Module 2: The Science of Behavior Analysis and Modification

Module Overview

In Module 1, we learned that psychology was the scientific study of behavior and mental processes and that behavior modification involved changing what people do, say, or think/feel. If we do end up changing the behavior, how do we know that our treatment plan was the actual cause? In Module 2, we will look closer at what makes psychology scientific and how we go about declaring with a great deal of certainty that our treatment plan was the cause of the change. On our way to doing this, we will cover many key aspects of what science is and then end with an introduction to the course project and assignment of Planning Sheet 1.


Module Outline

  • 2.1. Science and Psychology
  • 2.2. Behavioral Assessment
  • 2.3. Establishing a Functional Relationship and Experimental Designs
  • 2.4. Planning Sheet 1: Identify Your Target Behavior


Module Learning Outcomes

  • Clarify what it means for psychology to be scientific by examining the steps of the scientific method, the three cardinal features of science, and the five main research methods that are used.
  • Describe methods of measuring behavior.
  • Clarify what is needed for a functional relationship to be established and describe designs which aid with hypothesis testing.
  • Complete and Submit Planning Sheet 1.


2.1. Science and Psychology

Section Learning Objectives

  • Define the scientific method.
  • Outline and describe all steps of the scientific method. Define key terms in bold.
  • Clarify what the three cardinal features of science are and how they relate to behavior modification.
  • List and describe the five main research methods used in psychology.


2.1.1. The Scientific Method

In Module 1, we learned that psychology was the “scientific study of behavior and mental processes.” We will spend quite a lot of time on the behavior and mental processes part, but before we proceed, it is prudent to elaborate more on what makes psychology scientific. In fact, it is safe to say that most people not within our discipline or a sister science, would be surprised to learn that psychology utilizes the scientific method at all.

As a starting point, we should expand on what the scientific method is.

The scientific method is a systematic method for gathering knowledge about the world around us.

The key word here is that it is systematic meaning there is a set way to use it. What is that way? Well, depending on what source you look at it can include a varying number of steps. I like to use the following:


Table 2.1: The Steps of the Scientific Method

Step Name Description
0 Ask questions and be willing to wonder. To study the world around us you must wonder about it. This inquisitive nature is the hallmark of critical thinking, or our ability to assess claims made by others and make objective judgments that are independent of emotion and anecdote and based on hard evidence and required to be a scientist.
1 Generate a research question or identify a problem to investigate. Through our wonderment about the world around us and why events occur as they do, we begin to ask questions that require further investigation to arrive at an answer. This investigation usually starts with a literature review, or when we conduct a literature search through our university library or a search engine such as Google Scholar to see what questions have been investigated already and what answers have been found, so that we can identify gaps or holes in this body of work.
2 Attempt to explain the phenomena we wish to study. We now attempt to formulate an explanation of why the event occurs as it does. This systematic explanation of a phenomenon is a theory and our specific, testable prediction is the hypothesis. We will know if our theory is correct because we have formulated a hypothesis which we can now test.
3 Test the hypothesis. It goes without saying that if we cannot test our hypothesis, then we cannot show whether our prediction is correct or not. Our plan of action of how we will go about testing the hypothesis is called our research design. In the planning stage, we will select the appropriate research method to answer our question/test our hypothesis.
4 Interpret the results. With our research study done, we now examine the data to see if the pattern we predicted exists. We need to see if a cause and effect statement can be made, assuming our method allows for this inference. More on this in Section 2.3. For now, it is important to know that the statistics we use take on two forms. First, there are descriptive statistics which provide a means of summarizing or describing data, and presenting the data in a usable form. You likely have heard of the mean or average, median, and mode. Along with standard deviation and variance, these are ways to describe our data. Second, there are inferential statistics which allow for the analysis of two or more sets of numerical data to determine the statistical significance of the results. Significance is an indication of how confident we are that our results are due to our manipulation or design and not chance.
5 Draw conclusions carefully. We need to accurately interpret our results and not overstate our findings. To do this, we need to be aware of our biases and avoid emotional reasoning so that they do not cloud our judgment. How so? In our effort to stop a child from engaging in self-injurious behavior that could cause substantial harm or even death, we might overstate the success of our treatment method.
6 Communicate our findings to the larger scientific community. Once we have decided on whether our hypothesis is correct or not, we need to share this information with others so that they might comment critically on our methodology, statistical analyses, and conclusions. Sharing also allows for replication or repeating the study to confirm its results. Communication is accomplished via scientific journals, conferences, or newsletters released by many of the organizations mentioned in Section 1.5.

Science has at its root three cardinal features that we will see play out time and time again throughout this book. They are:

  1. Observation – In order to know about the world around us we must be able to see it firsthand. In relation to behavior modification, if we want to reduce a problem behavior such as a child acting out in class, we have to be able to see the child fidget in his seat, distract other children as they work, talk out of turn, show hostility on the playground, throw food at lunch, etc. In Module 4, we will talk about the need to clearly define what this “problem behavior” entails so we know what we need to observe and record.
  2. Experimentation – To be able to make causal or cause and effect statements, we must be able to isolate variables. We have to manipulate one variable and see the effect of doing so on another variable. In order to stop the child from acting out, a teacher may use a specific strategy such as giving the child points for behaving that he can later cash in for some coveted prize. The points are part of a system that the teacher can manipulate and the problem behavior is what she is trying to affect. In this case, she is trying to bring about a reduction in the distracting behavior.
  3. Measurement – How does the teacher know that her strategy has worked? She can measure how often the child misbehaved before the strategy in terms of the various dimensions of behavior you learned about in Module 1.3. It is possible the child would act out about 6 times an hour (frequency) for a few minutes at a time (duration) and became really difficult during group work as compared to individual work (intensity). With her plan in place, she now measures behavior and notices a significant decline in the distracting behavior. Her plan must be working.

Behavior modification will utilize these features. Remember, behavior is what we do, say, or think/feel and must be overt or observable. This meets the first cardinal feature of science.


2.1.2. Research Designs Used in Psychology

Step 3 called on the scientist to test his or her hypothesis. Psychology as a discipline uses five main research designs. They are:

  1. Naturalistic and Laboratory Observation – In terms of naturalistic observation, the scientist studies human or animal behavior in its natural environment which could include the home, school, or a forest. The researcher counts, measures, and rates behavior in a systematic way and at times uses multiple judges to ensure accuracy in how the behavior is being measured. The advantage of this method is that you see behavior as it occurs and it is not tainted by the experimenter. The disadvantage is that it could take a long time for the behavior to occur and if the researcher is detected then this may influence the behavior of those being observed. Laboratory observation involves observing people or animals in a laboratory setting. The researcher might want to know more about parent-child interactions and so brings a mother and her child to the lab to engage in preplanned tasks such as playing with toys, eating a meal, or the mother leaving the room for a short period of time. The advantage of this method over naturalistic method is that the experimenter can use sophisticated equipment and videotape the session to examine it later. The problem is that since the subjects know the experimenter is watching them, their behavior could become artificial.
  2. Case studies – Psychology can also utilize a detailed description of one person or a small group based on careful observation. In fact, much of the work done in applied behavior analysis involves case studies as in our example of the child who was injuring himself. The advantage of this method is that you have this rich description of the behavior being investigated but the disadvantage is that what you are learning may be unrepresentative of the larger population and so lacks generalizability. Again, bear in mind that you are studying one person or a very small group. Can you possibly make conclusions about all people from just one or even five or ten?
  3. Surveys – This is a questionnaire consisting of at least one scale with some number of questions which assesses a psychological construct of interest such as parenting style, depression, locus of control, or sensation seeking behavior. It may be administered by paper and pencil or computer. Surveys allow for the collection of large amounts of data quickly but the actual survey could be tedious for the participant and social desirability, when a participant answers questions dishonestly so that he/she is seen in a more favorable light, could be an issue. For instance, if you are asking high school students about their sexual activity they may not give an honest answer for fear that their parents will find out.
  4. Correlational Research ­– This research method examines the relationship between two variables or two groups of variables. A numerical measure of the strength of this relationship is derived, and can range from -1.00, a perfect inverse relationship meaning that as one variable goes up the other goes down, to 0 or no relationship at all, to +1.00 or a perfect relationship in which as one variable goes up or down so does the other. In terms of a negative correlation we might say that as a parent becomes more rigid, controlling, and cold, the attachment of the child to parent goes down. In contrast, as a parent becomes warmer, more loving, and provides structure, the child becomes more attached. The advantage of correlational research is that you can correlate anything. The disadvantage is that you can correlate anything. Variables that really do not have any relationship to one another could be viewed as related. Yes. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. For instance, we might correlate instances of making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with someone we are attracted to sitting near us at lunch. Are the two related? Not likely, unless you make a really good PB&J but then the person is probably only interested in you for food and not companionship. J The main issue here is that correlation does not allow you to make a causal statement.
  5. Experiments – This is where the experiment comes in since it is a controlled test of a hypothesis in which a researcher manipulates one variable and measures its effect on another variable. The variable that is manipulated is called the independent variable (IV) and the one that is measured is called the dependent variable (DV). In the example above, the strategy the teacher came up with is the IV and the distracting behavior that is measured is the DV. The teacher can make a causal statement about her strategy if the hypothesized decrease in behavior occurs. As such, she might say, “When I offered the student points for behaving correctly that were later cashed in for a prize, the student acted out less in class. Hence, my plan led to a reduction in this behavioral excess as hypothesized.” A common feature of experiments is to have a control group that does not receive the treatment or is not manipulated and an experimental group that does receive the treatment or manipulation. It is possible that the teacher had a second student in one of her other sections of the class that acted out in the same way. To know if her points system really works, she would not use it with the second student but only with the first. Once her treatment phase ended, she could then compare the control group (student not given points) against the experimental group (student given points) to see how much behavior was occurring. We would expect no change in behavior for the control group but a decrease with the experimental group if the points system was effective, and this is what the teacher found. Again, the control group allows the researcher (or teacher) to make a comparison to the experimental group which can lead to a causal statement.


2.2. Behavioral Assessment

Section Learning Objectives

  • Define behavioral assessment.
  • Define target behavior and the forms it may take.
  • Clarify why we need to measure behavior.
  • Contrast the three phases of behavioral assessment.


Recall that one of the three cardinal features of science was measurement. Within the realm of behavior modification and applied behavior analysis, we talk about what is called behavioral assessment which simply is the measurement of a target behavior. The target behavior is whatever behavior we want to change and from Module 1.4 we know that it can be in excess or needing to be reduced, or in a deficit state and needing to be increased.

Why might we need to measure behavior? Three reasons come to mind. First, we need to determine if a treatment is even needed. Maybe the target behavior is not occurring as frequently as we thought it was and so there is no need to try to reduce it. Or maybe we want to increase the number of times we go to the gym each week but discover we already are going three times most weeks and so strategizing to go more often is not necessary. Of course, we might also discover that we smoke more cigarettes in a day than we believed we did, and so reducing the unwanted or problem behavior is even more important.

Assuming a treatment is needed, our second reason to measure behavior will be to determine what treatment will work best. It may be that we wish to include a specific positive consequence for making the desirable behavior but learn through observation and measurement of behavior that this is something our client, or ourselves, really will not enjoy and so will not motivate behavior.

Finally, we need to know if the treatment we employed worked. This will involve measuring before any treatment is used and then measuring the behavior while the treatment is in place. We will even want to measure after the treatment ends to make sure the behavior sticks.

Our measurement therefore occurs during three phases:

  • Baseline Phase – Before any strategy or strategies are put into effect. This phase will essentially be used to compare against the treatment phase. We are also trying to find out exactly how much of the target behavior the person is engaging in.
  • Treatment Phase – When the strategy or strategies are being used. We measure across all treatment weeks to see if the target behavior changes in the predicted manner. In Module 15 we will discuss evaluating our plan and making adjustments as needed. Since we are measuring during the treatment phase, we can see if our strategy or a specific strategy within a group of strategies being used does not work. We can remove it, replace it, or change it to bring about the effect on behavior that we hypothesized.
  • Maintenance Phase – Once the treatment phase has ended we will want to still measure our behavior to ensure that the strategies we used to bring about meaningful behavioral change stands the test of time and influence of temptations in our environment. Let’s say our nutritionist gives us a sound strategy that brings about substantial weight loss. We may then reduce our visits and just check in periodically. Without those regular visits to check in we might fall back into bad habits and see our weight rebound, even if just partially. In a follow-up visit, the nutritionist could recommend a return to the full set of strategies or just a few of them until the desirable behavior and results have been re-established. Hopefully with time, the person will make a lifestyle change that keeps the weight off. Continued measurement after the treatment phase has ended can ensure the obtained success continues.


2.3. Establishing a Functional Relationship and Experimental Designs


Section Learning Objectives

  • Clarify what a functional relationship is.
  • Outline four major experimental designs used in behavior modification.


As we have discussed already, scientists seek to make causal statements about what they are studying. In the realm of behavior modification, we call this a functional relationship and one occurs when we can say a target behavior (DV) has changed due to the use of a procedure/treatment/strategy (the IV) and this relationship has been replicated at least one other time.

To make a causal statement, we already know that an experimental procedure is required. Within behavior modification, these procedures take on several different forms. In discussing each, note that we will use the following notations:

A will represent the baseline phase and B will represent the treatment phase.

  1. A-B design – This is by far the most basic of all designs used in behavior modification and includes just one rotation from baseline to treatment phase and then from that we see if the behavior changed in the predicted manner. The issue with this design is that no functional relationship can be established since there is no replication. It is possible that the change occurred due to an extraneous variable, or an unseen and unaccounted for factor on the results and specifically our DV, and not due to the treatment that was used.
  2. A-B-A-B Reversal Design – In this design, the baseline and treatment phases are implemented twice. After the first treatment phase occurs, the individual(s) are taken back to baseline and then the treatment phase is implemented again. Replication is built into this design, allowing for a causal statement, but it may not be possible or ethical to take the person back to baseline after a treatment has been introduced, and one that likely is working well. What if you developed a successful treatment to reduce self-injurious behavior in children or to increase feelings of self-worth? You would want to know if the decrease in this behavior or increase in the positive thoughts was due to your treatment and not extraneous behaviors, but can you really take the person back to baseline? Is it ethical to remove a treatment for something potentially harmful to the person? Now let’s say a teacher developed a new way to teach fractions to a fourth-grade class. Was it the educational paradigm or maybe additional help the child has received from his/her parents or a tutor? Well we need to take the child back to baseline and see if the strategy works again, but can we? How can the child forget what has been learned already? ABAB Reversal Designs work well at establishing functional relationships if you can take the person back to baseline but are problematic if you cannot. An example of them working well includes establishing a system to ensure your son does his chores, having success with it, and then taking it away. If the child stops doing chores and only restarts when the system is put back into place, then your system works.
  3. Multiple-baseline designs – This design has just what it sounds like, multiple baselines, but for one of three scenarios. In an across-subjects design there is a baseline and treatment phase for two or more subjects for the same target behavior. In an across-behaviors design, there is a baseline and treatment phase for two or more different behaviors the same participant makes. And finally, the across-settings design has a baseline and treatment phase for two or more settings in the same person for which the same behavior is measured.
  4. Changing-Criterion Design – In this design, the performance criteria changes as the subject achieves specific goals. So the individual may go from having to workout at the gym 2 days a week, to 3 days, then 4 days, and then finally 5 days. Once the goal of 2 days a week is met, the criterion changes to 3 days a week. It has an A-B design and rules out extraneous variables since the person continues meeting the changing criterion/new goals using the same treatment plan. Hence successfully moving from one goal to the next must be due to the strategies that were selected.

You will find that your final project in this class will use a changing-criterion design as you will formulate specific goals to achieve and then develop a plan to reach them.


2.4. Planning Sheet 1: Identify Your Target Behavior


Section Learning Objectives

  • Complete and submit Planning Sheet 1.


In this course, you are expected to develop a behavior modification plan to change some undesirable behavior you have, implement it, and then evaluate the success of the plan. To this end, you will be required to complete eight planning sheets, a plan proposal, and then a final paper in APA format. Planning Sheet 1 will have you select your target behavior for approval by your instructor. Please submit it on time and in the appropriate location (either in class or in a drop box in your institution’s learning management system.

Planning Sheet 1 can be found in Appendix 1: Self-Management Plan Documents, at the back of this book.


Module Recap

In Module 2, we dove deeper into what science is and how psychology is scientific in its pursuit of an understanding of behavior and mental processes. Our discussion started general but then worked down to specific details about applied behavior analysis and how behavior is measured, functional relationships are established, and what experimental designs are used to test the validity of our hypotheses.

Lastly, the course project was introduced and Planning Sheet 1 was assigned. There is much in this course that you have already seen applied in your life or will apply to yourself or others. Hence, the applicability of a course in behavior modification is tremendous. With a foundation now established, we will begin our investigation of ways to modify behavior by discussing how we plan to bring about change. You have identified a behavior you want to change. In Module 3, we discuss why we must be willing to change.


STOP – Complete and submit Planning Sheet 1 –

See Appendix 1 to obtain it.



Before proceeding to Part II, it is important to understand the framework for behavioral change this book will use and where your self-modification project fits in. So here we go:

  • Part II – Planning for Change – Before we engage in behavior modification we first must have a willingness to change the problem behavior and cannot do so simply because others told us to. Next, we must define the target behavior and any competing behaviors that may affect the success of our plan and set goals that are realistic to obtain. Finally, we conduct a functional assessment to clearly understand what the behavior is, what causes it, and what sustains it. This is a detailed examination of the ABCs of behavior. Baseline data will be gathered also.
  • Part III – Identifying Strategies to Bring About Behavior Change – In this section we will cover basic and advanced operant conditioning procedures and principles, but also will look at respondent conditioning and observational learning. From this discussion, you will have a selection of about 30 strategies you can use to change most target behaviors.
  • Part IV – We will develop the behavior modification plan by deciding on which strategies will be most useful, identifying possible mistakes we might make and temptations which will make success difficult, develop rules for our plan, write the plan itself, and then implement it with the beginning of the treatment phase.
  • Part V – Critical to any behavior modification plan is measuring the target behavior to see if our treatment plan is working. If not, we can adjust it as needed and once everything seems to be working well we can move into the maintenance phase. We will want to prevent any relapse back to the problem behavior or absence of the desired behavior and will discuss how to do that. Finally, we will talk about writing up the results in an APA formatted paper.

In terms of the full scope of the class, the final project paper demonstrates your understanding of the concepts that were learned and correct application of the strategies. It will also give you a chance to use APA format. In Part VI we will discuss when to use the strategies learned in Part III, and ensure you know how to use them as well. Additionally, you will develop a behavior modification plan for another person, much like how you did it for yourself.

To be clear, the process of behavior modification we will discuss throughout Modules 3 to 16 in this book are as follows:


Overall Process for Behavior Modification

Planning for Change

  1. Identify Target Behavior – Module 2
  2. Pros and Cons Analysis with Self-Efficacy – Module 3
  3. State behavioral definition – Module 4
  4. Establish goals and criterion – Module 4
  5. Determine plan to record data – Module 5
  6. Conduct a functional assessment and baseline phase – Module 5
  7. Identify strategies – Modules 6-9 for strategies and 10 for actual selection
  8. Identify temptations and mistakes – Module 11
  9. State plan rules – Module 12

Implementation and Behavior Change

  1. Implement plan. Collect data as you go. Treatment phase – Module 14
  2. Re-evaluate the plan and see if it is working. Make adjustments as needed – Module 15
  3. Move to maintenance phase. Engage in relapse prevention – Module 16


Please keep this framework in mind and better yet, learn it now so that you will be successful with the Module 19 exercises and Part 2 of your final exam.


Without further ado, let’s begin to explore how to bring about positive behavioral change.


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Principles of Behavior Analysis and Modification Copyright © 2020 by Lee W. Daffin Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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