and separation anxiety disorder, among others.
Behavior modification is based on the principles of operant conditioning, which were developed by American behaviorist B. F. Skinner (1904-1990). Skinner formulated the concept of operant conditioning, through which behavior could be shaped by reinforcement or lack of it. Skinner considered his concept applicable to a wide range of both human and animal behaviors and introduced operant conditioning to the general public in his 1938 book, The Behavior of Organisms.
One behavior modification technique that is widely used is positive reinforcement, which encourages certain behaviors through a system of rewards. In behavior therapy, it is common for the therapist to draw up a contract with the client establishing the terms of the reward system.
Another behavior modification technique is negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is a method of training that uses a negative reinforcer. A negative reinforcer is an event or behavior whose reinforcing properties are associated with its removal. For example, terminating an existing electric shock after a rat presses a bar is a negative reinforcer.
In addition to rewarding desirable behavior, behavior modification can also discourage unwanted behavior, through punishment. Punishment is the application of an aversive or unpleasant stimulus in reaction to a particular behavior. For children, this could be the removal of television privileges when they disobey their parents or teacher. The removal of reinforcement altogether is called extinction. Extinction eliminates the incentive for unwanted behavior by withholding the expected response. A widespread parenting technique based on extinction is the time-out, in which a child is separated from the group when he or she misbehaves. This technique removes the expected reward of parental attention.
Normal results are that undesirable behaviors are replaced with more desirable ones.
Martin, Garry. Behavior Modification: What It Is and How to Do It. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1988.
Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy. 15 W. 36th St. New York, NY, 10018. (212) 279-7970.