Behavior modification

Behaviour Modification the approach used by behavioural psychologists (watered-down behaviourists) to modify behaviour (Surprise!). It is usually based on the reinforcement of desired behaviours and ignoring (as far as possible) undesired ones. This is not as simple as it sounds, because always reinforcing desired behaviour, for example, is merely bribery. The "schedule" of reinforcement is critical. Behaviour modification is much used in clinical and educational psychology, particularly with people with learning difficulties. In the conventional learning situation it applies largely to issues of class- and student management, and to psychomotor skill development, rather than to learning cognitive content. It applies at the micro-level: awarding students high marks for good work is only behaviour modification in the broadest and weakest sense, whereas attention and praise at the second-by-second level are much more likely to follow its principles.

If you want consciously to practise it, then:

Behaviour modification as a formal technique is beyond the scope of this site, but teachers practise it willy-nilly. The important question is whether we are always reinforcing (rewarding, encouraging) the behaviour we wish to engender, or whether we are — all unawares — creating more problems. Most of the time, of course, a good teacher's nod of approval, supporting comment on a student's contribution, or simple "well done" is an appropriate reinforcer.

A couple of points are worth making:

  • What counts as reinforcement for this student? If she does not respect you, then your approval will mean nothing. If the "well done" referred to above is experience as patronising, for example, it may well have the opposite effect to that intended.    
  • As the idea of "strokes" below emphasises, attention (approving or disapproving) is a potent reinforcer.

More on Skinner

On behaviour modification in schools


Transactional Analysis, which was very popular in the heyday of the personal growth movement in the '70s and later, used deliberately informal language; Eric Berne, its founder, coined the term "stroke" to refer to "a unit of human recognition" (symbolic as much as physical). Strokes may be positive (such as compliments) otherwise known as "warm fuzzies", or negative (such as criticism or telling-off) or "cold pricklies". However, the distinctive TA point is that: 

Negative strokes are better than no strokes

which means that criticism, and nagging, and anger are all forms of attention. The general rule is that all attention is reinforcing, and if people can't get or accept positive attention, they will provoke negative attention. (It's a bit like the show-business dictum that there is no such thing as "bad" publicity.) So ignoring undesired behaviour is a more effective way of dealing with it than reacting to it, although practicalities set limits on this. True to the principles of behaviour modification, the best strategy is to reinforce behaviour incompatible with the undesirable behaviour (technically known as "reciprocal inhibition" in behavioural learning theory [Wolpe, 1958]). However, it is a little unfair to list TA under the heading of behaviourism, since overall it is an eclectic approach to communication and psychotherapy.  

What TA is


(I have to include explicit reference to "behavior" modification: behavior without a "u", and repeat the term "behavior" several times, because otherwise—such are the ways of search engines—no-one outside the UK will ever read this!)

Revised 3 August 2013

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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