What Is Behavior Modification?

Behavior modification is a treatment approach which is focused on changing behavior. This method is based on the work of B.F. Skinner, a well known psychologist who developed the operant conditioning theory -- which suggests that behavior can be modified by consequences and through reinforcement 4. The major goal of behavior modification is to replace undesirable behaviors with acceptable ones. An underlying theme is the belief that how people react to an object or event can be modified by learning. This technique can be used in all age groups, and can be applied to a wide range of settings.


A commonly used element of behavior modification is positive reinforcement, or a reward system. An example of positive reinforcement is giving a child a hug when she does a good job, or to provide money for good grades. Negative reinforcement, which takes something away to reinforce good behavior, is also an effective tool to modify habits or other behavior. An example of negative reinforcement is when a child decides to get ready for school on time, and his parents subsequently stop nagging him about this issue. The takeaway of nagging reinforces his improved morning routine.


Behavior modification can also discourage unwanted behavior through punishment, which can also be positive or negative. In this theory, the term positive refers to something added -- such as a consequence. An example is making athletes run extra laps if they are late to practice. Negative punishment is when something is taken away, such as the removal of video games if chores have not been completed. In this example, the negative punishment should encourage this child to do his chores in the future, in order to avoid punishment.


Behavior modification can be an effective technique used in parenting, and also to help manage behavior in children or adults with attention deficit disorder, autism or oppositional defiant disorder 2. Furthermore, this method can be used to increase desired behaviors in any individual, regardless of functional level. For example, behavior modification has been used successfully in weight management and smoking cessation programs. Behavior modification can also be used to increase productivity within organizations and businesses.

Use in Everyday Life

Although behavior modification is a tool used by many therapists, teachers and health professionals, it can be fairly easy to use in everyday life. For example, if you want to encourage a behavior in someone, praise and attention can be used as a positive reinforcement. Many adults have learned the hard way that getting to work on time and obeying traffic rules avoids some form of punishment -- and they have changed their behavior in order to avoid these consequences.

Behavior Change Success

Because knowledge alone does not equal behavior change, understanding how to improve behavior is essential for successful therapy and other behavioral interventions. Behavior modification based on the operant conditioning theory is one such intervention that can improve success. Tools from this theory can be applied to many areas of life, and can be used effectively by parents, teachers, therapists, healthcare professionals and anyone who wants to improve habits and self care behaviors.

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