Application and Techniques of Behavior Modification

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Behavior modification techniques have been applied successfully in a wide variety of settings and with many types of behaviors and populations (Sarafino, 1996). They have been used to improve general parenting skills, help parents correct children's problem behaviors, enhance instructional methods in schools, improve classroom conduct, train de-velopmentally disabled children in self-help skills, reduce substance abuse, reduce depression and anxiety, promote people's health and prevent illness, and improve worker productivity and safety.

The techniques used in modifying behavior are quite varied. Operant techniques include some that deal with the consequences of behavior. In reinforcement, consequences strengthen the target behavior. Positive reinforcement involves introducing a pleasant event after the target behavior, and negative reinforcement involves removing or reducing an aversive circumstance if the target behavior occurs. Extinction is a procedure whereby eliminating the reinforcers of a target behavior weakens that behavior. When punishment is used as a consequence, it suppresses the target behavior. Operant techniques also address the antecedents of the target behavior. For instance, prompting involves using a stimulus to remind individuals to perform a behavior they know how to do or help them perform a behavior they do not do well. Other operant methods concentrate on the behavior itself. Shaping improves a target behavior by requiring better and better performance to receive reinforcement, and chaining is used to develop complex motor behaviors by organizing simple responses into a sequence.

Respondent techniques are usually applied to reduce conditioned emotional responses, such as fear or anger. One technique is extinction, in which a conditioned response is weakened by repeatedly presenting the conditioned stimulus without the unconditioned stimulus. Another method is systematic desensitization, whereby a conditioned emotional response is reduced by having the person experience increasingly strong conditioned stimuli while maintaining a relaxation response. The conditioned stimuli are arranged in a hierarchy from a very weak stimulus to a very intense one.

Other behavior modification techniques include modeling, a vicarious process in which individuals learn a behavior by watching someone else perform it; biofeedback; and various cognitive methods, such as relaxation training, thought stopping, and covert sensitization. Biofeedback is a technique that teaches people to regulate physiological functioning by presenting moment-by-moment information about the status of the body system. The form of relaxation that is most commonly applied in behavior modification is progressive muscle relaxation, which has the person alternately tense and relax separate muscle groups. Once the relaxation response is mastered, the procedure can be used by itself or as part of systematic desensitization. Thought stopping is a technique in which individuals interrupt distressing thoughts by saying "Stop" emphatically, either aloud or covertly. Covert sensitization is a method that is used to teach a person to dislike a liked event, such as drinking alcohol, by pairing it repeatedly with an aversive event in an imagined situation.

Applying behavior modification is a creative enterprise that organizes techniques into programs that are tailored to meet the needs of specific clients in particular circumstances.


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Edward P. Sarafino The College of New Jersey

See also: Reinforcement

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