What is Behavior Modification and How Can It Help You Change?

Dog looking right back at owner holding a treat

For a long time, I set my alarm on my cell phone, then put it on my nightstand when I went to sleep each night. Without fail, the alarm would sound in the morning and I’d either hit snooze repeatedly or pick up my phone and spend the next half hour scrolling through Twitter and Instagram until I was nearly late for work. It was a habit I hated and knew I had to change — but how?

I examined the problematic behavior (laying in bed too long) and the cause (the distraction of my phone) and realized that, in order to modify the behavior, I needed to eliminate the cause. So I bought a small, analog alarm clock and put it on my dresser, which meant I needed to physically get up out of bed to turn it off. I also started charging my cell phone across the room, eliminating the temptation to scroll through social media each morning before finally getting out of bed. When I say this small action changed my life, it’s not an exaggeration — I found that the simple act of placing my feet on the floor before standing to turn off my alarm became a signal to my brain that said “time to wake up and start my day!”

This tweak to my morning routine is an example of behavior modification, which is a t echnique used across multiple fields spanning from therapy to child rearing to pet training.

What Is Behavior Modification?

Behavior modification is a method used to replace negative behavior patterns with desired behaviors. The principles of the practice come from the work of B.F. Skinner and his theory of operant conditioning. Building on Thorndike’s Law of Effect, which states that a behavior that has a good outcome will likely recur more frequently than an action met with a negative outcome, Skinner added the idea of reinforcement. Essentially, if a behavior is reinforced (i.e. praised or strengthened in some way), it will continue. If the behavior is ignored, it will gradually fade until it stops.

Most of Skinner’s research was conducted on animals. For example, he placed hungry rats in a “Skinner Box,” which was outfitted with a lever. When pressed, the lever would release food. Over time, the rats learned that pressing the lever was a good thing, so they kept pressing it. Using a different box and set of rats, Skinner demonstrated the opposite by causing an electric shock when the rats would press the lever. Instead of continuing to press the lever, the rats learned to avoid it.

Of course, humans are more complex than most animals. But behavior modification uses the basic tenets of operant conditioning and seeks to change a person’s behavior through changes in the environment.

Behavior Modification Techniques

There are several methods by which behavior modification functions. Basically, desired behavior is rewarded and negative behavior is punished. But because humans are nuanced, it’s not always so simple.

Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is the practice of offering a reward for good behavior. The reward, or reinforcer, strengthens a positive association with the action, thus making it more attractive. You might give your child extra screen time when they do their homework directly after school. This expected reward gives the child motivation to complete a chore they may not otherwise be eager to tackle.

It’s important to vary this technique, however. Reinforcers can lose their value over time. For example, if you were to give your child candy every time they made their bed, the sweet reward would lose its novelty, and over time, the child would begin to neglect the chore. Positive reinforcement works best when it’s both consistent and unexpected. If your child knows they may get a reward if they make their bed, they’re still going to be more likely to keep making their bed than if there was no expectation of a reward.

Negative reinforcement

On the flip side, negative reinforcement occurs when a behavior is reinforced by the absence of something negative. In my example above with the alarm clock, my behavior was reinforced because the negative consequences of wasting time and being late for work were removed. In the classroom, you may see teachers reinforcing positive behavior by eliminating a homework assignment when students do well on a test.

Positive punishment

Here’s a confusing one — how can punishment be positive? But just as with reinforcement, “positive” and “negative” mean “adding” and “taking away.” So a positive punishment technique involves adding something punitive to a situation as a consequence of negative behavior. For example, some people may add an extra mile to their run if they ate a pint of ice cream the night before, or a student may be told to stay after school if they’re caught texting during class.

Negative punishment

Negative punishment is the act of removing something as a consequence. For example, a parent may take away a child’s favorite doll if they won’t share with a friend or withhold dessert if a child won’t eat all their vegetables at dinner.

Tips for Successful Behavior Modification

In order for behavior modification to be truly successful, it’s important to keep several things in mind:

  1. Be consistent. It’s important to maintain particular practices, especially with children, across the board. This means everyone in the family (parents, siblings, grandparents, and other caretakers), babysitters or childcare providers, and teachers should be made aware of any expectations you’ve put into place for your child and agree to follow that same system. This applies to both reinforcements and punishments.
  2. Maintain the habit. Unfortunately, the behavior modification process doesn’t stop once a good habit is established with a desired behavior or a negative pattern is broken. The work is ongoing in order to make sure the behaviors don’t recur. Once a pattern of desired behavior has been established, think about varying the schedule. While you’re establishing the pattern, you may give your child a reward or praise every time they complete the target behavior. Over time, however, that incentive fades, so you should modify its frequency to maintain the value, or change the reward to keep things interesting.
  3. Customize the method. As with most things in life, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to behavior modification. You know your child and yourself better than anyone else. If you find a particular approach isn’t working, try something else!
  4. Be patient and realistic. Behavior modification can take time and a good dose of patience, both with yourself and with those around you. Falling back on harmful habits is common, and it’s not the end of the world. Keep at it and you’ll be back on track.

Who Can Benefit from Behavior Modification?

Behavior modification techniques have been found to be especially effective to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), phobias, and autism.

Other common uses for behavior modification include quitting smoking, beginning a new wellness routine such as diet or exercise, or achieving other goals such as finishing a creative project.

If you’re finding certain problematic behaviors recurring in your life and are having difficulty changing them (cell phone making you late for work, anyone?), speaking with a licensed therapist can help you come up with a plan for tackling the issue with actionable steps leading to better outcomes. Online therapy is a convenient and inexpensive way to get started today.

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