Behavior Modification

Behavior modification is a treatment approach, based on the principles of operant conditioning, that eliminates or shapes behaviors through positive or negative reinforcement.

Behavior modification is based on the principles of operant conditioning developed by behaviorist B. F. Skinner (1904–1990). In his research, he put a rat in a cage (later known as the Skinner Box); the rat could receive a food pellet by pressing on a bar. The food reward acted as a reinforcement by strengthening the rat's barpressing behavior. Skinner studied how the rat's behavior changed in response to various patterns of reinforcement. By studying the way the rats ‘operated on’ their environment, Skinner formulated the concept of operant conditioning. Behavior could be shaped by reinforcement or lack of it. Skinner believed his discovery was 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.

In the early 2000s, behavior modification has been 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. Positive reinforcement, which is widely used, encourages behaviors through a reward system. 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. For example, when working with children, this could be removal of television or Internet 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 the child misbehaves. This technique removes the expected reward of parental attention.

See also Behaviorism ; Classical conditioning ; Extinction ; Operant conditioning ; Reinforcement ; Skinner, B. F.



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

(MLA 8th Edition)