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Habit Formation

Understanding What Makes Behavior Modification Work

Some ideas to keep in mind for maximizing the effectiveness of behavioral plans.

Many people who seek out services from psychotherapists or counselors have “behavior modification” included as part of their treatment. This could involve a behavioral plan for children (to help increase their use of more appropriate behaviors), schedule changes to help remove triggers for problem behaviors (like changing a morning routine to break a smoking habit), or self-rewards where a person gives themselves something positive when they engage in desired behaviors (for example, watching a mindless television show to reward exercising for an hour).

“Behavior modification,” also known as “behavior management” and “behavior analysis,” all stems from the work of B.F. Skinner. He did most of this work on animals, particularly pigeons and rats, to study how behaviors are reinforced. There also was earlier work conducted by I. Pavlov, who did much of his work on dogs, who studied how different events get associated with certain behavioral responses. There are many other names associated with behavior modification but Skinner and Pavlov are the most famous.

Noting that the most famous work creating behavior modification was done on animals is important. Researchers on behavior modification determine that behaviors follow some basic rules regardless of whether it is human behavior or animal behavior.

Using animal behavioral research also shows that behavior modification is very scientific. Studying animal behavior allows for a more rigid scientific approach because animals can be studied for longer periods of time and can be studied under a number of different types of conditions. Animals also do not typically respond as strongly, or at all, to being observed as humans do. This takes away one problem for studying human behaviors, where just being watched can strongly impact what people do.

Behavior modification programs focus on changing an individual’s environment in ways that increase the likelihood that certain behaviors will occur. Therapists and counselors could be looking to increase a desired behavior or could be looking to decrease an undesired behavior. Regardless of the specific approaches being used, “behavior change” is always the goal.

These days, there are many professional journals that focus on behavior modification techniques. Two of the most famous are the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA) and the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (JEAB). JABA specializes in clinical applications of behavior modification while JEAB specializes in research on how behavior modification works in animals. They both provide very important information about the complexities of behaviors.

And when you’re dealing with behavior modification, it’s that complexity that is extremely important. Because it’s all more than just reinforcing behaviors so that they occur more often. There are a lot of different factors that enter into behavior modification and make behavioral programs effective.

One major factor that often gets missed with behavior modification is change. Behavioral programs are not supposed to remain the same. When you find one type of approach that works, you’re supposed to keep it in place for a little while, but then change the program. If you have one program that works but you just keep the same, it isn’t likely to stay effective.

Most often you see this with how reinforcers are presented. You might have a kid who responds to getting praise for using positive behaviors. And that might work for a while to help the kid keep using those behaviors. But if all the adults around the kid do is keep praising those behaviors the same way time after time, the reinforcers won’t work anymore. You will see a decrease in the reinforcer’s strength.

What is needed here are changes in how the reinforcement is presented over time. Typically you would go from reinforcing the target behavior every time it occurs to every few times it occurs. For example, instead of reinforcing the behavior every time, you might reinforce the behavior ever four times it occurs. This is called a “fixed ratio” schedule (the first one is called “FR-1” for “Fixed Ratio” every 1 time the behavior occurs, and the second one is called “FR-4” for “Fixed Ratio” every 4 times the behavior occurs).

Once you have an effective “Fixed Ratio” schedule, you would then switch to what is called a “Variable Ratio” schedule. This means that the reinforcement is still presented every four times (in the case of a “VR-4” or “Variable Ratio 4” schedule) on average, but here would be variability in when the reinforcement is presented. Ultimately, it would average every four times. VR schedules are considered the most effective for keeping a behavior in place over long periods of time.

What all this means is that behavior modification programs are supposed to change. Once a reinforcement has been effective, there should be a change to the timing of the reinforcement. Keeping a plan the same for long periods of time is one way of decreasing its effectiveness over time.

Another important complex part of behavior modification is choosing what reinforcement to use. There are many types of reinforcement, and not all of them will not work for everyone. Some of the most common types of reinforcement include food, attention, avoidance (i.e., being able to avoid something the person does not want to do), fun things, and money.

Too many times professionals working on behavior modification will use the same types of reinforcement for everyone. This is a good way of ensuring that the plans will not be effective for many people. Everyone responds differently to reinforcement; thus, each behavior modification plan should use different reinforcers.

If a behavior management plan is not working, one possible reason is that the type of reinforcement is not effective. Too many times I hear professionals, clients, and parents say that, “This plan isn’t working,” when it really is the type of reinforcement that is ineffective. Professionals developing plans need to be sure that the type of reinforcement works for the person involved.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the strength of a reinforcer is not typically based just on it occurring more often. There are many different factors that determine whether a reinforcer has any strength in terms of getting a behavior to occur more often. Behavior research involving pigeons, for example, has shown that certain stimuli may gain their strength from whether they signal that a reinforcement will occur, regardless of whether the reinforcement actually occurs (Zentall, Laude, Stagner & Smith, 2015). When applied to humans, this suggests that approaches may be stronger based on what an individual expects will happen, even if that expectation does not always happen.

Animal behavioral research also shows the impact different individuals can have on behaviors. Behavior modification can change considerably based on who is around the individual at the time. Recent articles like those by Browning & Shanan (2018) show the strong impact that different individuals can have on the effectiveness of behavioral approaches.

Where this comes into place on behavior modification for people is that behavioral approaches might work differently depending on who is with the person at the time. If, for example, you have a plan for a child, it is possible that the plan works better with one parent in the room than the other. This doesn’t mean that the one parent is “better” than the other parent, but it does mean that someone should be trying to figure out what that person does that the child responds better to. This could help everyone working with the child to act in similar ways when working with the child (and keep behavioral approaches consistent, a step that is very important in keeping them effective).


Based on the material I presented in this post, here are some things to keep in mind for helping behavior modification plans to be effective:

1. Behavioral plans should not stay the same. Once there is evidence that a plan is working, then it might need to be modified so that the reinforcement is occurring on a different schedule or in some other different way. This is what helps to keep plans effective over time. If a professional develops a plan that works, that professional should also look at whether the plan needs to be changed over time.

2. Not every type of reinforcer works for every individual. When developing a behavior management plan, the first step should be deciding what reinforcer is most likely to be effective. If a plan is not working for someone, then it may be that a different type of reinforcer is needed.

3. Consistency is very important for effective behavior modification plans. Individuals tend to respond better to approaches that they have come to expect will bring about certain outcomes (even if they do not actually bring about those outcomes all the time).

4. Different people will often have different impacts on a behavioral plan’s effectiveness. If a plan seems to work better with one particular individual, try to identify what that person is doing so everyone else can consider using similar approaches.

If you are a professional developing behavior management plans, these are some ideas to consider for keeping them effective. If you are working with a therapist or counselor on a behavior modification plan, these are some things you can review with them to see how these issues are being addressed.


Browning, K. O. and Shahan, T. A. (2018), Renewal of extinguished operant behavior following changes in social context. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. doi:10.1002/jeab.472.

Zentall, T. R., Laude, J. R., Stagner, J. P., & Smith, A. P. (2015). Suboptimal choice by pigeons: Evidence that the value of the conditioned reinforcer rather than its frequency determines choice. The Psychological Record, 65(2), 223-229.

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