How Does Behavior Modification Work?

Behavior modification therapy reasons that individuals are conditioned to be anxious or depressed, unlike different kinds of therapy. Some forms of psychotherapy, like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), focus on how thoughts affect behaviors. In comparison, behavioral therapy says that behaviors produce thoughts. 

Behavior modification techniques can help those struggling with addiction change negative behaviors. Some therapists think it might be better than CBT or DBT because it directly stops the behavior instead of taking time to work up to it. In general, therapy can help boost addiction treatment as a whole. 

Benefit From Behavior Modification

What Is Behavior Modification Therapy? 

Behavior modification therapy is a type of talk therapy that works to reduce and eliminate negative behavioral patterns. The underlying theory is that better behavior helps people unlearn bad habits. It theorizes that people learn behaviors through reinforcement, also known as conditioning. 

There are multiple names for behavior modification therapy: 

  • Behavioral therapy 
  • Behavior modification 
  • Applied behavior analysis 
  • Behavior therapy 

People learn new habits through the following behavior modification techniques: 

  • Adverse conditioning 
  • Modeling
  • Reinforcement 
  • Systematic desensitization 

Some addiction treatment centers use these methods to help patients overcome an alcohol or drug use disorder. A patient will attend anywhere from six to ten sessions. Though, severe cases might require more sessions. 

What makes this kind of therapy different than others is that it’s more hands-on. A therapist will closely monitor a patient’s behaviors and guide them in the right direction. 

Behavior modification is an older type of therapy, in comparison to CBT and DBT. In a way, newer forms of therapy build upon this school of thought. Traditional therapists believe that mental illness stems from bad “teachers.” They enforced the wrong kinds of behavior. 

The Pillars of Behavior Modification Therapy 

There are two pillars of applied behavior analysis: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning means that there is a conditioned stimulus (something that doesn’t mean anything in particular to a person until conditioned) that can be paired with an unconditioned stimulus (something that a person comes to associate with the conditioned stimulus). The two together ultimately result in a conditioned response. 

The other pillar, operant conditioning, explains reinforcing behaviors through reward and punishment. Rewards reinforce a habit/behavior. Undesirable consequences decrease them.  

Who Can Benefit From Behavior Modification Techniques? 

behavior modification techniques

Behavior modification techniques help a wide range of issues. Addiction treatment is only one of them. It’s especially helpful for patients dealing with multiple health conditions (dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder). Some of the conditions applied behavior analysis helps include:

  • Phobias
  • Most mental illnesses
  • Stuttering 
  • Chronic pain 
  • Insomnia 
  • Overeating 
  • Children with behavior issues 
  • Intimacy issues
  • Chronic criminal activity 

It’s particularly helpful in cases of depression with a tendency to self-harm. A patient would replace self-harm with a positive behavior. The thought behind this form of therapy is that despite negative thoughts, a patient won’t act on them. 

The History Behind Behavior Modification Therapy 

In order to understand the basis behind behavior therapy, it’s crucial to know the history that led to its development. Behavior modification techniques are centuries-old. Many therapists use them to this day. 

Medical professionals and behavioral scientists have paved the way for therapy as we know it today. But, it took a while for applied behavior analysis to take off. Its roots begin in the early 1900s but only gained credibility in the 1950s.  

A Timeline of Behavior Modification and the People Who Influenced It 

Ivan Pavlov (Born 1849) 

One of the earliest behavior experiments was on dogs. Later it involved people, but initially, Pavlov found that he could get dogs to perform an action after associating with something specific. For instance, he paired a bell with food. He would ring the bell whenever he would feed the dogs. After a while, the dogs began to salivate at the sound of the bell alone. 

Edward Thorndike (Born 1874) 

Thorndike was an American psychologist who came up with the law of effect. This theory states that rewards can increase or strengthen habits. Alternatively, punishment can weaken these behaviors. 

John Watson aka The Father of Behaviorism (Born 1878) 

Watson’s idea was that people learn all behaviors. He came up with this concept by conditioning a boy to fear rats. The boy, Albert, was afraid of loud noises. Watson paired rats with loud noises to make Albert fear rats. He came up with the theory of extinguishing after Albert’s fear stopped when Watson stopped pairing rats and loud noises together. 

John Dollard (Born 1900) 

behavior modification

Dollard developed the frustration-aggression hypothesis and habitual response theory with help from Neal E. Miller’s work. The frustration-aggression hypothesis states that aggression stems from thwarted goals. Habitual response theory believes that rewards encourage repeat behavior.  

Jerzy Konorski (Born 1903) 

Konorski came up with the concept behind operant conditioning, which builds on Pavlov’s theory on conditioning. He found that rewarding behaviors occurred more frequently than unrewarding habits. 

B.F. Skinner (Born 1904) 

Although Konorski came up with the concept behind operant conditioning, B.F. Skinner coined the term. However, some sources say he created the concept as well. He built on the fact that behaviors that end in a reward are likely to be repeated. 

Albert Bandura (Born 1925) 

The Bobo doll experiment is what Bandura is known for. He showed children violent displays against dolls. In turn, the children acted violently toward the dolls. He called this social phenomenon modeling. This term is one of the key concepts of the social learning theory. 

8 Behavior Modification Techniques

  1. Contingency contracts – A contract holds people accountable. A contingency contract is made between a therapist and patient to make them stick to their goals. The contract outlines rewards for meeting goals and consequences if they don’t. 
  2. Token economies – This is a form of positive reinforcement. When a patient sticks to their goals they are rewarded with a token. The token can be exchanged for special privileges or a physical reward. 
  3. Response costs – The opposite of a token. When a patient continues to demonstrate a bad habit, rewards and privileges are taken away. An example would be taking away a child’s cellphone if they choose to misbehave. 
  4. Extinction – The technique involves stopping any action that reinforces a certain behavior. If a dog barks until someone pets it, the dog will likely do the same thing in the future. Ignoring the dog when it barks will extinguish the behavior over time. 
  5. Modeling – Learning new behaviors from the actions of others. This was mentioned in the Bobo doll experiment where children modeled violent behavior toward dolls after watching an adult do it. 
  6. Systematic desensitization – Gradually exposing a person to triggers while practicing relaxation techniques. A therapist will pair the feeling of relaxation with the emotional trigger over time to help patients overcome something, like phobias. 
  7. Flooding – This is similar to systematic desensitization, but much more intense. A therapist will “flood” the patient with their trigger until it doesn’t mean much at all. For instance, a client who is scared of clowns will be faced will images of clowns until they face their fears. The thought behind it is if nothing bad happened then they shouldn’t be afraid of the trigger. 
  8. Aversion therapy – Pairing a negative behavior or habit with negative reinforcement (aka a punishment or consequence). The consequence should cancel out the bad habit. 

How Behavior Modification Therapy Helps Addiction Treatment 

From the perspective of treating addiction, substance use disorder is a type of harmful behavior. A behavior modification therapist could demonstrate the concept of modeling. They would do this by asking patients to pay attention to the actions of a peer who is successfully coping with addiction.

The therapist might also ask patients to sign contingency contracts. If they are in residential treatment, the consequence of a contingency contract might be that they are kicked out of the program. A reward could be that they can see visitors. A token economy within an addiction treatment center could include collecting enough tokens to trade for more time with visitors. 

Alternatively, if they don’t show up to a program there could be a consequence. Using the behavior modification technique of response costs, they might not be able to see visitors that week because they skipped out on the program that day.

Those struggling with an addiction often have a mental illness as well such as: 

The concepts of flooding, systematic desensitization, aversion therapy, and extinction can help patients overcome triggers that make their mental health worse. This kind of therapy may be combined with medication-assisted treatment or holistic therapy. A comprehensive plan uses multiple forms of evidence-based treatment to ensure a long-lasting recovery. 

Addiction Therapy In West Virginia Can Help 

Harmony Ridge knows that one kind of therapy doesn’t work for every patient. That’s why we’re proud to offer many. We’ve enlisted a judgment-free team to craft personalized plans that work the best for our patients. If you or a loved one wants to see how therapy can make recovery possible, contact us now.

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