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Behavior Modification

is the approach used by behavioral psychologists (watered-down behaviorists) to modify behavior (Surprise!). It is usually based on the reinforcement of desired behaviors and ignoring (as far as possible) undesired ones. This is not as simple as it sounds always reinforcing desired behavior, for example, is basically bribery. The "schedule" of reinforcement is critical. It is much used in clinical and educational psychology, particularly with people with learning difficulties. In the conventional learning situation it applies largely to issues of class- and student management, rather than to learning content. It is very relevant to shaping skill performance, however. It applies at the micro-level: student feedback of high marks for good work is only behavior modification in the broadest and weakest sense, whereas attention and praise at the second-by-second level are much more likely to follow its principles.

If you are consciously practicing it, then:

  • Reinforce the desired behavior: praise is much more potent than criticism or even punishment.
  • Immediacy matters: feedback after the event is useful at a cognitive level, but from a behavioral point of view, the feedback (praise) has to be so close to the specific bit of behavior that there is no doubt as to what it applies to. The principles are exactly the same for humans and dogs. (Most of the material from a net search on this related to dog and parrot training)

Behavior modification as a formal technique is beyond the scope of this site, but it is worth pointing out that teachers practice it willy-nilly. The important question is whether we are always reinforcing (rewarding, encouraging) the behavior we wish to, or whether we are  all unawares  creating more problems. Most of the time, of course, a good teacher's nod of approval, supporting comment on a student's contribution, or simple "well done" is an appropriate reinforce.

A couple of points are worth making:

  • What counts as reinforcement for this student? If she does not respect you, then your approval will mean nothing. If the "well done" referred to above is experience as patronizing, for example, it may well have the opposite effect to that intended.
  • As the idea of "strokes" below emphasizes, attention (approving or disapproving) is a potent reinforcer.    


    The popular approach to studying relationships and communication known as Transactional Analysis (TA), refers, in its deliberately informal jargon, to "strokes" as "units of human recognition". Strokes may be positive (such as compliments) otherwise known as "warm fuzzies", or negative (such as criticism or telling-off) or "cold pricklies". However, the distinctive TA point is that: 

    Negative strokes are better than no strokes

    which means that criticism, and nagging, and anger are all forms of attention. The general rule is that all attention is reinforcing, and if people can't get or accept positive attention, they will provoke negative attention. So ignoring undesired behavior is a more effective way of dealing with it than reacting to it, although practicalities set limits on this. True to the principles of behavior modification, the best strategy is to reinforce behavior incompatible with the undesirable behavior: however, it is a little unfair to list TA under the heading of behaviorism, since overall it is an eclectic approach to communication and psychotherapy.  

    Original content updated and hosted at www.learningandteaching.info/learning/

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