The Pro & Cons of Behavior Modification

By Ashley Black
Behavior modification techniques must be properly applied.
Behavior modification techniques must be properly applied.

Behavior modification is a technique used often by parents, school teachers and others to promote good behavior and eliminate undesirable behavior. This strategy is somewhat controversial, however, and there are pros and cons associated with the technique.

Effectiveness and Longevity

Behavior modification techniques have been shown to be highly effective when properly applied. Behavior redirection and improvement in young children, addiction treatment, behavioral depression treatment, OCD symptoms, ADHD and anxiety disorders are particularly responsive to these techniques. Any observable behavior can be modified through behavior modification techniques. Though some behaviors revert temporarily to their original state during modification -- a process called spontaneous recovery -- continued treatment usually continues to improve behavior and typically has near-permanent effects.

Focus on Positivity

Behavior modification focuses mainly on positive reinforcement, which involves rewarding individuals for good behavior. Positive reinforcement has historically shown far better results than punishment. For example, behavior modification strategies stress rewarding positive behavior, like praising students for staying on task during class, far more highly than punishing negative behavior, such as verbally admonishing a student in front of the class for each infraction. Punishment and negative reinforcement are important components in modifying behavior, but the emphasis in treatment is on rewarding good behavior.

Problems With Application

In theory, behavior modification never fails. However, in application, many variables can lead to failure. The primary variable leading to failure of behavior modification is incorrect application of techniques. Behavior modification techniques must be extremely consistent for the treatment to work. Letting occurrence of an undesirable behavior slide every now and then sends mixed signals and causes huge setbacks in treatment. Behavior modification can also fail if treatment is too extreme. Employing an unnecessarily harsh punishment to an undesirable behavior or failing to take relevant preexisting conditions such as PTSD in mind when planning negative and positive reinforcement schedules are two examples of ways that behavior modification can fail when used improperly.

Narrowness of Scope

One of the central tenets of behavior modification theory is behavior frequency can only be increased by positive reinforcement. However, research conducted by Albert Bandura has shown that behavior is greatly influenced by modeling. Bandura’s study involved showing a control group of children a video of an adult model playing calmly and peacefully with a life-size Bobo doll. Another group of children was shown a video of an adult model violently attacking the Bobo doll. The children in the second group showed significantly more violent behaviors toward the doll than the control group when they were allowed to play with their own Bobo doll after seeing the video. This research shows that behavior can increase without any direct reinforcement, and casts doubt on the principles of behavior modification.