Behavior Modification Research Paper

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Behavior modification is a product of the philosophy of behaviorism initially developed by John B. Watson and elaborated on by B. F. Skinner and others. Behaviorism requires a new approach to ethics that is not dependent on the concept of free will. A major problem with the concept of free will is that it is used by the powerful to justify their control over the less powerful through coercion. The practices of cultures like the traits of species determine which cultures will survive and hence perpetuate their practices. Cultures in which the powerful use coercive methods tend not to survive in the long run. Revolutions, constitutions, and bills of rights are examples of counter control or the application of control by the controlled over the behavior of the controllers. Behavior modification as a systematic set of empirically verified methods has been applied in all areas of human conduct and concern. As the power of behavior modification and its potential for abuse became evident, behavior modifiers began to develop ethical codes for behavior modification. It is instructive to note that these codes are directed, to a large extent, toward providing a strong measure of counter control to the recipients of behavior modification procedures.


This research paper first presents a brief history of behavior modification, setting the stage for the rest of the paper by providing an overview of the development of the methods of behavior modification. The paper then considers the ethical dimension by comparing the behavioral approach to ethics to the traditional view, examining the origin of ethics from the perspective of behavior modification, considering the scientific principles of behavior modification and the use of aversive methods, looking at the areas of application of behavior modification, and finally presenting the ethical standards developed to deal with issues that arose in its various applications. The concluding section discusses how behavior modification could be used to provide counter control to all forms of the abuse of power. The focus of this research paper is to consider how behaviorism, which developed a set of ethical standards to deal with issues that have risen from abuses of its methods, could be used to develop a broader approach to ethical issues on a global level.

History Of Behavior Modification

The history of behavior modification began with John B. Watson (1878–1958). Prior to Watson, psychology was the study of mind, which was equated with consciousness (Pear 2007; ViruesOrtega and Pear in press). The primary method of psychology was introspection, i.e., looking inward to observe the mind. This led to a number of problems with psychology as a science: (a) results could not be replicated with different individuals; (b) individuals could engage in problem solving without awareness, even through introspection, of how they solved certain problems; and (c) the study of the psychology of nonhuman animals was difficult because animals cannot report the results of their introspections, if they have any. In 1913, Watson published an article that has been called the “behaviorist manifesto.” This research paper asserted that psychology – at least “as the behaviorist [namely Watson, since he was the only behaviorist at that time] views it”– is a natural science whose theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior and that introspection should play no essential role in this science. After becoming familiar with work on conditioning by the Russian physiologist, Ivan P. Pavlov (1849–1938), Watson declared that the unit of behavior that a psychologist should study is the conditioned reflex. In a demonstration of this approach, he and his graduate student, Rosalie Rayner (1898–1935), paired a loud noise with a white rat to condition a fear response (e.g., crying) in an infant to the rat. Mary Cover Jones (1897–1987), a protégé of Watson’s, demonstrated the deconditioning or counterconditioning of a similar fear response in another child to a white rabbit, setting the stage for the behavioral treatment of psychological disorders. Together these two studies provided a systematic behavioral view of how debilitating fears can be developed and treated.

The behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904–1990) picked up Watson’s mantle. Skinner (e.g., 1953) focused on a type of conditioning that he named operant conditioning. The key concept in operant conditioning is what Skinner called the three-term contingency. The first term is a stimulus that, rather than eliciting a response, sets the occasion for a response to be reinforced or strengthened; the second term is the response that is to be strengthened; and the third term is a positive reinforce – e.g., food, praise, money – that strengthens the response. Skinner adopted Watson’s view that the goal of psychology is the prediction and control of behavior. He stressed that there are scientific laws of behavior that can be discovered and put toward this end. In addition, he proposed a number of applications, ranging from teaching machines and programmed learning to a fictional experimental community.

Dissatisfaction with the ineffectiveness of psychological methods (e.g., psychoanalysis) then in vogue for treating dysfunctional behavior (e.g., phobias, severe depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder) and the absence of methods for treating extremely debilitated behavior (e.g., developmental disabilities, autism, psychoses) led a number of individuals to begin to study the application of behavioral methods to these problems (Ahearn and Tiger 2013; Kurtz and Lind 2013). Behavior modification, defined as the application of behavior principles to improve the behavior of individuals to help them better cope with the environment, including the social environment, emerged from the preceding history. There are two major forms of behavior modification (Martin and Pear 2015; Pear and Martin 2012; Pear and Simister in press): behavior therapy (BT ), sometimes called cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), and applied behavior analysis (ABA). BT is typically carried out in a therapist’s office, much like traditional psychotherapy, the main difference being the behavioral theory underlying the treatment. ABA is typically carried out on problem behavior in settings in which the problem behavior occurs.

Ethical Dimension

Behavioral Approach To Ethics Versus The Traditional View

Skinner was among the first to recognize and write extensively on the fact that behaviorism requires a new approach to ethics that is consistent with behaviorism (Skinner 1971). There are two parts to the traditional view of ethics: (a) people have free will or the freedom to choose among different actions independent of genetic and environmental factors and (b) because they have the freedom to chose alternative courses of action, they are deserving of blame and more tangible forms of social disapproval for their incorrect or wrong choices and deserving of praise and more tangible forms of social approval for their correct or right choices. In the title of Skinner’s book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, the term freedom refers to the traditional view of free will and the term dignity refers to society’s approval or disapproval along with their tangible tokens, such as wealth or poverty and the respect accorded to the person. In other words, according to the traditional view of ethics, some individuals are deserving of more dignity or respect than others. Unfortunately, the title has often been misinterpreted to mean that Skinner was in favor of less freedom for people in the political sense and less dignity for people as human beings. A close reading of the book shows that this is clearly not the case. What he was arguing is that while the traditional view has been useful historically, it is necessary to go beyond it for the good of civilization.

The traditional view was socially beneficial, Skinner argued, in spurring people to overcome tyrants in the name of freedom and to reward individuals for contributing to society by, for example, fighting for human rights. This was necessary because throughout history powerful individuals and institutions have used aversive measures – e.g., punitive techniques or “coercion” as one of Skinner’s followers, Murray Sidman (Sidman 1989), called it – to control the behavior of the less powerful. From a political or social point of view, “freedom” has meant freedom from control by these types of methods. If such techniques had never existed, there would be no need for the political or social concept of freedom. Thus, it is important to distinguish clearly between the two concepts of freedom: freedom in the political sense – i.e., freedom from coercion – and freedom in the philosophical sense – i.e., free will. The two concepts are connected in that the latter may be one of the ways that the powerful use for justifying their control over the less powerful through coercion. For example, a justification that has been used for centuries for subjecting an “offender” to extreme punishment is that the person committed an “offense” of his or her own free will.

But we are at the stage now where a scientific approach to behavior is necessary to address the problems civilization currently faces. It is necessary to clearly recognize that free will, as traditionally conceived, does not exist, except as a rationale for using coercion to control behavior. Behavior is controlled by physiological variables, including genetics, and the environment. However, apart from recognizing that without physiological variables there can be no behavior, and the importance of physiological variables for the health of the individual, physiological variables are not part of the subject matter of behavior modification. Genetics cannot be manipulated to make people, for example, more concerned about others. Through the principles of behavior, environmental variables can be varied to cause people to engage in behaviors that we call concern for others.

Origin Of Ethics From The Perspective Of Behavior Modification

Much has been written about the origin of ethics from an evolutionary point of view. In the early days of evolutionary theorizing, there seemed to be a conflict between ethics and evolution. Evolutionary theorizing emphasized survival of the fittest, which seemed to justify the control of the powerful over the weak. More recently, evolutionary theory has emphasized the evolutionary basis of altruism in the concepts of inclusive fitness and, the popularized form of this concept, the “selfish gene” (Gardner and West 2014). Essentially, in this revision of evolutionary theory, natural selection operates not to select fit individuals but, rather, to select fit genes. Natural selection will tend to select genes that produce individuals that act to perpetuate those genes and similar genes, with the greater the similarity, the greater the tendency for those genes to be selected. Thus, individuals will tend to promote the survival of their offspring, because their offspring have genes very similar to theirs. By extension, individuals will tend to promote the survival of other members of their groups because all members of the group are, at least potentially, related. Hence, individuals will tend to behave altruistically toward other members of their group.

As a field, behavior modification is silent with regard to the validity of the inclusive fitness and selfish gene concepts. From the point of view of behavior modification, ethics is a product of cultural evolution. Cultures, like species, undergo evolution. History shows that some cultures survive and spread, whereas others do not. Organisms have traits that determine whether their genetic material is perpetuated. Analogously, cultures have practices that, like the traits of species, determine whether those cultures will survive and hence perpetuate their practices. When two cultures come into conflict, the practices of the two cultures determine which one will survive and perpetuate its practices over the practices of the other culture. As with conflicts between species, an obvious determinant is physical strength that, with regard to cultures, is manifested in military prowess. For example, cultures that first converted to brass weapons tended to survive over cultures that used stone weapons; cultures that used iron weapons tended to survive over cultures that used brass weapons; and so on. Similarly, cultures that respond better to other, nonmilitary threats, such as diseases, tend to survive over cultures that respond less well to those threats. Cultures whose practices lead to the destruction of their environments, such as the early inhabitants of the Easter Islands, tend not to survive. Another way in which a culture may tend not to survive is if there is internal strife within the culture. Cultures that reduce internal strife have better survivability than those that do not. This leads to ethical rules, such as the Ten Commandments. Cultures in which the powerful use coercive methods also tend not to survive; e.g., the democratic practices of ancient Athens eventually win out over the coercive practices of Sparta.

One of the main determinants of the survival of a culture is the manner in which control is maintained within the culture. Throughout history, there has been a strong tendency to use coercive techniques to control behavior. These range from strong punishment in the present to threats of stronger punishment in the future (including in an afterlife in those cultures that foster a belief in an afterlife). As already mentioned, the reliance on coercion is one of the factors that lead in the long run to the extinction of a culture. One of the factors pitted against coercive methods is counter control, i.e., the control of the oppressors by the oppressed. Revolutions, constitutions, and bills of rights are examples of counter control. Not all revolutions lead to the absence of coercive methods. Sometimes the coercive methods simply continue under a new government. Over the long term, however, one can expect movement toward less use of coercion.

This tendency is often resisted on the basis that the removal of coercion could lead to the breakdown of the culture. However, well-developed theory and research in behavior modification indicates that behavior can be controlled effectively using noncoercive methods. Specifically, these techniques involve the use of positive reinforcement, i.e., items that individuals seek out and that can be used to reward behavior. In his utopian novel Walden Two, Skinner (1948) suggested that an ideal society run according to behavioral principles would require no police force. Because the society had no police force with which to put down rebellions, the leaders would have to be careful not to provide a cause for rebellion. Their only source of control would therefore be positive reinforcement. They would therefore have to be extremely attentive to the needs of the populace of Walden Two.

Although controlling behavior through positive reinforcement is preferable to the use of coercion, the use of positive reinforcement to control behavior is problematic in one respect. When positive reinforcement is being used effectively, people do not feel controlled and thus are often unaware of how they are being controlled. An example of this involves two methods by which governments typically collect revenue. One method involves the use of coercion to require citizens to pay income taxes. With this method, people clearly feel controlled. Another method is the use of state-run lotteries and casinos. Many people who complain about and avoid paying taxes gladly pay money to the government through state-run lottery systems. Although very few win the large jackpots, almost everyone receives enough winnings to reinforce their gambling, even though the amount they receive is generally less than the expenditure they make to obtain those winnings. Between income taxes and state-supported gambling in terms of coercion as a method of governments obtaining revenue are sales taxes. A person paying a sales tax feels less controlled than when paying an income tax, although more controlled than when engaging in state-supported gambling. Unfortunately, state-run gambling and sales taxes are inherently unfair in that they hurt the less powerful (the poor) more than they hurt the more powerful (the rich).

Behavior Modification And Science

Behavior modification can be seen as part of the cultural evolutionary process described above. Its origins are traceable to the development of the scientific method, which, transplanted from the Middle East, took hold in the West in the eighteenth century. In short, behavior modification is a direct application of the scientific method to the study and treatment of behavior. Like other forms of science, it has yielded benefits to the culture.

This is not to say that science has not also caused many problems, which may ultimately lead to catastrophic consequences for humans, including our possible extinction. However, there is no way to turn back the clock. The science of behavior modification may help to bring about a solution to the problems stemming from the advance of science in general.

Principles Of Behavior Modification

Like other sciences, behavior modification has formulated a set of principles. Only a brief, highly condensed overview of these principles can be given here. There are two broad categories of these principles: principles of Pavlovian conditioning and principles of operant conditioning.

The main principle of Pavlovian conditioning is that pairing a stimulus that does not elicit a particular response with a stimulus that does elicit that response will cause the former stimulus to also elicit that response. The main principle of operant conditioning is that following a response by a particular type of stimulus called a positive reinforcer in a particular situation causes that response to tend to occur again in that same situation. Conditioned responses developed through Pavlovian conditioning apply more to the internal functioning of the individual, whereas conditioned responses developed through operant conditioning apply more to the external (including social) functioning of the individual. There are many similarities between Pavlovian and operant conditioning. One similarity is that of the principle of extinction, i.e., the cessation of the conditioned response through presenting the conditioned stimulus unpaired with another stimulus or allowing the conditioned response to occur without being followed by a reinforcer. Extinction of an operant response produces response variability that, through the positive reinforcement of successive approximations to a desired response, can produce new responses that would be highly improbable to occur on their own. Another important principle of operant conditioning is that through a pairing process somewhat like Pavlovian conditioning, a new positive reinforcer can be created by pairing a neutral stimulus with a current positive reinforcer. In this way, an operant response can be maintained (i.e., prevented from being extinguished) by having it produce stimuli called conditioned reinforcers (e.g., money) that would not originally have maintained it. Through this process, long chains of responses can be developed. Another important principle of operant conditioning is that of intermittent reinforcement. The essence of this principle is that not every instance of an operant response needs to be followed by a positive reinforcer in order for the response to be maintained. If instances of reinforcement are decreased gradually, many instances of the response can be maintained by very few instances of reinforcement. Gradualness is extremely important in most behavior modification programs.

Behavior Modification And The Use Of Aversive Methods

Up to now, we have focused on the control of operant behavior by positive reinforcement, where, loosely speaking, a positive reinforcer is something an individual likes and will strive to obtain. In contrast to positive reinforcement are methods of aversive control – referred to above as coercion. There are two types of aversive control: negative reinforcement and punishment. Negative reinforcement is, loosely speaking, the removal of something a person does not like contingent on a specific response. An example of negative reinforcement is yelling at a person to perform a specific behavior. Punishment is the presentation of a negative reinforcer contingent on a response. An example of punishment is yelling at someone for performing a specific behavior. That is, yelling (an aversive event) is negative reinforcement if it causes a person to do something; it is punishment if it causes a person to stop doing something. Aversive control can be effective in the short term. However, it leads to undesirable emotionality and can drive an individual away from the behavior modifier and anything associated with the learning situation. Therefore it is recommended only as a last resort in extreme circumstances and, even then, only for a short period.

Areas Of Application Of Behavior Modification

In a general sense, everyone uses behavior modification just as they use physics, whether they are aware of it or not. However, it is no exaggeration to say that behavior modification as a systematic set of empirically verified methods has been applied in all areas of human conduct and concern (Martin and Pear 2015). To give an idea of its range of application, the following are some areas in which it has been applied:

Parenting. The focus in parenting has been on teaching parents to apply positive reinforcement to manage their children’s behavior.

Developmental disabilities (i.e., intellectual disabilities and autism). The focus on developmental disabilities has been on developing self-care skills, social skills (e.g., verbal behavior), and basic academic skills.

Education. Behavior modification is used at all educational levels (Pear 2012; Pear et al. 2011). An example of an application at the elementary school level is a token economy, in which students work to obtain tokens that they can exchange for desired items at a later time. An example of an application at the college level is personalized system of instruction, in which students proceed through a course at their own pace by demonstrating mastery of small sequential units of material. At all educational levels, emphasis is placed on reinforcing student competency with the material to be learned.

Clinical behavior disorders (e.g., severe depression, anxiety disorders, posttraumatic stress, chronic pain). Much psychological distress is caused by private or covert verbal behavior – i.e., statements that an individual makes to himself/ herself. For example, in what is called catastrophizing, a person may make self-statements to the effect that one is a failure, leading to severe depression. An approach called cognitive therapy uses logic and positive reinforcement to modify those self-statements. Another approach, called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), which in addition to being based on behavioral psychology, is based on mindfulness (Powers et al. 2009). Essentially, this therapy involves accepting the negative thoughts and viewing them from a calm, mindful perspective. Another approach to severe depression is activation therapy, which is based on the idea that at least some forms of depression are due to a lack of positive reinforcement. Activation therapy involves clients in activities that enable them to increase their frequency of positive reinforcement.

Psychotic behavior. Behavioral treatment of psychotic behavior involves reinforcing appropriate social behavior and teaching clients to distinguish between hallucinations and reality.

Other areas in which behavior modification has been applied successfully are self-management of personal problems, couple distress, medical and health care, business, industry, government, and sport psychology.

There have been suggestions that behavior modification can be applied to more global ethical issues. However, the negative effects stemming from these issues are remote in time, whereas behavior modification is more effective when the positive reinforcing or punishing consequences are immediate. It is very difficult to teach individuals to forego immediate positive reinforcement in order to avoid a long-delayed punishing effect. However, it is noteworthy that both industry and the military see climate change as potentially causing global financial and security problems (Ahmed 2014). It is not out of the question that as these problems intensify, the military-industrial complex may turn to behavior modification for ways to address these problems. If so, one hopes that appropriate counter-control measures will be in place when that happens.

Ethical Codes Of Behavior Modification

As the power of behavior modification and the potential for abuse became evident, behavior modifiers began to develop a code of ethics for behavior modification (Bailey and Burch 2011). It is instructive to note that these codes are directed, to a large extent, toward providing a strong measure of counter-ontrol to the recipients of behavior modification procedures. The following are some of the most salient general components of these codes:

Do no harm. There are some methods that clearly have risks associated with them. The behavior modifier should take special care in using these methods.

Respect the autonomy of the client. The client should have the freedom to do what he or she perceives to be in his or her best interest, provided that it is not harmful to the client or others.

Accord dignity to the client. Treat the client with the same worthiness that any other human deserves, regardless of condition or status.

Treat the client with care, compassion, and understanding. Recognize the discomfort or suffering of the client and treat him or her as you would want yourself or someone close to you to be treated under the same circumstances.

Accept responsibility. It is the responsibility of the behavior modifier, not the client, to achieve the desired rate of progress. Therefore, never blame the client if the desired rate of progress does not occur.

Join and follow the regulations of professional organizations that responsibly regulate the use of and research on behavior modification. This includes local (e.g., state, provincial) licensing bodies for various professions, such as psychological, medical, and educational associations (e.g., American Psychological Association 2010). A highly respected certifying body for behavior modification worldwide is the Behavior Analyst Certification Board®, Inc.

Promote and support research on behavior modification and related scientific endeavors. It is only through research that errors can be corrected, procedures can be effectively refined, and new knowledge can be obtained so that the techniques of behavior modification can be improved.

The following are ethical principles relating to specific treatments:

Use treatments that have been scientifically demonstrated to be effective for the particular problem being treated.

Among those treatments that have been scientifically demonstrated to be effective for the problem being treated, use the most effective one.

Use positive reinforcement rather than aversive methods. If it is necessary to use aversive methods, they should be used only as a last resort and, even then, only briefly and sparingly.

Other factors being equal, use the least restrictive procedures.

Take regular, frequent, and reliable measures of the behavior of interest and any other behaviors that may be affected by the treatment. If the desired rate of progress is not occurring, or if undesirable side effects occur, adjust or change the treatment.


For the past 300 or so years, science has been gradually growing and expanding. We have reached the point at which science can be applied to our own behavior. This requires abandoning concepts that have been with us for thousands of years, most notably the view that people have free will and that some people are more deserving of dignity. Behavior is determined and all humans need to be accorded equal dignity. As behavior modification becomes more powerful through the advancement of science, it is important that methods of counter control be developed. Codes of ethics by professional organizations provide some forms of counter control. Perhaps the most powerful forms of counter control will be those provided by behavior modification itself. Behavior modification has developed powerful methods of teaching. These methods can be used to teach all subjects including behavior modification. A well-educated citizenry armed with knowledge of behavior modification should be well positioned to counter the adverse use of behavior modification. In other words, through knowledge of behavior modification, the controlees should be well equipped to control the controllers.

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