The Pro & Cons of Behavior Modification

Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images

Behaviour modification is a technique used often by parents, school teachers and others in positions of authority to promote good behaviour and eliminate undesirable behaviour. This strategy is somewhat controversial, however, and there are many pros and many cons associated with behaviour modification.

Pro: Effectiveness and Longevity

Behaviour modification techniques have been shown over and over to be highly effective when properly applied. Behaviour redirection and improvement in young children, addiction treatment, behavioural depression treatment, OCD symptoms, ADHD, and anxiety disorders are particularly responsive to these techniques. Any observable behaviour can be modified through behaviour modification techniques. Though some behaviours can revert temporarily to their original state during modification (a process called spontaneous recovery), continued treatment usually continues to improve behaviour and typically has near-permanent effects.

Pro: Focus on Positivity

Behaviour modification focuses mainly on positive reinforcement, which involves rewarding individuals for good behaviour. Positive reinforcement has historically shown far better results than punishment. For example, behaviour modification strategies stress rewarding positive behaviour, like praising students for staying on task during class, far more highly than punishing negative behaviour, such as verbally admonishing a student in front of the class for each infraction. Punishment and negative reinforcement are important components in modifying behaviour, but the emphasis in treatment is on rewarding good behaviour.

Con: Problems With Application

In theory, behaviour modification never fails. However, in application, many variables can lead to failure. The primary variable leading to failure of behaviour modification is incorrect application of techniques. Behaviour modification techniques must be extremely consistent for the treatment to work. Letting occurrence of an undesirable behaviour slide every now and then sends mixed signals and causes huge setbacks in treatment. Behaviour modification can also fail if treatment is too extreme. Employing an unnecessarily harsh punishment to an undesirable behaviour or failing to take relevant pre-existing conditions such as PTSD in mind when planning negative and positive reinforcement schedules are two examples of ways that behaviour modification can fail when used improperly.

Con: Narrowness of Scope

One of the central tenets of behaviour modification theory is behaviour frequency can only be increased by positive reinforcement. However, research conducted by Albert Bandura has shown that behaviour is greatly influenced by modelling. Bandura's study involved showing a control group of children a video of an adult model playing calmly and peacefully with a life-size Bobo doll. Another group of children was shown a video of an adult model violently attacking the Bobo doll. The children in the second group showed significantly more violent behaviours toward the doll than the control group when they were allowed to play with their own Bobo doll after seeing the video. This research shows that behaviour can increase without any direct reinforcement, and casts doubt on the principles of behaviour modification.