Home Introduction to psychology BEHAVIOUR MODIFICATION


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In the last unit, we discussed juvenile delinquency. The unit also served to introduce us to the other units in this course. You can now define the concept of juvenile delinquency and identify the places and conditions where delinquent personality operates. You can also explain how the situation of juvenile delinquency may be remedied. Time is now ripe for us to discuss a most relevant and applicable unit: behaviour modification. We will now consider managing human behaviour. Let us take a look at what other content.


At the end of this unit, you should be able to:
explain what is meant by behaviour modification; and
list the methods for controlling behaviour.


3.1 Types and Frequency of Deviant Behaviour

It is possible for students of educational psychology with some training to ‘shape’ the desired behaviour, and to minimize the deviant behaviour of children in classrooms. Some parents with the awareness of the psychology of operant conditioning can shape the desired behaviour of children. What is behaviour modification? By behaviour modification we mean a formal technique for promoting the frequency of desirable behaviour and decreasing the incidence of unwanted ones. Note that behaviour modification has been used in a variety of situations ranging from teaching severely retarded people the rudiments of language to helping people stick to diets (Whaley & Malott, 1993).

Before any behaviour modification is attempted, it is however necessary for the manipulator of the experiment to have a detailed knowledge of the type and frequency of the deviant behaviour needed to be eliminated from the child or the person concerned. For example, if a child is observed to rise from his seat and run to some other child frequently during the lesson hour, then the ‘baseline’ or operant level of this deviant behaviour of the child has to be determined first. That means the number of times per lesson hour during the morning, for example, the child rises from his seat, and manifests this disturbing behaviour. This has to be assessed to determine the frequency and nature of this distracting behaviour. Then the next step is to determine the ‘terminal behaviour’ wanted to be seen in the behaviour manifestations of the child or the person concerned.


Think of a deviant behaviour that a child has been manifesting and which you will prefer modified. Is the deviant behaviour disturbing to the child alone?
Clap for yourself for having participated so actively in our discussion. Now, let us go.

3.2 Methods for Controlling Behaviour

Various methods can be employed for controlling behaviour, and some of them are as follows:
(a) Operant conditioning
(b) Shaping
(c) Scheduling various types of reinforcements
(d) Modeling or imitations
(e) Extinction
(f) Satiation
(g) Aversion therapy
(h) Conditioning incompatible behaviour
(i) Self-control

If a child manifests some form of deviant behaviour then it is also very likely that the same mild manifests some forms of other socially approved behaviour as well. During the initial period of observation of the child’s behaviour to determine the baseline of the deviant behaviour, these elements of socially approved behaviour can also be spotted. It now necessary to quote some examples of modifications of different types of deviant behaviour that has been reported in the relevant literature.
A technique, often employed in behaviour modification is the use of the ‘free method’. This implies that the individual manifests his behaviour ‘freely’ preferably when he is left alone, and the emphasis is on the performances of the individual. Hart and her collaborators (1964) employed the technique of the free operant method to eliminate the crying behaviour of a four-year old child. Firstly, the baseline of the child’s crying responses was determined from observing the child’s crying behaviour for a ten-day period’ morning sessions. It was found that eye-contact with the person present reinforced the crying response of the child.

Then a period of experimentation followed which lasted three more periods, each of ten days. During the first of these experimental periods, the teacher avoided making eye-contacts with the child which produced extinction of the crying behaviour, but other behaviour of the child was reinforced positively. One thing that is to be noted in the experiment is that eliminated behaviour is likely to reappear if the child or the person gets reinforcement of these deviant responses from different environments. This implies that the behaviour that is modified in the school or the clinic should in no circumstances be reinforced elsewhere, and in this regard, parents’ cooperation is of great importance to the teacher. The methods we have discussed is the ‘free operant method’ where extinction, reinforcement of the desired behaviour element, and a correct scheduling of the reinforcements of .the operant were used in modifying the crying operant behaviour of let us go the child.


Mention any two deviant behaviours that you will like to remedy by using the method just discussed?
We must continue our discussion now.
Another method that is frequently used is the method of ‘shaping’. It implies reinforcement of closer and closer approximations of the desired behaviour. Isaacs et. al. (1960) used the method of shaping to reinstate
verbal behaviour in an hospitalized patient who had been mute for several years. It was found that the patient would sit at a place without any signs of any movement of eyes or lips. Various methods to draw the attention of the patient, for example, waving cigarettes or other things before his eyes had already failed.

The experimenters then found that while taking a packet of cigarettes, a packet of gum accidentally dropped to the floor and this made the patient move his eyes to the floor.

Two things became clear from the shaping experiment: extreme patience on the part of the experimenters and successive reinforcements of closer and closer approximations of the desired behaviour: If the behaviour of the hospitalized patient having being mute for nineteen years could be shaped in course of 18 sessions only, then there is no reason why the behaviour of children in the classroom cannot be shaped by teachers with experience and patience.

The withdrawal of reinforcement is aversive in nature, and it is found that subjects will learn a response that prevents the withdrawal of reinforcement, since withdrawal of reinforcement contingent upon a response decreases the strength of that response. Let us cite an example. If a (hungry) child is sent to his bedroom every time he puts his elbows on a dinner table, then the rate at which he puts his elbows on the table decreases. If the rate of his putting his elbows on the table increases following his experiences of being sent away from the table, then by definition, ‘sending away’ from the table is positively reinforcing the child. Let us consider another example. We notice that when mothers often say to their children: ‘If you do this I will not speak to you, but if you stop doing this or that, I will love you all the more’ children respond to this treatment from their mothers and learn to behave accordingly. Mothers, though inexperienced and untrained in the psychology of avoidance responses and withdrawal of reinforcements, are continually engaged in the process of shaping their children’s behaviour.

Another experimental technique that decreases the strength of a deviant behaviour is called satiation. Under this concept, it is implied that the strength of a response will decrease under the influence: of continued reinforcement. For example, if a teacher continually says to a child for every manifestation of a particular behaviour of his that he is a good child, and then it is likely that the child will get bored with hearing that he is good all the time and out of satiating experience he will refrain from emitting that behaviour.
With aggressive children who must show various forms of aggression, as in the case of children processed by the law, this method has been used where the children are allowed to display their aggression in any manner they like with only safeguard being taken that the lives of the persons dealing with the children, and of the children themselves are not endangered.

It is important for you to note that deviant behaviour observed commonly in the classroom can be successfully tackled by experienced and trained teachers though difficult cases should be referred to the specialists in this field. The importance of the psychology of behaviour modification is relevant to teachers as it unfolds to him avenues which produce a congenial atmosphere in the classroom for further progress of lessons. The importance of parental cooperation in achieving the objective to modify deviant behaviour of children cannot be overstated.

It is to be noted that any attempt to modify deviant behaviours presupposes .the following:
a) Determining the baseline of the deviant behaviour.
(b) Determining the terminal behaviour, and close approximations of it. (c) Deciding on the nature of positive reinforcement that will be
attractive to the child.
(d) Locating the nearest possible avoidance responses available in the
behaviour repertoire of the child.
(e) Reinforcing the child during adaptation while extinction continued. (f) Taking recourse to predetermined schedule of reinforcement while shaping of the child’s behaviour is continued.


In this unit, you have learnt how human behaviour may be managed. You also have learnt about types and frequency of deviant behaviour as well as the methods for controlling behaviour: operant method, shaping, scheduling various types of reinforcements, modelling or imitation, satiation, and aversion therapy, amongst others.


  1.  What you have learnt in this unit concerns the management of deviant behaviour. 
  2. You also learnt types and frequency of deviant behaviour. 
  3. In addition you have learnt methods for controlling behaviour. 


  1. Explain what you understand by behaviour modification? b. What for m of knowledge must an experimenter interested in modifying behaviour have? c. List six (6) methods for controlling behaviour d. State four (4) suppositions that an experimenter must take into consideration in an attempt to modify behaviour. 


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