Defining Characteristics of Behavior Modification

The field of behavior modification has several characteristics that make its approach unique (Kazdin, 1978; Wixted, Bellack, & Hersen, 1990). First, professionals in this field focus on people's behavior, which can be overt, such as motor or verbal acts, or covert, such as feelings, thoughts, or physiological changes. As a result, their approach typically involves (1) defining people's current status and progress in terms of behavior rather than traits or other broad features, (2) measuring the behavior in some way, and (3) whenever possible, assessing covert behaviors, such as fear, in terms of overt actions. Efforts to improve behavior can be directed at a behavioral deficit—that is, the behavior occurs with insufficient frequency, strength, or quality—or a behavioral excess—that is, it occurs too frequently or strongly. The behavior to be changed is called the target behavior.

Second, although behavior modification professionals recognize that injury and heredity can limit the abilities of an individual, they assume that human behavior is, for the most part, learned and influenced by the environment. The most basic types of learning are respondent (classical) con-ditioning—in which a stimulus gains the ability to elicit a particular response by being paired with an unconditioned stimulus that already elicits that response—and operant conditioning—in which behavior is changed by its consequences. The methods applied in behavior modification generally involve altering the antecedents and consequences of the target behavior.

Third, behavior modification has a strong scientific orientation. As a result, there is a major focus on carefully gathering empirical data, analyzing and interpreting the data, and specifying the precise methods used to gather and analyze the data. The field is also quite pragmatic, emphasizing the need to find and use techniques that work, as indicated by carefully conducted research. Fourth, behavior modification techniques for changing behavior often have clients or subjects become active participants, such as by performing "homework" and "self-management" activities, in the process of modifying their behavior.

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