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Behavior Modification
in Orange County, CA

A key to many Orange County therapy services offered at SoCal Mental Health, behavioral modification is a psychotherapy intervention intended to remove or decrease maladaptive behaviors. While specific treatments, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), attempt to alter mental processes that may influence behavior, behavior modification aims to change particular behaviors without involving a person’s ideas or emotions. It is possible to monitor and evaluate the progress and results of this kind of intervention, making it a practical, evidence-based modality.

Behavior Modification

With behavior modification, it is necessary to do a functional analysis of the causes and effects of the issue behaviors. This results in the identification of particular target behaviors that will be the focus of future change efforts. Certain factors can then be controlled via the use of reinforcers and penalties to alter problem behaviors. Through this process, maladaptive behaviors are eliminated or reduced to achieve success.

The goal of behavior modification is not to uncover the origins of bad habits. Rather, the emphasis is on altering behavior and many techniques are used to that end.

Methods used in behavior modification can include:

  • Positive reinforcement
  • Negative reinforcement
  • Flooding
  • Systematic desensitization
  • Aversion therapy
  • Extinction

Positive Reinforcement

A 2021 paper from Louisiana State University reported that “positive reinforcement occurs when a behavior is encouraged by rewards.” We use positive reinforcement to assist individuals in unlearning maladaptive behaviors and creating new healthy routines. Various types of incentives are given as a reward for completing desired goals or activities. As a result of this positive reinforcement, a person is more likely to repeat these positive behaviors in the future.

Many residential treatment programs are built on behavior modification techniques. Adult criminals and teenagers with behavioral issues have shown a decrease in recidivism rates thanks to these kinds of programs.

Delivering praises, approbation, encouragement, and affirmation are all methods of positive reinforcement used in behavior modification. Studies on behavior modification have shown that a compliment-to-complaint ratio of five to one is beneficial in changing behavior and even in creating stable marriages.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is counterintuitive and often misunderstood. To reward positive behaviors, a negative stimulus is removed. For example, some sober living communities and residential facilities have daily chores and tasks that help foster independence and interpersonal skills.

If someone hated doing their community chores then those could be used for negative reinforcement.  Every time they achieved a specific treatment goal a task could be removed from their chore list as a way to encourage that positive behavior. 

Research published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence stated that “maladaptive behavior may be influenced significantly by negative reinforcement, in which a behavior is acquired and maintained by the escape or avoidance of an aversive consequence.” The clinicians at SoCal Mental Health use behavior modification like negative reinforcement to increase the effects of treatment and therapy. We work with each individual and tailor our therapeutic methods to their unique circumstances and personal recovery goals.

Functional Analysis

One critical tool for effective behavior modification is the use of functional analysis. Functional analysis is the study of the causes and consequences of behavior. One premise of functional analysis is that behavior is context-dependent, which means that it is affected by the situation in which the person finds themselves. Behavior has consequences, and in operant conditioning terminology, it can be thought of as either reinforcing or punishing a behavior, increasing or decreasing the likelihood that it will occur in the future.

How Behavior Modification Works

Behavioral scientist B. F. Skinner, known as the “Father of Behavior Modification,” showed that behavior could be changed by using rewards and punishment. A reinforcer, according to Skinner, is a consequence that enhances the probability of a behavior recurrence, whereas punishment is a consequence that lowers the likelihood of a behavior recurrence. Positive and negative reinforcement are used in a mathematical sense; positive implies that something has been added, while negative indicates that something has been deleted or removed from the equation. When rewards promote behavior, positive reinforcement occurs.

Any undesired, maladaptive, or aberrant conduct may serve as an indicator for developing a behavior modification strategy. It may also be used to educate and reinforce new, desirable behavior in children and adults. Treatment teams use the concept of operant conditioning in clinical settings to support prosocial behaviors through positive consequences such as token economy, shaping and differential reinforcement of desired behaviors, and to extinguish undesired behaviors through negative consequences such as overcorrection, response costs, time outs, as well as through other means.

There are a variety of reinforcement schedules that may affect behavior. In the early stages of establishing a behavior plan, continuous reinforcement is used to develop and reinforce the desired behavior. Once a behavior has been established, this may be replaced with intermittent reinforcement, referred to as thinning of the reinforcement pool.

Intermittent reinforcement can be divided into four categories:

  • Fixed interval: The person is reinforced by a set number of responses.
  • Variable interval: The person is reinforced by a variable number of responses.
  • Fixed ratio: The person is reinforced after a certain number of responses.
  • Variable ratio: The person is reinforced after a variable number of responses. Variable ratio intermittent reinforcement is the most effective schedule to reinforce a behavior.

At SoCal Mental Health, we weave positive reinforcement into evidence-based treatment modalities. This increases the effectiveness of behavior modification and improves client outcomes all-around.