Behavior modification focuses on both the public or overt and private or covert behavior of individuals. Since its inception as a field of scientific study, behavior modification—which includes the subfields known as applied behavior analysis and behavior therapy—has proven to be an effective means of modifying behavior in a wide variety of applied settings. This has been accomplished by the development of powerful scientific methods for studying behavior. Behavior modification stresses an individual case design that does not rely on formal statistical methodology that focuses on group averages.
After studying this chapter, you will be able to:
- Define behavior, behavior modification, and behavioral assessment.
- Describe how behavior modifiers view traditional psychological concepts such as intelligence and creativity.
- Summarize historical highlights of behavior modification.
- Discuss the relationship between behavior modification, applied behavior analysis, and behavior therapy.
- State some common misconceptions about behavior modification.
MANY OF SOCIETY’S best achievements—from democratic government to helping the less fortunate, and from great works of art to important scientific discoveries—as well as some of its most pressing health and social challenges—from unhealthy lifestyles to environmental pollution and from racism to terrorism—are firmly rooted in behavior. But what is behavior? Before attempting an answer, consider the following scenarios:
- Withdrawn behavior. A class of nursery school youngsters is in the playground. While most of the children are playing, one little boy sits quietly by himself, making no effort to join in the fun.
- Ineffective studying. With two term papers due next week and a midterm exam at the same time, Sam is wondering how he is ever going to make it through his first year at university. Yet he continues to spend several hours each day on social media.
- Performance nervousness. Karen, a 14-year-old gymnast, is waiting for her turn to perform on the balance beam at a championship. Showing signs of extreme nervousness, she says to herself, “What if I don’t perform well? What if I fall on my backflip? I can’t believe how my heart is pounding.”
- Campground littering. Tom and Sally have just arrived at the place where they intend to set up camp and are looking in disgust and amazement at the litter left by previous campers. “Don’t they care about the environment?” asks Sally. “If people keep this up,” Tom says, “there won’t be any nature left for anyone to enjoy.”
- Migraine headaches. While preparing dinner for her family, Betty was vaguely aware of a familiar feeling creeping up on her. Then, all at once, she felt nauseous. She looked around fearfully, knowing from past experience what to expect. “Tom, Joe,” she called to her sons watching TV in the living room, “you’ll have to finish fixing dinner yourselves—I’m having another migraine.”
- Staff management. Jack and Brenda were having coffee one morning at the restaurant they owned. “We’re going to have to do something about the evening staff,” said Brenda. “When I came in this morning, the ice cream machine wasn’t properly cleaned and the cups and lids weren’t restocked.” “That’s only the tip of the iceberg,” said Jack. “You should see the grill!”
- Irrational thinking. Mary, after getting a poor mark on her first exam in her first year at college, thinks, “I’ll never be a good student. I must do well in all of my courses. My professor must think I’m an idiot.”
Close inspection shows that each of the above vignettes involves some sort of human behavior. They illustrate a few of the many problems with which specialists in behavior modification are trained to deal. Each of these types of behavior problems and many others are discussed in the following pages. Behavior modification, as you will see, is applicable to the entire range of human behavior.
(In this book, key terms are found in bold, followed by their definitions. We encourage you to master them as you encounter them.)
Essentially, behavior is anything that a person says or does. Some commonly used synonyms include “activity,” “action,” “performance,” “responding,” “response,” and “reaction.” Technically, behavior is any muscular, glandular, or electrical activity of an organism. Is the color of someone’s eyes behavior? Is blinking behavior? Are the clothes someone is wearing behavior? Is dressing behavior? If you said no to the first and third questions and yes to the second and fourth, we are in agreement. One of the goals of this book is to encourage you to begin thinking and talking very specifically about behavior.
How about getting an “A” in a behavior modification course, or losing 10 pounds; are those behaviors? No. Those are products of behavior. The behavior that produces an “A” is studying effectively. The behaviors that lead to weight loss are resisting overeating and exercising more.
Walking, talking out loud, throwing a baseball, yelling at someone—are all overt behaviors that could be observed and recorded by an individual other than the one performing the behavior. As will be discussed in later chapters, the term behavior can also refer to covert activities that cannot be observed by others. However, in the field of behavior modification, covert behaviors do not typically refer to behaviors done in private, such as undressing in one’s bedroom with the door locked and the blinds closed. Nor do they usually refer to secretive actions, such as cheating on an exam. Rather, in behavior modification they more commonly refer to activities that occur “within one’s skin” and that therefore require special instruments or procedures for others to observe. For example, just before stepping onto the ice at an important competition, a figure skater might think, “I hope I don’t fall,” and he or she is likely to feel nervous. Covert as well as overt behaviors can be influenced by behavior modification techniques.
The opposite of private or covert behavior is public or overt behavior. Although, as stated above, behavior modifiers sometimes deal with covert behavior, they tend to focus on overt behavior, because the latter is generally more important to the individual and to society as a whole. Also, it is easier to measure overt behavior more accurately than covert behavior.
Sometimes we think in words. This is called private self-talk and is illustrated by the figure skater mentioned previously. And sometimes we think by imagining. If you were asked to close your eyes and imagine a clear, blue sky with a few white fluffy clouds, you would likely be able to do so although there are large differences between individuals in the vividness of their imagery (Cui, Jeter, Yang, Montague, & Eagleman, 2007). Imagining is usually thought of as being visual, but it can also involve other senses. For example, we can imagine a scent, a taste, and a feeling of rubbing one’s hand across a rough surface. Imagining and private self-talk, in addition to being called covert behaviors, are sometimes referred to as cognitive behaviors.
Characteristics of behavior that can be measured are called dimensions of behavior. Three dimensions of behavior are duration, rate, and intensity. The duration of a behavior is the length of time that it lasts (e.g., Mary studied for one hour). The rate of a behavior is the number of instances that occur in a given period of time (e.g., Frank planted five tomato plants in his garden in 30 minutes). The intensity or force of a behavior refers to the physical effort or energy involved in emitting the behavior (e.g., Mary has a strong grip when shaking hands).
Note to reader: You will encounter sets of questions in each chapter. Because the questions are designed to enhance your learning, we encourage you to (a) pause in your reading of the chapter; (b) prepare answers to those questions; and (c) learn those answers. Doing so will help you to master the content of this book.
Questions for Learning
- What is behavior, generally and technically? Give three synonyms for behavior.
- Distinguish between behavior and products of behavior. Give an example of a behavior and a product of that behavior that are not in this chapter.
- Distinguish between overt and covert behaviors. Give two examples of each that are not in this chapter.
- What are cognitive behaviors? Give two examples.
- Describe two dimensions of behavior. Give an example of each.
Summary Labels for Behavior
While we have all learned to talk about behavior in various ways, we often do so in general terms. Terms such as “honest,” “carefree,” “hardworking,” “unreliable,” “independent,” “selfish,” “incompetent,” “kind,” “graceful,” “unsociable,” and “nervous” are summary labels for human actions, but they do not refer to specific behaviors. If, for example, you were to describe a man as nervous, others might know generally what you mean. But they would not know if you were referring to that person’s tendency to chew his fingernails, his constant fidgeting, the tendency for his left eye to twitch when talking to someone, his tendency to jump when startled, or some other behavior.
For behavior modification specialists, many terms that are commonly used by psychologists, such as intelligence, attitudes, and creativity, are also summary labels for behavior. Behavior modifiers find it advantageous to talk about these concepts behaviorally; or, in other words, in what is called a behavioral language. What do we mean when we say that a person is intelligent? To many people, intelligence is something that you are born with, a sort of “inherited brain power” or innate capacity for learning. But we never observe or directly measure any such thing. On an intelligence test, for example, we simply measure people’s behavior—their answers to questions—as they take the test. The word intelligent is best used in its adjective form (e.g., “he is an intelligent speaker,” “his speech is intelligent”) or its adverb form (e.g., “she writes intelligently”) to describe how people behave under certain conditions, such as taking a test, but not as a noun for some “thing.” Perhaps a person described as intelligent readily solves problems that others find difficult, performs well on most course examinations, reads many books, talks knowledgeably about many topics, or gets a high score on an intelligence test. Depending on who uses the word, intelligence can mean any or all of these—but whatever it means, it refers to ways of behaving. Therefore, in this book we avoid using the word intelligence as a noun. (For an excellent discussion of a behavioral approach to intelligence, see Williams, Myerson, & Hale, 2008.)
What about an attitude? Suppose that Johnny’s teacher, Ms. Smith, reports that he has a bad attitude toward school. What does Ms. Smith mean by this? Perhaps she means that Johnny frequently skips school, refuses to do his classwork when he does attend, or swears at the teacher. Whatever she means when she talks about Johnny’s “bad attitude,” it is clearly his behavior with which she is really concerned.
Creativity also refers to the kinds of behavior that a person is likely to engage under certain circumstances. The creative individual frequently emits behaviors that are novel or unusual and that, at the same time, have desirable effects. (For an excellent discussion of a behavioral approach to creativity, see Marr, 2003.)
Summary labels commonly used to refer to psychological problems include autism spectrum disorder, attention- deficit/hyperactive disorder, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, road rage, interpersonal difficulties, and sexual dysfunction. There are positive reasons that summary terms or labels for behavior patterns are so frequently used in psychology and in everyday life—not in a special institutional or therapeutic situation. First, they may be useful for quickly providing general information about how an individual might perform. We would expect that a 10-year-old child who has been labeled as having a severe developmental disability, for example, would not be able to read even at the first-grade level. Second, the labels may imply that a particular treatment program will be helpful. Someone with road rage might be encouraged to take an anger-management course. Someone who is unassertive might benefit from an assertiveness training course. However, the use of summary labels also has disadvantages. One is that they may lead to pseudo- explanations of behavior (pseudo meaning false). For example, a child who inverts words while reading, such as “saw” for “was,” might be labeled as having dyslexia. If we ask why the c...