Behavior modification is a process in which behavior is actively changed for the better. It can be used on anything that exhibits behavior, from animals to children to full-grown adults. While it is used informally by a wide variety of people, formal, methodical psychologist-run behavior modification programs are generally used for people with a range of mental disorders.
The first – and archetypal – behavior modification experiment was carried out in the beginning of the 20th century by Ivan Pavolov, a Russian scientist. For an extended period of time, he rang a bell every time he fed his dog. Eventually, the dog equated the bell with being fed, and would salivate whenever the bell rang – whether food was delivered immediately after or not.
Behavior modification relies on simplicity. When someone is running a behavior modification program, she discounts the subject himself and rather just focuses on the behavior. The behavior is then divided into antecedents, behaviors and responses, respectively what the behavior is, what caused the behavior and what happened immediately after the behavior.
A behaviorist will try to change either (or both of) the antecedent and response in order the encourage different behavior.
This is repeated over time, and eventually the new behavior becomes internalized.
Another key principle of behavior modification is the use of positive reinforcement. When changing behavior you can either reward good behavior or punish bad behavior (changing the responses) in order to encourage one and discourage the other. A ratio of 5:1 (5 rewards for every 1 punishment) is generally used in behavior modification programs.
It has been argued that behavior modification is a form of outside control. Some see it as a form of brainwashing: by changing behaviors, you are essentially changing who a person is. As of February debate has continued on this issue, and promises to do so in the future.
Everyone uses informal behavior modification. When you give your child a timeout after she hits her brother, you are giving her a punishment response; when you sit between her and her brother on an airplane to keep them from hitting each other you are changing the antecedent. We all use behavior modification every day to deal with the people around us and encourage the behaviors we like. We just don’t think about it or plan it as much as behavioral psychologists do.
Psychologists and their ilk are much more methodical than other people in their behavior modification strategies. Rather than just give some punishments and some rewards, they ensure that the 5:1 ratio is rigidly followed. They also use a process called “chaining” to address more complex behaviors by taking extended periods of time to break behaviors down into simpler behaviors in order to better-establish cause and effect.