Behavior Modification Using Reinforcement Research Paper Example

Type of paper: Research Paper

Topic: Behavior, Psychology, Innovation, Modification, Human, Human Behavior, Theory, Stimulus

Pages: 6

Words: 1650

Published: 2021/01/09


The purpose of this study is to determine the basic principles of behavior modification and reinforcement and how the latter can become an effective tool in realizing desired outcomes for behavior modification. One of the aims of this study is to determine how reinforcement works in behavior modification. Reinforcement is one of the most extensively used approaches in behavior modification thereby a thorough understanding of its underlying principles is crucial in order to be able to effectively apply such principles in behavior modification.


Behavior is perhaps one of the most difficult subjects to study as far as human psychology is concerned. As observed by Skinner, the difficulty in studying human behavior is difficult not because it is inaccessible, but because it is extremely complex . Evidently, behavior is easily observable that one can easily make observation and jump into conclusions. But despite the fact that human behavior has been studied for many years, a conclusive theory that would ultimately predict human behavior has not been reached. Because of the complexity of human behavior, a plethora of theories have emerged in behavioral sciences that aim to explain how human behaves. Even so, behavioral scientists are still in the process of learning and discovering human behavior. One of the major aims of behavioral science is to predict human behavior under certain circumstances. It is generally assumed that given a particular scenario or stimulus, people would react in certain predictable ways. And so the science of behavior began to take shape based on the assumption that human behavior follows a certain pattern, which can be scientifically studied and determined.
In studying human behavior, predicting behavioral outcomes is not the only concern but equally important is on how human behavior can be manipulated to achieve a certain response and thus the concept of behavior modification is introduced. Behavior modification has been defined as “the field of psychology concerned with analyzing and modifying human behavior”. Miltenberger emphasized both the analyzing and modifying aspect of behavior modification, which implies that behavior modification aims to identify the relationship of behavior and the environment and implementing a procedure that would change the targeted behavior. The role of reinforcement in behavioral modification, on the other hand, is highly logical. Defined as the presentation of a certain stimulus to elicit a certain response, reinforcement is evidently the most logical and naturalistic approach to behavior modification. But despite the obvious applicability of reinforcement in behavior modification, the challenge lies on the determining what stimulus must be reinforced in order to elicit a certain response. According to scholars, “Reinforcement learners interact with their environment and use their experience to choose or avoid certain actions based on the observed consequences”. Based on this observation, it is highly possible that certain behaviors can be modified if the learners are given or reinforced with a stimulus that they already knew what the outcome is. To put it simply, the reinforcement approach can be highly effective since it is proactive as it seeks to force its subjects to modify its behavior through action-reaction learning.

Literature Review

In studying reinforcement and its applicability in behavior modification as a science, the researcher is drawn to the theoretical framework of determinism. Determinism is the doctrine or belief that every human behavior is caused by something and that there is no real free-will; a doctrine that can be traced back to early Greek thinkers. Heraclitus, for instance, argued that there are certain laws or rules behind all changes while Aristotle purports’ the idea that “every event has a (single) cause”. Similarly, the reinforcement theory forms its theoretical framework on the “cause and effect” phenomena. In the 19th century, a naturalistic view on behavior began to emerge as a result of the work of Charles Darwin. At first, the major focus was on animal behavior, which Darwin referred as ‘instincts’. But humans are not as different as animals. Thereby, if animals possess instincts, then the possibility that human possesses a similar behavior is highly probable. At the start of the 20th century, behavior modification began to intertwine with reinforcement theory with the works of the Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov. Experimenting on dogs, Pavlov tried to associate food with a particular sound by feeding the dog while sounding a metronome. Eventually, the dog salivated at the sound of the metronome even though there is no food. Pavlov concluded that the dog has somehow learned that whenever a sound is made, food follows. Meanwhile, an American psychologist, John Watson, was also formulating his theory of behaviorism wherein he believes that human behavior is controlled by environmental factors. Watson’s behaviorism was a prevalent thought in the early 20th century and scholars quote him as saying, “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and, yes, even beggar man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors”. Consolidating the finding of Pavlov and Watson’s theory of Behaviorism, the theory of reinforcement as it applies to behavior modification began to take its present form through B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. In his book ‘The Behavior of Organisms’ that was published in 1938, Skinner argued that reinforcement, either negative or positive, can influence human behavior. Skinner’s work on reinforcement laid the foundation of future studies in this area.

Applying Reinforcement in Behavior Modification

Behavior modification is engaged not only by therapists and psychiatrists but by professionals and even ordinary people on a daily basis. As observed by Miltenberger, “behavior modification procedures often are implemented by people such as teachers, parents, job supervisors, or others to help people change their behavior”. For the same reason, the importance of developing a working approach to behavior modification could not be undermined. Reinforcement as a behavior modification approach has been time tested to be effective. One of the most common examples of this approach can be observed in legal systems wherein punishment serves as deterrent for the commission of crime. Skinner’s operant conditioning, for example, has been extensively used as a theoretical framework in understanding criminality. As observed by Ronald Akers, a famed American criminologist, criminal behavior is learned according to the principles of operant conditioning where in a person’s behavior is altered by his perception of the reward or punishment of his action . For Aker, criminal behavior is learned through social and non-social interactions. Also, the degree of punishment and reward can be a factor for the behavioral outcome. Akers also share’s Edwin Sutherland’s view that criminal behavior, including the modus, techniques, attitudes as well as avoidance are learned depending on the avialable reinforcements. A child, for example, can become delinquent if he percieve that the reward for being delinquent is higher than the percieved punishment. Even in contemporary criminal interventions, the value of reinforcement in behavior modification are still widely utilized.
Positive and negative reinforcements in the form of rewards and punishment, has also been widely utilized as a behavior modification technique for individuals that suffers from mild to severe personality and mental disorders. Most often, reinforcement is used as a psychiatric an intervention technique for behavioral problems common in individuals that has personality disorders. It should be noted though behavior modification through reinforcement is not a therapeutic approach but rather a mitigating process to address behavioral problems. As observed by Miltenberger, “Behavior modification procedures are designed to change behavior, not a personal characteristic or trait”. For the same reason, a person with severe personality and mental disorders, for example, is not lifted out of this condition but his behavior that exhibits this personality can be targeted to minimize or perhaps totally eradicate the behavior. Application of operant conditioning principles can be an effective rehabilitation approach for persons who have personality and mental disorders. Since most individuals under such condition are not capable of normal mental abilities, rewards and punishment can be used as a motivational approach in addressing problematic behaviors of such patients. As observed by Miltenberger, “Behavior modification has been used with patients with chronic mental illness to modify such behaviors as daily living skills, social behavior, aggressive behavior, treatment compliance, psychotic behaviors, and work skills”. Among the most common therapy provided to patients with severe mental and psychological disorders are stimulus-stimulus pairing and aversion therapy. Stimulus-stimulus pairing has gained popularity in behavior modification of autistic patients. Stimulus-stimulus pairing is a positive reinforcement approach wherein participants were allowed to have access to their preferred stimulus after they exhibit that required behavior during the exercise. Aversion therapy, on the other hand, is a form of pairing although its approach is negative reinforcement. According to Elkins, aversion therapy is effectively used for alcoholism and it works by emphasized the pairing of alcohol with chemically-induced nausea or emesis. By associating these negative effects in alcohol, patient are expected to eventually steer clear of such addictive substance.


Reinforcement is evidently an old approach in behavior modification and over the years has been utilized to address behavioral issues. Evidently, the concept or reinforcement lies heavily on instinctive behavior that is heavily associated with animals rather than humans. For the same reason, reinforcement is possible to have limited effect in behavior modification of normal individuals. Perhaps this explains why crime continues to exist despite the punishments provided by the law. It is also questionable whether the effect of reinforcement in an individual is permanent or temporary and it does not guarantee or is not even considered as a treatment for psychological illnesses. Despite the uncertainties associated with behavioral theories, behavior modifications through reinforcement possess a huge potential for mitigating certain circumstances where the individual’s psychological illness is already severe. Reinforcement can be an effective tool in mitigating behavioral problems as positive outcomes of using reinforcement in the therapy of autistic patients and even alcoholics has been observed. In conclusion, when used appropriately and combined with other methods available, reinforcement can become an effective tool in mitigating behavioral issues.


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Skinner, B. (2014). SCIENCE AND HUMAN BEHAVIOR. Retrieved April 2015, from

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