Psy 443

For My Students | Admin/Research | PSY | CTL | WKU 


Behavior Modification Program Steps

Appreciation is expressed to Dr. Retta Poe for providing a structure from which this is adapted.


Deciding to Change Behavior

Beginning the Program

Evaluating the Program


A. Describe the Target Behavior

Look for patterns in the behavior by finding the answer to these questions. Do NOT rely on subjective opinion but try to watch the actual behavior. An interview of the subject or of persons familiar with the subjects' behavior may be helpful if you use focused questions and get specific answers.

The global question you are trying to answer is: under what circumstances does the behavior occur and when does it not occur? What is the pattern that the behavior displays?

B. Avoid these mistakes when describing the behavior

C. Measure the behavior to get precise data for the above questions.

There are a number of methods. Several may work for any particular behavior. There is no rule to say which is best other than that you use the method that targets the behavior you intend to change. If, for example, you want to smoke fewer cigarettes in order to save money on buying them, then you need to count the number of total cigarettes consumed per day. Counting the length of time it takes you to smoke one (while still smoking the same number) won't give you the information you need to achieve your goal.

Typically, multiple methods are used in a single project because multiple facets are of interest.


Before beginning your assessment

You will need to answer the following questions.

D. Identify a baseline (aka operant level) for the behavior.

Behavior modification is about real change. You cannot determine if real change has occurred unless you know what behavior is typical. Typical behavior is the baseline against which the success of your intervention is measured. If you fail to collect baseline data, then you have no way, let me repeat that, no way to tell if your intervention worked. Behaviorists do not rely on memory which is fallible. Without baseline data you do not have a behavior modification program.

Identifying a baseline means you collect data over a period of time without trying to change the behavior.

How long do you collect data? It depends on the characteristics of the behavior. In general, you collect enough that the behavior of interest shows a steady pattern. With some animal behaviors, that might be 1 hour. With some human behaviors, it may take several weeks.

Deciding to Change Behavior

In this phase, commitment to the program is developed and the groundwork for a successful program is laid.

A. All significant parties are involved and demonstrate commitment

Encourage participation in decisions by the subject and persons who will might have an impact on the success or failure of the program including parents, teachers, administrators, spouses, children, bosses, coworkers, etc.

B. Be specific and precise about the behavioral goals.

As a number of people are involved, clear communication is critical. Even if it is a self-change, writing our your goals and activities will ensure that you have actually been clear in your planning. It can be a self-check.

Clarity is a process of writing and rewriting. It is common, despite great effort to clarify, to discover that some behaviors remain unclarified once the program is begun. Nevertheless, do your best and it will pay off in a more successful outcome.

Include any conditions or restrictions.

Example of a precise goal:

C. What are the ethical considerations?

Are there any dangers to the subject or others? For example, woman in an abusive relationship may be accused of trying to be seductive if she loses weight and be beaten as a consequence. Current health status impacts on the safety of exercise and eating programs. A person exercising in a solitary place needs to consider safety factors.

Are humane methods being used with animals? Punishment should be used very cautiously and only with close supervision.

D. Consider the total context of the behavior.

What is initiating and maintaining a behavior (or the absence of a behavior)? Another person may benefit in some way from the target behavior and undermine change efforts. For example, a spouse may want someone to eat comfort foods with her and feel neglected or judged if the subject starts eating healthily. (If you say, "The spouse can go on a diet too" consider the ethical issues above. The spouse may not wish to and that would be imposing values and the person would probably simply undermine efforts.) Some persons are rewarded by another's perceived difficulty. They will seek to continue getting their reinforcement.

Beginning the Program

A. Identify potential interventions and select one or several that match the target behavior.

Various procedures can be used together for maximum effect, although a program that is too complex is in danger of not being followed. Strike a balance between every possible procedure and too few.

Categorize your target behavior as one of the following, then see your textbook for appropriate interventions.

Most projects will use a type of reinforcement.

  1. Identify appropriate reinforcers for the individual
  2. Specify the conditions under which reinforcement can be earned.
  3. You already trained any needed data collectors during the baseline. Continue to collect data throughout using the same methods.
  4. Apply intervention. Persist with intervention until
    1. change occurs,
    2. it is clear that change is not going to occur and the method needs evaluation and refinement
  5. On to evaluation.

Evaluating the Program

Extensive planning increases the odds that a behavior change program will result in behavior change if appropriately implemented. We cannot know if that has succeeded until we measure the behavior and compare it to the baseline.

A. Graph the results

Most data collection can be graphed (occasionally a table is more appropriate). Graphs quickly reveal progress or lack thereof. They allow for evaluation of hypotheses as to what happened (or didn't). Small variations in behavior are normal. Judge progress based on viewing multiple data collection periods (that might mean, for example, looking at a week's worth of data, graphed by days).

B. Consider trying a "Reversal"

To demonstrate true control over the behavior, remove the intervention. If the behavior returns to baseline, then the chosen intervention and not some other event is the likely cause of the change. (Of course, data is continuously collected).

With some behaviors, reversals are not ethical (head banging in autistic children) or possible (learning to speak a language).

C. Evaluate the results and reach conclusions.

Conclusions will be similar to one of the following:

In each case, elaborate on the elements that worked well and those that didn't. Evaluate the stages of the project and identify what was learned about changing the behavior that would be helpful "next time."

Behavior Modification is a science. Clear communication of conclusions and possible implications is part of any science.

C. Modify your Intervention

Based on what you learned, improve your program and try again. It is through such evaluation and thoughtful reapplication that progress is made.

Psy 443
For My Students | Admin/Research | PSY | CTL | WKU 

Contact the author with comments or questions about this site by following the directions at this page (which will open in a new window.)

All contents © since 1996 by Sally Kuhlenschmidt. Copy only with permission.
Website created: June 1996. Page Created: September 7, 1998. Last Modified: August 29, 1999.