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Behavior Modification


A treatment approach, based on the principles of operant conditioning, that replaces undesirable behaviors with more desirable ones through positive or negative reinforcement.

Behavior modification is based on the principles of operant conditioning, which were developed by American behaviorist B.F. Skinner (1904-1990). In his research, he put a rat in a cage later known as the Skinner Box, in which the rat could receive a food pellet by pressing on a bar. The food reward acted as a reinforcement by strengthening the rat's bar-pressing behavior. Skinner studied how the rat's behavior changed in response to differing patterns of reinforcement. By studying the way the rats "operated on" their environment, Skinner formulated the concept of operant conditioning, through which behavior could be shaped by reinforcement or lack of it. Skinner considered his discovery applicable to a wide range of both human and animal behaviors and introduced operant conditioning to the general public in his 1938 book, The Behavior of Organisms.

Today, behavior modification is used to treat a variety of problems in both adults and children. Behavior modification has been successfully used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), phobias, enuresis (bedwetting), anxiety disorder, and separation anxiety disorder, among others. One behavior modification technique that is widely used is positive reinforcement, which encourages certain behaviors through a system of rewards. In behavior therapy, it is common for the therapist to draw up a contract with the client setting out the terms of the reward system.

In addition to rewarding desirable behavior, behavior modification can also discourage unwanted behavior, through either negative reinforcement, or punishment. In children, this could be removal of television privileges. The removal of reinforcement altogether is called extinction. Extinction eliminates the incentive for unwanted behavior by withholding the expected response. A widespread parenting technique based on extinction is the time-out, in which a child is separated from the group when he or she misbehaves. This technique removes the expected reward of parental attention.

See also Behaviorism

Further Reading

Martin, Garry. Behavior Modification: What It Is and How to Do It. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1988.

Further Information

Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy. 15 W. 36th St., New York, NY 10018, (212) 279–7970.


This famous urban legend was perpetuated by a photo that appeared in Life magazine of behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner's two-year old daughter standing up in a glass-fronted box. The box was, in fact, a climate-controlled, baby-sized room that Skinner built, called the "aircrib." The aircrib was made of sound-absorbing wood, had a humidifier, an air filter, and was temperature-controlled by a thermostat. Dissatisfied with traditional cribs, Skinner built the box to keep his new daughter warm, safe, and quiet without having to wrap her in clothes and blankets. Skinner was quoted in New Yorker magazine as saying his daughter "…spent most of the next two years and several months there, naked and happy." Deborah was so happy in the box, Skinner reported, that she rarely cried or got sick and showed no signs of agoraphobia when removed from the aircrib or claustrophobia when placed inside. The box-like structure and people's misunderstandings about behavioral psychology contributed to the misconception that Skinner was experimenting on his daughter and also probably prevented the crib from becoming a commercial success. People got the impression that Skinner was raising his child in a box similar to the kind he used to study animal behavior—with levers for releasing food.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychology Experiments