Behavior, which is the connection established between the response of the organism and a specific environmental situation, can sometimes be maladaptive.

In order to increase their functionality (through elimination, reduction or change) it is common to apply learning principles, known in psychology as behaviour modification techniques .

Techniques for creating and increasing behaviour

There is a wide range of strategies that can either increase or encourage desirable behaviors, or reduce or eliminate dysfunctional ones. Among them we find the following.

1. Behavior reinforcement

There are different types of reinforcement: the positive reinforcement and the negative reinforcement .

The first is to increase the probability of occurrence of a behavior following a successful event. For example, congratulating your child on good grades on a test will encourage further study effort.

The second is the increased likelihood of the occurrence of behaviors that stop unpleasant events. For example, in the case of a person with claustrophobia, going up the stairs instead of the elevator, to avoid the anxiety it causes, will tend to repeat itself.

How to use the boosters?

Positively reinforced behaviors are better learned and maintained over time. However, not just any reinforcement is useful, you must know how to choose them well depending on each case, so that they adapt to the needs of the plan and do not go against your own logic. How to use reinforcers correctly?

First, they must be chosen properly . To do so, we must take into account that they must be proportional to the effort of the behaviour to be developed. Likewise, it is preferable that they have an intrinsic nature (whose value of reinforcement is defined by the person himself) and are issued by the natural contingencies of the activities carried out, that is, that it is the environment that reinforces.

As to when to apply them, the time interval between the emission of the behaviour and the obtaining of the booster has to be taken into account. Immediately applied enhancers are more effective in rapidly acquiring the desired behaviour , among other things because it is clearer what action has caused them to appear.

However, for long-term consolidation and maintenance, it is preferable that this interval be progressively increased. In this way, little by little, less dependence is placed on this reinforcement plan, until the behaviour is already assimilated and forms part of one’s own habits.

2. Molding

Moulding is defined as the systematic reinforcement of small steps that lead to the desired behaviour . An example is learning to write: we do not learn directly to write sentences, but first we know the letters, we practice calligraphy, we associate letters forming syllables, words

For a good application of it, both the final behavior (to know what behavior is intended to be issued once the process is completed), and the initial behavior (to know the baseline from which the person starts), the steps to be followed during the process and the pace of progress must be specified.

Sometimes, in order to facilitate the application of the technique, the moulding is accompanied by other support methods, such as incitements (verbal indications that guide the behaviour to be emitted: “the G and the I have a U in the middle to write GUIDE”), a physical guide (help on the motor level at each level of the moulding: taking the hand of the apprentice to help him achieve the shape of the O) or exemplification (in which the “master” acts as a model to be imitated: he draws the letter himself).

On the other hand, the behavior modification by molding approach has much in common with the scaffolding concept that Lev Vygotsky worked with.

3. Learning

Learning by modeling (also known as modeling or learning by imitation) is acquired by observing the behavior of another person.

The trainee sees the reinforcement the model gets from performing his action and will try to imitate it whenever the same reinforcement is desired. An example is the learning of prosocial and cooperative behaviors.

The modelling process consists of a learning phase and an execution phase , which can occur with greater or lesser effectiveness depending on variables such as the characteristics of the model, the observer and the situation, in the first phase, or on motivation, quality of execution and generalisation, in the second phase.

Techniques for the reduction and elimination of behaviour

These are techniques to make certain behaviors go away.

1. Extinction

Extinction consists in the withdrawal of the reinforcements that previously sustained a behavior . In this way, a gradual process of weakening it begins until it ends up disappearing.

For example, a teacher who attends to children who ask questions without raising his or her hand in class, when he or she decides to pay attention only to those who follow the established rules, will decrease his or her students’ spontaneous speaking behaviors.

For its application, it is necessary to previously identify the reinforcer that maintains the dysfunctional behavior and its nature (it is not enough to eliminate any reinforcer that accompanies the behavior, but the one that is maintaining it).

It should be borne in mind that sometimes unwanted behaviour may be increased initially in the process. This increase may be maintained for long periods of time (especially if the behavior has been maintained by an intermittent booster, which means a greater resistance to extinction), but will later weaken until it is eliminated.

2. Satiation

Satiation (anti-deprivation technique) consists in the massive presentation of a booster to weaken its reinforcing value: its excessive administration in a short period of time ends up being aversive to the person , so that in the end it avoids certain behaviours.

For example, a child who never eats vegetables because he always wants pasta. If he only eats macaroni for several days in a row, he will end up hating the dish, which is unpleasant for him.

Two modalities can be distinguished in this technique: the satiation of the stimulus and the satiation of the response.

In order to apply them, it is first necessary to detect undesirable behaviour. Once identified and chosen the modality of satiation, we must offer an alternative behavior to the person (to replace by the dysfunctional one) and get its maintenance.

Bibliographic references:

  • Mairal, J.B. (2014). Behavior modification techniques: a guide for their implementation. Synthesis.