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Behavior modification strives to replace negative behaviors with positive behaviors or to develop entirely new behaviors.

Behavior modification strives to replace negative behaviors with positive behaviors or to develop entirely new behaviors.

Basic principles of behavior modification

Ivan Pavlov

Ivan Pavlov

 Classical conditioning (Ivan Pavlov): Environmental conditions reliably trigger certain behavior(s).



Operant conditioning (Edward Thorndike and B. F. Skinner): Thorndike developed the Law of Effect based on the principle that behaviors are changed by their consequences. Positive reinforcement causes repeated behavior. For instance, a compliment on your weight loss might cause you to continue to lose weight. Negative outcomes, such as punishment, cause a decrease in the behavior. For instance, not fitting into your clothes might cause you to want to lose weight. Individuals improve their behavior in order to avoid aversive situations. For example, individuals who believe they are not seen as serious candidates on job interviews because of their body weight will try to lose weight. Thorndike also developed the Law of Exercise, which states that repetition of a positive experience strengthens the chance of repeating that behavior.

Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura

Modeling (Albert Bandura): People observe the behavior of others and then perform the same or similar behavior.

David Premack

David Premack

Premack principle (David Premack): People will engage in a behavior that they do not much enjoy, if it means getting a chance to do something that they do enjoy.

Edwin Guthrie

Edwin Guthrie

 Threshold method of breaking habits (Edwin Guthrie): To break a habit, you can work your way up to the final goal by taking little steps. For example, to break the habit of sitting too much and lacking physical activity, start by walking for 10 minutes on your lunch break or parking farther away from stores or your workplace.

Successive approximation: Individuals are more likely to achieve a goal behavior if they are rewarded for completing each successive step toward that behavior.

Behavior modification techniques for your practice

Classical conditioning

  • Help clients understand what cues them to eat unhealthfully—emotions, the time of day, activities, company, etc
  • Recommend that they keep a food journal
  • Share these tips with your clients:

–  Designate one room for eating

–  Place just enough food on your plate for satisfaction, and then put the leftovers away

–  Ask others to support your efforts

  • Role-play likely situations that could cause your clients to lose sight of their long-term health goals, and find solutions together
  • Brainstorm activities that your clients could do when the urge to eat improperly strikes them, such as going for a walk, calling a supportive friend, journaling, etc


Operant conditioning/successive approximation

  • Work with your clients to develop ways that they can reward themselves for making positive changes in their lifestyle:

–  Suggest a written contract that specifies rewards for meeting specified goals

–  Assist your clients in developing realistic goals

  • Compliment your clients’ positive changes
  • Encourage clients to practice positive self-talk and to talk proudly of their successes without feeling that they are bragging
  • Recommend that your clients make, and occasionally review, a list of the aversive situations that they are trying to avoid by changing their lifestyle
  • Have your clients keep a running log of the positive changes that they see occurring in their life since beginning a healthy program



  • Share success stories with your clients, telling them about people who have changed their eating patterns and improved their life
  • Serve as a positive role model, and share your own successes and struggles


Premack principle

  • Remind your clients of the things in life that they will enjoy more, if they keep up with the sometimes unpleasant task of changing their eating habits
  • Encourage your clients to think of ways to make their new lifestyle habits more enjoyable, such as finding an exercise routine that they enjoy, purchasing an appropriate cookbook that contains recipes of foods that they like, learning how to choose wisely from a menu when they occasionally dine out, etc


Threshold method of breaking habits

  • Help your clients break their goals into small, achievable steps
  • Explain that some clients find it helpful to graph this progression and to hang this graph in a visible place


References and suggested readings

Gredler ME. Early behaviorist theories. In: Learning and Instruction: Theory Into Practice. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson; 2005:27-45.

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