Behaviour Modification

Behaviour modification is an approach to changing human behaviour. It has been used to help people in education, healthcare, and even work settings. Although it is mostly associated with use in the professional setting, the principles of behaviour modification can be used by everyone, especially family and friends, to help encourage loved ones that struggle with behaviour issues. 

What is Behaviour Modification?

Behaviour modification is an umbrella term for psychological interventions that involve changing or modifying a person’s behaviour. It is meant to reinforce positive behaviours while eliminating negative or unwanted behaviours.

There are various techniques and strategies for behaviour modification that can be used to treat a wide range of issues. It has applications for anxiety disorders, phobias, substance abuse, and other mental health conditions. Usually, the principles are incorporated into other psychotherapeutic frameworks like positive behaviour support and cognitive-behavioural therapy.

Theories & Principles of Behaviour Modification

The behaviour modification discipline is grounded in different schools of thought — behavioural theory and social learning theory are two of the most influential. 

Behaviour Theory

Behaviour theory focuses on observable behaviours and their environmental influences. Built on the assumption that behaviour is determined by external factors, behaviour theory is put into practice through the use of consequences and positive reinforcement. 

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory on the other hand builds on behavioural theory, emphasising the role of observational learning and cognitive processes in shaping behaviour. The approach takes into account internal motivation and uses techniques that involve modelling as well as different types of reinforcement to influence behaviour. 

Behaviour Modification Psychology

Behaviour modification is both grounded in and applied to multiple disciplines in psychology as well. Psychotherapy that aims to change behaviour is diverse and can involve theories that focus on either internal or external motivation. 

Behaviour modification psychology can be a powerful tool for individuals seeking to change their behaviour. Psychiatrists and psychologists all over the world use behaviour modification techniques to help their patients lead more fulfilling lives. 

Behaviour Modification Therapy

All iterations of behaviour modification therapy aim to change an individual’s behaviour. This type of psychotherapy is used to treat a variety of mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders, phobias, and addiction. 

Most therapies are based on the principle that behaviour is learned and can be unlearned or modified through a process of reinforcement and conditioning. Other approaches also apply theories that are more grounded in the cognitive aspect of behaviour as well. 

Applications of Behaviour Modification

Where Behaviour Modification is Applicable

Behaviour modification techniques have been applied in various settings, including educational, clinical, and work settings.

  • Educational settings: Behaviour modification techniques can be used to improve academic performance and manage disruptive behaviour. 
  • Clinical settings: Behaviour modification can be applied to treat anxiety disorders, addiction, and other mental health concerns. 
  • Work settings: Applications of behaviour modification include improving job performance and workplace safety.

Positive Behaviour Support

Behaviour modification is both the goal and the key ingredient of positive behaviour support. The approach aims to help people overcome challenging behaviour and replace it with more productive and socially acceptable habits. 

Positive behaviour support is a person-centred approach that emphasises the use of positive reinforcement rather than punishment to shape behaviour. This can involve identifying and reinforcing desired behaviours, such as using appropriate communication or engaging in social interactions, while also teaching alternative behaviours to replace challenging ones. 

Behaviour modification in positive behaviour support involves a collaborative effort between the individual being treated, their support network, and different types of professionals. Together, the team identifies and endeavours to understand specific behaviours that need to be modified. A positive behaviour support professional leads the development of a behaviour intervention plan that aims to improve the quality of life of all stakeholders involved. 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Behaviour modification is also the goal of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This form of psychotherapy focuses on the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. 

In CBT, the psychotherapist identifies and attempts to change maladaptive thoughts and behaviours that contribute to their patients’ negative emotions and psychological distress. Behaviour modification techniques in CBT often involve the use of behavioural experiments, exposure therapy, and behavioural activation. 

  • Behavioural experiments: Testing out new behaviours or ways of thinking to challenge negative beliefs and assumptions. 
  • Exposure therapy: Gradually exposing the individual to feared or avoided situations or stimuli to reduce anxiety and fear. 
  • Behavioural activation: Encouraging individuals to engage in pleasurable or meaningful activities to increase positive emotions and reduce depression. 

Behaviour Modification Examples

Across disciplines, behaviour modification techniques can take on different forms. However, the most common examples tend to stay similar:

  • Positive reinforcement: Rewarding desired behaviour with a positive consequence, such as praise or a tangible reward. 
  • Negative reinforcement: Removing an aversive stimulus to encourage a desired behaviour. 
  • Punishment: Providing an aversive consequence for undesired behaviour.
  • Aversion therapy: Aversion therapy involves pairing an undesirable behaviour with an unpleasant stimulus. For example, a person who wants to quit smoking may be given medication that causes nausea when they smoke. Over time, the person may develop an aversion to smoking and be more likely to quit.
  • Time-out: Removing a person from a situation or activity as a consequence of undesirable behaviour. This approach is often used to teach children appropriate behaviour and can be effective in reducing negative behaviour.
  • Extinction: Extinction involves removing positive reinforcement for undesirable behaviour. For example, if a child throws a tantrum to get a toy, a parent may choose not to give the child the toy. Over time, the child may learn that throwing a tantrum is not an effective way to get what they want.

About Behaviour Modification

Behaviour modification is useful for helping people change their behaviour and can be used in various settings. Practitioners apply the theories and principles of behaviour modification to effectively help people overcome their behavioural challenges to lead better lives.

FAQs about Behaviour Modification

Are there any potential negative consequences of behaviour modification?

Behaviour modification can run the risk of reinforcing undesired behaviours or causing harm to individuals. However, professionals in psychology and other disciplines that conduct behaviour modifications are trained to avoid this possibility. Practitioners are made aware of their responsibilities in using behaviour modification techniques ethically.

Can behaviour modification be used to change any type of behaviour?

Behaviour modification can be used to change a wide range of behaviours, but its effectiveness may vary depending on the behaviour and the individual. Some habits may be more resistant to change than others, and the specific techniques used may need to be adapted to suit individual needs and circumstances.

What is the first step in behaviour modification?

Usually, behaviour modification begins with helping the individual to realise that they have problematic behaviour. This has to do with their willingness and motivation to change. Getting people to acknowledge that they need help may be quite difficult at times, but professionals as well as family members need to take a firm yet encouraging stance on this.