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Behavioural Modification Therapy

Modifying the behaviour of other human beings has a long history. Whatever can change the way we feel and act can be a means of altering behaviour. Methods as widely separate as religion, political torture and brain washing, can be thought of as behavioural modification techniques. A major demarcation can be seen in the use of such techniques with people – there are those who want them applied, and those who have them applied against their will.

As a form of therapy or aid to mental and social health, behavioural modification has been practised in every culture in all periods of history. Rituals in which individuals or groups felt more in harmony with each other, or which induced a feeling of cohesion against a common enemy, can be thought of behavioural modification.

In more recent times, although the age old techniques are still used, an enormous amount of research has been undertaken to define exactly how human beings, and of course animals, can be changed or manipulated. After all, such information is incredibly important to religious and political organisations, and to businesses that wish to induce people to buy their products. This has given rise to such varied approaches as physical and mental intimidation, brain surgery, brainwashing, electric shock therapy, drug use, subtle advertising and propaganda, the use of suggested fear to sell or induce and psychotherapy.

In modern psychology, the term behaviour modification means something specific. Ivan Pavlov developed the foundation for modern approaches through his work with conditioned reflexes in dogs. Apart from showing that a dog could be conditioned to salivate when a bell was rung, Pavlov experimented further and performed experiments in which a dog was trained to salivate when the image of a circle was projected on a screen, but when an ellipse was shown it was not trained to have any response. When this was established the shape of the circle was gradually changed toward and ellipse. As the circle was changed the dog showed signs of agitation and lost the response to salivate. The disturbance experienced by the dog was seen as an ‘experimentally induced neurosis’. See: Example under  brain levels.

In 1920 these methods were tried on human beings. The American psychologists John Watson and Rosalie Rayner worked with an eleven-month-old baby who showed no fear while playing with a white laboratory rat. By producing a loud noise each time the baby touched the rat, the baby was conditioned to experience a fearful response when the rat was present.

Having learnt how to artificially create fears in children, Mary Cover Jones experimented with reducing fears already established in children. The two methods she found most effective were 1) Linking the feared object or situation with a new stimulus capable of arousing a positive response. 2) Putting the anxious child with children who showed no fear of the object or situation.

Later, people like Joseph Wolpe, Hans Eysenck, and M. Shapiro, used and developed these methods. This was mostly in connection with people with disabling fear reactions. The ideas of B. F. Skinner who led the behavioural movement in psychology, played a leading role in some approached to modifying human behaviour. Different approaches evolved, and some of these became well known enough to have particular names – systematic desensitisation; aversion therapy; and biofeedback.

There are usually five steps in behaviour modification.

  1. Defining what the individual needs to improve their problem.
  2. Putting together a method that changes undesirable behaviour and aids the development of desirable responses.
  3. Using the program according to the principles of behavioural modification.
  4. Careful observation and recording of results .
  5. Changing the approach if it aids improvement.

See: aversion therapy; desensitisation therapy.


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