Skip to main content
Select Source:

Behavior Modification

Behavior modification

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 based on the principles of operant conditioning , which were developed by American behaviorist B.F. Skinner (1904-1990). In his research, he put a rat in a cage later known as the Skinner Box, in which the rat could receive a food pellet by pressing on a bar. The food reward acted as a reinforcement by strengthening the rat's bar-pressing behavior. Skinner studied how the rat's behavior changed in response to differing patterns of reinforcement. By studying the way the rats "operated on" their environment , Skinner formulated the concept of operant conditioning, through which behavior could be shaped by reinforcement or lack of it. Skinner considered his discovery 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.

Today, 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 (bedwetting), anxiety disorder, and separation anxiety disorder, among others. 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 setting out the terms of the reward system.

In addition to rewarding desirable behavior, behavior modification can also discourage unwanted behavior, through either negative reinforcement, or punishment . In children, this could be removal of television privileges. 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.

See also Behaviorism

Further Reading

Martin, Garry. Behavior Modification: What It Is and How to Do It. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1988.

Further Information

Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy. 15 W. 36th St., New York, NY 10018, (212) 2797970.

DID SKINNER RAISE HIS OWN CHILD IN A SKINNER BOX?

This famous urban legend was perpetuated by a photo that appeared in Life magazine of behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner's two-year old daughter standing up in a glass-fronted box. The box was, in fact, a climate-controlled, baby-sized room that Skinner built, called the "aircrib." The aircrib was made of sound-absorbing wood, had a humidifier, an air filter, and was temperature-controlled by a thermostat. Dissatisfied with traditional cribs, Skinner built the box to keep his new daughter warm, safe, and quiet without having to wrap her in clothes and blankets. Skinner was quoted in New Yorker magazine as saying his daughter "spent most of the next two years and several months there, naked and happy." Deborah was so happy in the box, Skinner reported, that she rarely cried or got sick and showed no signs of agoraphobia when removed from the aircrib or claustrophobia when placed inside. The box-like structure and people's misunderstandings about behavioral psychology contributed to the misconception that Skinner was experimenting on his daughter and also probably prevented the crib from becoming a commercial success. People got the impression that Skinner was raising his child in a box similar to the kind he used to study animal behaviorwith levers for releasing food.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Behavior Modification." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Encyclopedia.com. 25 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Behavior Modification." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 25, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/behavior-modification-0

"Behavior Modification." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Retrieved September 25, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/behavior-modification-0

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Behavior modification

Behavior modification

Definition

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 .

Purpose

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.

Description

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.

Results

Normal results are that undesirable behaviors are replaced with more desirable ones.

See also Aversion therapy; Cognitive-behavioral therapy; Token economy system

Resources

BOOKS

Martin, Garry. Behavior Modification: What It Is and How to Do It. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1988.

OTHER

Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy. 15 W. 36th St. New York, NY, 10018. (212) 279-7970.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Behavior modification." Gale Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders. . Encyclopedia.com. 25 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Behavior modification." Gale Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 25, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/psychology/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/behavior-modification

"Behavior modification." Gale Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders. . Retrieved September 25, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/psychology/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/behavior-modification

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Behavior Modification

Behavior Modification

Definition

Purpose

Description

Results

Resources

Definition

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.

B.F. SKINNER (1894-1956)

B. F. Skinner was born in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. Skinner became interested in behavioristic psychology after reading the works of John Watson and Ivan Pavlov. He entered Harvard University as a graduate student in psychology in 1928 and received his degree three years later. While at Harvard, he laid the foundation for a new system of behavioral analysis through his research in the field of animal learning, utilizing unique experimental equipment of his own design.

His most successful and well-known apparatus, known as the Skinner Box, was a cage in which a laboratory rat could, by pressing on a bar, activate a mechanism that would drop a food pellet into the cage. Another device recorded each press of the bar, producing a permanent record of experimental results without the presence of a tester. Skinner analyzed the rats’ bar-pressing behavior by varying his patterns of reinforcement (feeding) to learn their responses to different schedules (including random ones). Using this box to study how rats “operated on” their environment led Skinner to formulate the principle of operant conditioning—applicable to a wide range of both human and animal behaviors—through which an experimenter can gradually shape the behavior of a subject by manipulating its responses through reinforcement or lack of it. In contrast to Pavlovian, or response, conditioning, which depends on an outside stimulus, Skinner’s operant conditioning depends on the subject’s responses themselves. Skinner introduced the concept of operant conditioning to the public in his first book, The Behavior of Organisms (1938). His ideas eventually became so influential that the American Psychological Association created a separate division of studies related to them (Division 25: “The Experimental Analysis of Behavior”), and four journals of behaviorist research were established.

Skinner’s work was also influential in the clinical treatment of mental and emotional disorders. In the late 1940s he began to develop the behavior modification method, in which subjects receive a series of small rewards for desired behavior. Considered a useful technique for psychologists and psychiatrists with deeply disturbed patients, behavior modification has also been widely used by the general population in overcoming obesity, shyness, speech defects, addiction to smoking, and other problems. Extending his ideas to the realm of philosophy, Skinner concluded that all behavior was the result of either positive or negative reinforcement, and thus the existence of free will was merely an illusion. To explore the social ramifications of his behaviorist principles, he wrote the novel Walden Two (1948), which depicted a utopian society in which all reinforcement was positive. While detractors of this controversial work regarded its vision of social control through strict positive reinforcement as totalitarian, the 1967 founding of the Twin Oaks Community in Virginia was inspired by Skinner’s ideas. Skinner elaborated further on his ideas about positive social control in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), which critiques the notion of human autonomy, arguing that many actions ascribed to free will are performed due to necessity.

Purpose

Behavior modification is used to treat a variety of problems in both adults and children. It has been successfully used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), phobias, enuresis (bed-wetting), anxiety disorder, and separation anxiety disorder, among others.

Description

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. It is distinguished by a focus on behavior and its consequences. Other related forms of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, may take in to account internal motivation and feelings as well.

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. The system can consist of goals, rewards, and consequences. In addition to being practiced either consciously or unconsciously by educators and parents in general, this system also has come in to widespread use as a systematic approach for addressing behaviors in children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Behavior modification can also discourage unwanted behavior, through either negative reinforcement or punishment. Negative reinforcement refers to a behavior that, when its elimination depends on a response, the behavior will increase the rate of recurrence or likelihood of that response. Punishment is the application of an adversive 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 teachers. 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 timeout, in which a child is separated from the group when he or she misbehaves. This technique removes the expected reward of parental attention.

Results

Normal results are that undesirable behaviors are replaced with more desirable ones.

See alsoAversion theraphy; Cognitive-behavioral therapy; Token economy system.

Resources

BOOKS

Martin, Garry. Behavior Modification: What It Is and How to Do It. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1988.

OTHER

Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. 305 Seventh Avenue, Floor 16. New York, NY 10001. Telephone: (212) 647-1890. <http://www.aabt.org/>.

“Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.” Bethesda (MD): National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; (2006). NIH publication No. 3572. Available online at <http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/adhd.cfm>.

Emily Jane Willingham, PhD

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Behavior Modification." The Gale Encyclopedia of Mental Health. . Encyclopedia.com. 25 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Behavior Modification." The Gale Encyclopedia of Mental Health. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 25, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/behavior-modification

"Behavior Modification." The Gale Encyclopedia of Mental Health. . Retrieved September 25, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/behavior-modification

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.