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Behaviour Modification

Psychology (Year 12) - Cognitive Psychology

Jessica Pratt

The application of learning principles to assess and improve covert and overt behaviours to allow for improved functioning in society. The term ‘motivation’ refers to an individual’s willingness to pursue a behaviour. There are two main types of motivation - intrinsic (the desire to pursue a behaviour for its own sake) and extrinsic (performing a behaviour for its perceived consequences).


These work to produce an immediate change that reinforces the person applying the punishment. It must be noted that the learner has the power to decide if it’s a punishment or a reinforcement. The punishment is often limited, however, as it may trigger aggression and the power often goes away after the threat is gone.

They can be improved by:

  • providing quick and certain application

  • using omission training - removing something positive instead of receiving something negative, for example, taking away a child’s phone instead of giving them a time out.

  • making the punishments identical each time in terms of application

  • clearly targeting a specific behaviour

  • limiting its time and intensity

Token Economies

A systematic reinforcement of behaviour that involves tokens, such as coloured counters, acting as reinforcers. These tokens can be exchanged for other tokens that serve as secondary reinforcement. The tokens must not be food, or be limited or withdrawn when applied. It works to avoid saturation, and it can demonstrate consequences whilst being easily applied.

However, there are numerous disadvantages of a token economy:

  • the number of tokens available must be reasonable

  • rules for earning tokens must be clearly defined to both the learner and the applicator

  • token economies are only relevant for the institutionalised environment

Systematic Desensitisation

A form of behaviour therapy based on classical conditioning where this aims to remove the fear response from a phobia and gradually substitute it with a relaxation technique when being exposed to the phobic stimulus.

There are three phases to this process:

  • the patient is taught a deep muscle relaxation technique and breathing exercises.

  • the patient creates a fear hierarchy according to their level of fear when exposed to stimuli.

  • the patient works their way through the fear hierarchy by facing the stimuli whilst practising the relaxation technique - they move to the next stage when they feel comfortable.

It is a technique that is specific to the individual and can assist in relieving anxiety, but it is a slow, tedious process and is difficult to utilise when if the process of imagining fears is inhibited.

There are two types of exposure that can be used:

  • in vitro exposure is imagined exposure to the phobic stimulus

  • in vivo exposure is the actual exposure to the phobic stimulus

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)

A form of psychotherapy that can change negative thought processes and behaviours. It can assist in helping to understand and change negative behaviours, and in this way, can treat anxiety and depression, and activities where changing cognition also changes behaviours. It is limited due to ethical concerns and critique by Lewisohn - believed that negative thinking results from depression rather than causing it. Its strengths include that its experimental research design lends itself to testing, and that those with psychological disorders are shown to display maladaptive assumptions.

Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy

Albert Ellis (1913-2007) proposed a form of cognitive behaviour therapy based on how each person holds assumptions that guide them and determine their reactions to situations they encounter. Therefore, irrational assumptions can lead to inappropriate actions. He believed that the beliefs caused the consequences, rather than the activating event itself. An aid used in this is the ABC technique of irrational beliefs:

a. activating event - the objective situation that leads to a highly emotional response.

b. beliefs - the patient writes down the negative thoughts that occurred during the event.

c. consequences - the negative feelings and dysfunctional behaviours that result.

Beck’s Cognitive Therapy

Aaron Beck (1921-2021) suggested that the reaction to thoughts contribute to abnormality. In this, thoughts are referred to as unbidden cognition’s automatic thoughts. This therapy can be used to treat depression.

Simply, you’d expect a person to be depressed when the automatic thoughts are negative.

Beck identified three mechanisms responsible for depression:

  1. negative self-schemas

  2. the cognitive triad of negative automatic thinking

  3. errors in logic

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