Behavior modification includes the use of basic learning techniques, such as positive reinforcement, to alter human behavior. Positive reinforcement occurs when a behavior is followed by a pleasant incentive or reward that increases the frequency of performing that particular behavior.
Behavior modification is used today as an important part of changing health-related behavior, such as quitting smoking or learning to follow instructions for insulin medication. Another example might be a person who suffered from a heart attack and needs to increase their exercise level while avoiding high fat and high cholesterol foods.
The different behavioral therapies may have their origins in one of two psychological learning processes: classical or operant conditioning. Classical conditioning (sometimes called Pavlovian conditioning, respondent conditioning, or alpha-conditioning) focuses on reflexive (reactive) behavior or involuntary (instinctive) behavior. Any reflex can be conditioned to respond to a formerly neutral stimulus (anything that provokes behavior). Conditioned stimuli are associated psychologically with emotions or feelings such as anticipation, satisfaction (both immediate and prolonged), and fear. In classical conditioning, when the unconditioned stimulus is repeatedly or strongly paired with a neutral stimulus, the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus and elicits a conditioned response. For instance, a person may set an alarm to go off at the times that they need to take insulin. Eventually, the alarm will no longer be necessary, and the person will remember to watch a clock for the times that insulin needs to be taken.
In human psychology, implications for therapies and treatments using classical conditioning differ from operant conditioning. Therapies associated with classical conditioning are aversion therapy, flooding, systematic desensitization, and implosion therapy. Classical conditioning is short-term, usually requiring less time with therapists and less effort from patients, which is unlike more introspective therapies that explore emotions and motivations. Classical conditioning is based on a repetitive behavior system and does not require personal introspection. Repetitive behavior is an action which is performed over and over again.
Operant conditioning is the modification of behavior brought about over time by having consequences for a certain behavior. Sometimes called instrumental conditioning or instrumental learning, it was first extensively studied by Edward L. Thorndike. In his law of effect, Thorndike theorized that some consequences strengthened behavior and some consequences weakened behavior. B.F. Skinner built upon Thorndike's ideas to construct a more detailed theory of operant conditioning based on reinforcement and punishment.
Reinforcement and punishment, the core ideas of operant conditioning, are either positive (adding a stimulus to an organism's environment) or negative (removing a stimulus from an organism's environment). For instance, positive reinforcement would be giving a child a toy after cleaning their room or buying one's self flowers after a week of properly following directions for taking insulin. Negative conditioning is generally not recommended by experts to change any behavior in adults or children, regardless of the circumstances, because many of the techniques are considered ineffective or possibly abusive. In most cases, negative conditioning is considered unethical.
Behavior modification has been used by psychotherapists, parents, and caretakers of the disabled. It uses basic methods to alter human behavior, such as reward and punishment, aversion therapy, reinforcement, and biofeedback. It is also used in school and health-related settings.
Analysis of the patients' thoughts is not required, but many non-behaviorists feel the therapy can be powerfully improved with cognitive analysis.
A major focus of behavior modification is giving compliments, approval, encouragement, and affirmation, which render the changed behavior a positive experience. Many experts believe that patients are more likely to repeat a desired behavior again in the hopes of receiving more positive feedback.
There are several types of behavioral modification therapy still used today, particularly to help those with anxieties, phobias, negative habits, or similar conditions and disorders. In addition, the concepts of behavioral modification may be used to help patients change behaviors to prevent disease or decrease the likelihood of a serious health crisis. In these cases however, the motivation for changing behavior lies in promises of a healthier future, rather than an immediate reward or punishment. Taking insulin after a diabetes diagnosis to prevent a diabetic crisis and increase one's lifespan would be one example. Changing one's diet to incorporate more fruits and vegetables and eliminate high fat foods after a heart attack is another example.
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