What is Behavior modification history techniques and applications

Behavior modification refers to all techniques used to increase or decrease the occurrence of a particular behavior or reaction. It’s used in other areas too: Animal trainers use it to develop obedience and teach their pets “tricks” and therapists use it to promote healthy behaviors in their patients.

Behavior modification is even used in our relationships with friends and couples, even if unconsciously. The responses we provide to their behaviors teach them what we like and what we don’t like.

Although modifying behavior is something that almost everyone can do informally and sometimes unconsciously, in this article we will focus on behavior modification in psychological therapy.

Characteristics of behavior modification

As it is not easy to define the concept of behavior modification, we will see a list of its basic characteristics, including its theoretical bases.

-It is based on the theoretical principles of learning psychology and models derived from scientific psychology to explain, predict and treat behavior.

-Normal or abnormal behaviors are acquired, maintained and modified by learning principles. In this way, behavior is largely a consequence of learning.

– Its objective is the modification or elimination of maladaptive or negative behaviors, replacing them with more adapted behaviors.

Behavior modification emphasizes the here and now, on the current determinants of the current problem. This does not mean that past history is rejected; The causes of the behavior are always important in determining how to change it. The action object is the current behavior of the issue.

-The experimental methodology is used in the evaluation of the behaviors, in the design of the treatment and in the evaluation of the results.

-Behavior modification is active: Assigned tasks are crucial for change.

– Realizing the previous point, it increases the capacity for self-control, making the patient his own therapist; This implies teaching coping skills and resources.

-The modification of behavior is individualized: the treatment adapts to the subject and his circumstances, finding the best for each person.

-The modification of behavior is gradual, progressively increasing the resources and abilities of the person.

History of Behavior modification

Background (1938)

Behavior modification is based on the concept of conditioning, which is a form of learning. What later became behavior modification derives from Pavlov’s classic laws of conditioning, Thorndike’s law of effect, and Watson’s formulations of behaviorism.

There are two main forms of conditioning: classical, based on a specific stimulus or signal that causes an action; and the operant, which implies the use of a system of rewards and/or punishments to change behavior.

Behavior modification was developed from these theories because they support the idea that behaviors, just as they are learned, can also be unlearned. As a result, many techniques have been developed to cause or lessen the occurrence of behaviors.

However, these sporadic applications to practice seem to have been reduced or ceased around 1940. Later, there was a retreat to laboratories and the development of more consistent theories of learning in order to derive more effective intervention techniques.

Emergence and early developments (1938-1958)

During this period, neoconductist learning theories were developed: Hull, Guthrie, Mowrer, Tolman and, above all, Skinner, who affirm that behavior should be explainable, predictable and controllable based on functional relationships with its antecedents and consequent environment, rejecting explanations based on internal constructions.

Behavior modification appeared as a consequence of a series of facts: dissatisfaction with the results of traditional treatments in clinical psychology; Criticisms of other types of psychotherapies in the treatment of neurosis …

The role of the clinical psychologist limited only to diagnosis began to be rejected and the demand for professional help and alternative procedures began before the effects of World War II, as traditional procedures (eg psychoanalysis) did not work.

Under these conditions, behavior modification emerged at different points: the United States, South Africa, and England.

Consolidation of behavior modification: theoretical foundation (1958-1970)

It is a very behavioral stage, in which much emphasis has been placed on observable events and behavior. The intervention aimed to modify maladaptive behaviors and the possibility of mental processes underlying these behaviors was not considered. All disturbances were explained in terms of stimulus-response relationships.

The emphasis was on objectively demonstrating treatment effectiveness: it was necessary to observe verifiable changes to verify that a therapy or treatment had been effective. The treatment programs and explanatory models of the disorders were simple and with few variables.

On the other hand, the theoretical contributions derive from the authors of social learning: Bandura, Kanfer, Mischel, Staats. They all emphasize the importance of cognitive aspects and mediation in explaining behavior.

Expansion and methodological foundation (1970-1990)

It is a much more practical applied stage, characterized by more epistemological definitions of behavior modification. Foundation applications in research and derived theories were separated.

He initiated the development of cognitive techniques, such as rational-emotional therapy and cognitive restructuring, as well as self-control, modeling and feedback techniques.

At this stage, training in self-control skills began to be important for greater generalization of what was learned in therapy and for providing the patient with resources to cope with problems.

Treatments became more complex, integrating various techniques, and were applied to more global and generalized behavioral patterns. The role of the therapist-client relationship and therapist skills were emphasized.

Variables such as attribution styles, self-efficacy, and basic behavioral repertoires became more important in therapies and theories related to behavior modification at this time.

The field of application of behavior modification was expanded, as there were no theoretical limitations, to many areas of health beyond mental health and to the educational, work and community environment. Interventions began to be applied in an individual, group or community format.

Reconceptualization (1990-present)

In this step, we try to put theory into practice by developing various explanatory models. Emphasis was placed on the theoretical foundation of techniques and explanatory models of disorders to guide assessment and intervention.

They begin to use knowledge from psychology as a science, especially experimental cognitive psychology (research on perception, attention, memory, thinking, etc.).

Emphasis remains on evaluating the effectiveness of therapeutic procedures, as it makes no sense to study the underlying processes of the techniques if they are not proven to be effective.

In addition to knowledge from cognitive psychology, knowledge from other disciplines such as physiology, neuropsychology and pharmacology are integrated.

Environmental variables such as context acquire greater importance, as does emotional self-control.


The goal of behavior modification is not to understand why or how a given behavior started, although that is relevant data. This area focuses on behavior change, for which a number of techniques are used, including those that will be described below:

positive reinforcement

This technique, based on behavioral theories, consists of combining a positive stimulus with a specific behavior. A good example of positive reinforcement would be when teachers reward their students with stickers for getting good grades.

Positive reinforcement is also often used in dog training. Rewarding the animals‘ behavior with something to eat is to positively reinforce the emitted behavior.

negative reinforcement

This technique is the opposite of positive reinforcement. It consists of combining the disappearance of a negative or aversive stimulus with a specific behavior.

A child who gets mad every time he eats vegetables and finally manages to eat something else is a good example of negative reinforcement. The child is receiving, through his tantrum, the disappearance of the negative stimulus that is the plant.


Punishment is designed to weaken behaviors by matching an unpleasant stimulus with a behavior. Getting a speeding ticket is a good example of punishment.


Flooding techniques involve exposing the person to objects, stimuli or situations that cause them fear, intensely and quickly: for example, forcing someone with a fear of snakes to hold one for ten minutes.

systematic desensitization

It is also used to treat phobias and involves teaching the individual to remain calm while focusing on their particular fear. For example, someone with a fear of bridges might start by looking at a picture of a bridge, then move on to thinking about standing on a bridge, and finally walking on an actual bridge.

aversive therapy

It consists of combining an unpleasant stimulus with an unwanted behavior to eliminate this behavior. To stop biting your nails, for example, there is a substance that is applied that makes your nails taste bad. Painting nails with this substance helps to eliminate nail biting behavior.


The use of behavior modification techniques may seem quite obvious in children and animals, but it is also applied in adults, at more complex levels.

mental disorders

From a clinical point of view, behavior modification applies to practically all clinical disorders or problems of the DSM-IV-TR and ICD-10, and also to interpersonal relationship problems (couple difficulties, family mediation, sexual violence, etc. .), in which it presented satisfactory results.

physical ailments

It has likewise been applied to the field of physical illness, both in health promotion, prevention and treatment, and in improving policy and health care systems.

Human Resources

Other areas where it is applied are the industrial and human resources area, in order to improve performance and safety at work and for the prevention of occupational risks, or in sports psychology to improve performance. In addition, it applies to specific populations: the elderly, children, the disabled …

In summary, behavior modification applies to people of all ages, cultures and all types of psychological problems. His techniques are effective for many problems and groups of people for whom traditional psychotherapy has not been able to respond.

However, it should be borne in mind that certain behavior modification techniques may not be the ideal or most effective treatment for some individuals.

Behavior modification critique

One of the most widespread criticisms of the theories underlying this area is skepticism about the assumption that the probability of behavior increases only when it is reinforced.

This premise runs counter to the evidence demonstrated by Albert Bandura’s research at Stanford University. His findings indicate that violent behavior is imitated, without being reinforced, in studies of children who have watched films showing various individuals being violent.

Bandura believes that human personality and learning are the result of the interaction between the environment, behavior and psychological processes. There is evidence, however, that imitation is a type of behavior that can be learned like any other.

Children have been shown to imitate behaviors that have never been emitted before or that have never been rewarded, after being instructed to imitate, in general.

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