By Anthony Cupo, TMF
What is behavior modification in the context of mindfulness? For many of us, behavior modification involves changing the way we act in order to live more authentic and enriching lives. But this definition, while somewhat helpful, does not capture the full scope of mindful behavior modification.
The process of changing our behaviors is a scientifically studied technique — one that involves positive or negative reinforcement to achieve the desired outcome. By introducing a reward and punishment system to our everyday behaviors, we can systematically increase the amount of good, mindful behaviors we engage in and reduce the amount of anti-mindfulness actions we take.
This is great news for adults and children alike trying to change their lifestyle habits. If you are a parent looking for a way to reduce the amount of TV your kids watch, or a spouse who wants to reinforce the amount of support your husband or wife gives you, behavior modification can help you do exactly that.
Behavior Modification Defined
Before we go over behavior modification techniques, it is important to understand exactly what behavior modification is and does. The process of changing behavior is a standard therapeutic treatment used by many mental health professionals to reinforce good habits and break old ones.
Based on this, behavior modification uses operant conditioning to change existing behaviors by replacing them with others. With this definition, it becomes possible to start modifying our behavior in pursuit of a specific goal.
The following are three different types of behavior modification tactics you can use to improve your everyday wellbeing and become more mindful.
Modification Method Number One: Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is probably the most commonly understood form of behavior modification. This involves encouraging desired activities through a reward-based initiative.
What does this mean in a real-life context? For adults, this might involve drafting a predetermined contract between the person trying to modify their behavior and the one holding them accountable. So, if you are trying to become more mindful — such as wanting to appreciate and spend more quality time with your spouse — you would agree with your spouse to write up a list of behaviors that qualify as quality time and engage in positive reinforcement every time you correctly display those behaviors.
Positive reinforcement could mean receiving compliments from your husband or wife every time you spend quality time together unprompted. Or, it could take the shape of a weekly reward — a night out on the town or a movie date — if you successfully engage in mindful behavior with your spouse that week.
For children, the process becomes more rudimentary: if you want your child to be more mindful, you might give them a treat or celebrate their behavior every time they engage in the behavior you outlined for them. This might be drawing more, spending more time outside, or even making new friends at school.
Modification Method Number Two: Negative Reinforcement
When it comes to behavior modification, the opposite of positive reinforcement is negative reinforcement. And while many adults think that negative reinforcement involves punishment, the process simply means removing an unwanted enforcer upon successfully engaging in the desired behavior.
For example, until you become more mindful, you might commit yourself to exercising heavily every day — an exhausting process that you do not particularly enjoy. Your incentive is to stop exercising so heavily, and so to remove this negative reinforcer you spend more time with your spouse. This is negative reinforcement in a nutshell: taking away unwanted stimuli once your behavior consistently changes.
A negative reinforcer for children might be taking away additional afterschool teaching once they have successfully learned a subject or improved their grades. The goal here is not to punish the person whose behavior you are trying to modify — with negative reinforcement, the objective is simply to remove an external factor once behaviors have changed.
Modification Method Number Three: Punishment
While positive reinforcement means introducing rewards and negative reinforcement deals with removing stimuli, punishment involves instating something specifically unpleasant as a result of the unwanted behavior. This is the kind of behavior modification most parents are intimately familiar with — factors such as verbal reprimands and early bedtimes are a key part of teaching children that inappropriate behavior is not tolerated.
For adults, punishment is more nuanced. You cannot exactly send your spouse to bed early for their bad behavior. But, if both parties mutually agree upon the principle, you can work together with your spouse to develop a list of potential punishments that can be applied if one of you fails to change their behavior. The most important part of this method is that the punishment should not be done out of spite, anger, or resentment — doing so can undermine the behavior modification. After all, a spiteful child or spouse is not the best recipient of mindful instruction.
Another important thing to remember is that punishment should not be the first behavior modification method you rely on when trying to change your behavior or the behavior of others. Having new tools in your mindfulness toolbelt — such as positive and negative reinforcement — means you have other ways to modify behavior before automatically resorting to punishment.
Becoming More Mindful Through Behavior Modification
It makes sense that mindfulness and behavior modification go hand in hand. After all, mindfulness starts with modifying your behavior to be more present, aware, and appreciative. Introducing reinforcements to encourage that mindset can be a radically transformative way to quickly become more mindful.
The next time you or a close family member is engaging in unwanted actions, consider the prospect of behavior modification — you may just find it helpful. Alternatively, if you want more ways to increase your mindfulness or the mindfulness of others, check out the following books: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Atomic Habits by James Clear, and The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod.
Anthony Cupo is a trained mindfulness facilitator (TMF) from the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. He is a co-owner of Stepping Forward Counseling Center, LLC and has been meditating for over 30 years.