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Behavior Modification (Part 2)

Finding solutions to improve outcomes is integral to our growth and development. The improvements we desire are evident in our ability to adapt our behaviors to meet our needs. The previous post covered positive and negative reinforcers and reinforcement schedules. This post will address punishment, reward, and shaping as behavioral interventions.

What behaviors do you want to see changed?

What are the consequences of unwanted behaviors?

What are the incentives for the replacement behaviors?

There are consequences for our behaviors. The results vary depending on the type of behavior, and the punishment determined to be appropriate.

Punishment – administering an unpleasant stimulus to decrease the repeat of unwanted behaviors. For example, you set a 10 o'clock curfew, and your child returns home forty-five minutes late. You decide to take away the child's cellphone for two weeks. This action may get the child's attention and reduce the chance of breaking the curfew. Still, after two days you decide to return the cellphone, the punishment may lose its effectiveness.

Neutral consequences – the person's behavior does not increase or decrease the likelihood of misbehavior.

Positive punishment – after the person misbehaves, an unpleasant stimulus is applied to modify the behavior. For example, a driver runs a red light and receives a two-hundred and fifty dollars fine.

Negative punishment – taking/removing a desirable stimulus from the person after a behavior. For example, the driver from the previous model loses driving privileges for a year.

Reinforcement – strengthens behaviors by increasing the likelihood of repeating the same behavior. For example, you reward a child for passing a math test. The reward may increase the child's desire to do well on future math tests.

Pros of Punishment

  • A deterrent to unacceptable behaviors.

  • Effective in behavior modification

  • When administered appropriately and timely can reduce the frequency of inappropriate behaviors.

  • Reduce repeated criminal behaviors

  • Acts as a boundary and consequence for improper behaviors

  • Assist with maintaining rules when the result is known

  • Increase respect for authority

Cons of Punishment

  • We administer punishment inappropriately and mindlessly for every action out of anger and rage. For instance, a parent punishes a child for walking too slow or not responding to a question immediately.

  • The frequent use of punishment to manage unwanted behaviors may lead the child to develop anxiety, fear, or rage. It is likely; it results in more problems than it solves.

  • The usefulness of the punishment may be temporary. For instance, the child only behaves appropriately in front of the person administering the consequence.

  • Most times, punishment is not administered immediately after the inappropriate behaviors. You must wait until your father gets home or wait for the principal to cane you long after the misbehavior.

  • Too often, punishment comes without feedback with no opportunity to implement accurate corrective measures to address the behavior.

  • Punishment can be overused.


There are advantages to using rewards. There is a sense of accomplishment and empowerment that comes with recognition for your work. The appropriate use of prizes can build self-confidence, self-esteem, and resilience. The reward from being acknowledged can be intrinsic motivation to persist. This way, external rewards are not a condition for participation but the pleasure of doing well.

On occasion, we misuse rewards with unintended consequences. For example, the provision of participation awards. Let us look at some of the misuses of incentives:

  • The bonus is offered not for the behavior you are attempting to increase.

  • Providing a reward for minimal effort minimizes the effectiveness of the prize.

  • The person providing the reward praises strengths and avoids addressing weaknesses. The decision not to give feedback on weaknesses creates a false sense of security and prevents corrective action.

  • There is an expectation of being rewarded even for sub-par effort.

  • The indiscriminate use of rewards can inhibit intrinsic motivation to persist in the absence of an external stimulus.


Another idea that may prove helpful in our attempt to modify or teach new behaviors is shaping. Initially, the new behavior will take time to learn. Reinforcing the behavior in parts versus whole using successive approximation brings the learner closer to performing the target behavior. For example, the target behavior is using a fork. The child picks up the utensil and attempts to use it; you reinforce the attempt. Successive behaviors leading to the target behavior are supported until the target is achieved.

Shaping is also helpful in medical settings. A physical therapy patient with an injury to the lower extremities has a target behavior of walking unassisted. The exercises to strengthen the muscles may begin the process, standing with assistance, taking a step with support leading to the target behavior. Each task that supports the patient getting closer to the target you reinforce with successive approximation.

In daily life, behavior modification or teaching new behaviors may turn out to be challenging. However, having a target behavior and being strategic works with achieving the behavior. Create a system of interventions for appropriate and inappropriate behaviors; use simple rules effectively and appropriately. Acknowledge proper behavior, not the person. Thanks for reading.

Stay Naturally Curious


Davis, S. F. & Palardino, J. J. (1997). Psychology (2nd ed). Prentice-Hall.

Wade, C. & Tavris, C. (2008). Psychology. (9th ed.). Pearson.

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