Chapter 9.2: Behavior Modification

Since the only thing worth measuring in behavioral theory is behavior, it is only logical that the one thing behaviorists focus on changing is also behavior.  Behavior modification is the generic term given any process derived from learning theory where the goal is to change a person’s behavior or the way he or she interacts with the world.9.2

To understand behavior modification, you have to understand the two main concepts that it is based on: Classical and Operant Conditioning.  Classical conditioning refers to the pairing of naturally occurring stimulus-response chains with other stimuli in order to produce a similar response.  Operant conditioning started as an experiment in learning and developed into the Law of Effect and our knowledge of reinforcement, punishment, and extinction.


In behavior modification, we apply these same techniques in order to effect change on the way a person acts or responds to the environment.  Changing complex behaviors, hence, requires complex behavioral modification.  The concept of shaping comes into play here.  Shaping refers to the reinforcement of behaviors that approximate or come close to the desired new behavior.  The steps involved are often called successive approximations because they successively approximate or get closer and closer to the desired behavior.

Research has found that this technique works well for phobias and anxiety related disorders.  Take arachnophobia for instance, the fear of spiders.  To be diagnosed with a phobia you must have both an irrational fear that is not justified by current outcome and significant distress or negative consequences because of this irrational fear.  To modify this fear or the behavior of avoiding or running away from spiders, behaviorists would apply the concept of shaping.

The process of shaping involves the creation of a hierarchy ranging from the least feared situation (such as a stuffed animal that looks like a spider) to the most feared situation (a real tarantula, for example). We would then fill in the space between the two with situations that progressively produce higher levels of fear.  The following is an example of such a hierarchy:


We would then start at the bottom of the hierarchy and reinforce the person for engaging in this behavior, or for our example, touching or handling the stuffed animal.  Once they master this level, we would then move to the next level and repeat the same process.  Ultimately, through shaping and behavior modification, the person will be cured of their irrational fear of spiders.  This technique, and others based on the same principles, have been found to be quite successful for specific disorders.

Systematic Desensitization

A concept described by Joseph Wolpe uses a hierarchy like the example above but instead of applying reinforcement, the client is taught to relax.  Some behaviors are incongruent with each other and we have found that being tense, anxious and afraid is not possible when a person is relaxed.  The theory argues that if we can teach a person to relax in the presence of a feared object or situation, then we can alleviate the associated fear.

In systematic desensitization, an hierarchy is created, typically by the client alone or with the assistance of the behavioral therapist.  Often the hierarchy includes imagination such as imaging a spider crawling toward you or imaging a spider on your hand as intermediate steps.  The goal of this treatment is the same as shaping and reinforcement; to eliminate the fear associated with the object or situation.

This techniques has also received much research that suggests it is an effective and viable treatment for phobias, anxiety related disorders, and even sexual dysfunctions.  The performance anxiety associated with impotence in males is often reduced significantly with systematic desensitization.

While shaping uses the theory of operant conditioning and reinforcement, systematic desensitization was derived from classical conditioning.  The object (UCS), originally paired with fear (UCR) is altered so that the object (CS) becomes paired with relaxation (CR) and hence a relearning of a conditioned response.  Overall, both treatments have been applied to many different symptoms related to anxiety and fear with very positive outcomes.