Psychological Techniques for Behavior Modification

Behavior modification uses reinforcement techniques to create a change in an individual's behavior. In this article, we'll discuss the most important techniques.
Psychological Techniques for Behavior Modification
Cristina Roda Rivera

Written and verified by the psychologist Cristina Roda Rivera.

Last update: 20 October, 2022

Psychological techniques to boost behaviors are based on behavior modification, theoretical guidance, and intervention. Based on experimental psychology, behavior modification states that normal and abnormal behaviors share the same principles.

Behavior modification uses procedures and techniques during objective evaluations and empirical verification processes to eradicate abnormal behaviors or boost normal behaviors. It doesn’t rely on observation alone. Instead, it relies on cognitive aspects and basic processes derived from its origins, development, maintenance, and changes.

Behavior modification techniques can be classified into three categories:

  • Create behavior.
  • Boost behavior.
  • Reduce or eliminate behaviors.

In this article, we’ll focus on the psychological techniques to boost behavior. Among the psychological techniques to boost behavior, you can use reinforcement, reinforcement contingencies, and token economy.

A mother scolding her child, representing behavior modification in children.

Reinforcement techniques

Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is an incentive to repeat a behavior. Thus, contingencies refer to the dependency between a behavior and the incentives people receive.

Negative reinforcement

Negative reinforcement tries to keep the positive reinforcement in place. The main goal is to improve behavior or just prevent the person from losing it.

There are two types of negative reinforcement:

  • Escape. Consists of reducing damaging incentives or stopping the person from losing positive reinforcements.
  • Avoidance. Consists of presenting or eliminating an alleged positive reinforcement to stop the person from doing something.
A teacher and his students.

Reinforcement contingencies

Contingencies are part of an agreement between the parties. This establishes the responsibilities involved regarding a subject or activity. Reinforcement contingencies have certain characteristics, such as:

  • Rewarding taking the right steps towards the desired behavior.
  • The rewards can be frequent but in small amounts.
  • The contingency needs to demand and reward accomplishments.
  • The agreement has to be fair for all parties in it.
  • The terms of the agreement should be easy to understand.
  • All parties have the right to negotiate the contingencies.
  • It needs to specify the desired behavior and expected rewards.
  • The booster has to comply with the terms of the agreement.

Types of contingencies

In some cases, just one of the parts involved shows the undesired behavior. However, there are many cases where both parties show problematic behavior.

In such cases, two types of contingencies can be used: quid pro quo and bona fide, or parallel, contingencies.

  • Quid pro quo or exchange contingency. One of the parties agrees to do something in exchange for a certain change of conduct from the other party. For example, a husband agrees to cook dinner with his wife if she talks to him every day for a least 20 minutes about his day or his job.
  • Bonafide or parallel contingencies. A person’s behavioral changes have no direct consequences to the changes of the other person. This type of contingency gets rid of the issue of who needs to change first. It allows rewards and reinforcement for the person that follows the agreement, even when the other person doesn’t comply.

More studies are needed to determine which type of contingency works best.

Token economy

Another psychological technique to modify behavior is the token economy. It consists of giving out tokens for reinforcements. These tokens can be traded for other things, activities, or privileges.

  • Advantages. People can get the tokens at first and usually, this doesn’t interfere with the desired behavior. Tokens can be the bridge between what the person wants to accomplish and handing out support reinforcements. The tokens can show tangible proof of how well the person is doing.
  • Cons. The process can be complex. Physical tokens can be stolen, forged, or lend. Group partners can refuse to cooperate if they’re not included in the program, and so on.
Golden stars are tokens for good behavior.

Characteristics of the tokens

Plastic tokens, coupons, and stars can become tokens. A good token should have the following characteristics:

  • Easy to understand its value.
  • Easy to deliver and carry.
  • Simple to identify.
  • The person that gives them needs to be held accountable for their delivery.
  • Be simple. Because of this, points are easier to understand and count for. Unless tangible tokens are more exciting for the people in the program.

The value of the tokens can be explained to them. The main goal is to encourage behaviors through natural incentives or intrinsic reinforcements.

To get there, the token economy can be used with other techniques such as training in social skills or problem resolution.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Barraca, J. (2014). Técnicas de modificación de conducta. Editorial síntesis.
  • Labrador F. J. (2008). Técnicas de modificación de conducta. Pirámide.
  • Martin, G. y Pear J. (2008). Modificación de conducta: qué es y cómo aplicarla. PEARSON.
  • Olivares, J. y Méndez, F. (2014). Técnicas de modificación de conducta (4ª ed.). Biblioteca nueva.
  • Sidman, M. (2006). The distinction between positive and negative reinforcement: Some additional considerations. The Behavior Analyst29(1), 135.
  • Scott, H. K., Jain, A., & Cogburn, M. (2017). Behavior modification. StatPearls.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.