Behavior Therapy: Some Key Concepts

Quotes from the words of the Masters:

Behavior vs. genetic determinants of behavior:

“Even when it can be shown that some aspect of behavior is due to season of birth, gross body type, or genetic constitution, the fact is of limited use.  It may help us in predicting behavior, but it is of little value in an experimental analysis or in practical control because such a condition cannot be manipulated after the individual has been conceived.  The most that can be said is that the knowledge of the genetic factor may enable us to make better use of other causes.  If we know that an individual has certain inherent limitations, we may use our techniques to control more intelligently, but we cannot alter the genetic factor” (Skinner, 1957).

Learning, definition:

“A change in the potentiality of a behavior, with varying degrees of permanence, as a consequence of reinforced practice” (Farray, 1972).

Operant vs. classical conditioning:

“In the Pavlovian experiment, however, a reinforcer is paired with a stimulus; whereas in operant behavior it (the reinforcer) is contingent upon a response.  Operant reinforcement is therefore a separate process and requires a separate analysis.  In both cases, the strengthening of behavior which results from reinforcement is appropriately called ‘conditioning.’  In operant conditioning we ‘strengthen’ an operant in the sense of making a response more probable or, in actual fact, more frequent.  In Pavlovian or ‘respondent’ conditioning we simply increase the magnitude of the response elicited by the conditioned stimulus and shorten the time which elapses between stimulus and response” (Skinner, 1953).

The operant type of responses are to be differentiated from the respondent or Pavlovian responses in that the former are emitted and the latter are elicited.

Operant, definition:

Any behavior produced by the organism in the absence of eliciting stimuli.

Reinforcer, definition:

“A reinforcer is an event, behavior, or material object that increases the frequency of any behavior upon which it is contingent.  The kinds of consequences which increase the rate (of a response, that is, ‘reinforcers’) are positive or negative, depending upon whether they reinforce when they appear or disappear” (Skinner, 1969).

Conditions for applying reinforcement procedures:

“First, one must select reinforcers that are sufficiently powerful and durable to maintain responsiveness over long periods while complex patterns of behavior are being established and strengthened.  Second, the reinforcing events must be made contingent upon the desired behavior if they are to be optimally effective.  And third, a reliable procedure for eliciting or inducing the desired response patterns is essential; otherwise, if they rarely or never occur there will be few opportunities to influence them through contingent reinforcement” (Bandura, 1969).

Punishment, definition:

“The situation when an aversive stimulus is presented after a particular act and cannot be escaped or avoided” (Kanfer & Phillips, 1970).

“In some instances, the use of punishment seems based on the (often implicit) belief that the behavior in question is intrinsically rewarding: thus the individual ‘deserves’ nagging until the behavior is performed or punishment if it is not, but not reinforcement if it is.  Children should empty the trash cans from a sense of responsibility, and wives should wash dishes, cook, and clean house because they enjoy these wifely duties and the appearance of a clean house and have the responsibility to do so–compliments and thanks from the husband are unnecessary” (Rimm & Masters, 1974).

“While there may be a choice between using positive reinforcement and punishment procedures, there are several good reasons for preferring reinforcement techniques (or observational learning, assertive training, or cognitive methods, etc.).  First of all, when effective, alternative techniques are available, it is difficult to justify the employment of techniques which cause pain and suffering even if they, too, are effective.  Second, punishment often produces a number of side effects that may be quite undesirable.  And finally, while punishment may be used cautiously and effectively by the experienced behavior therapist, it is often a technique of choice by some spouses and parents, one that they use ineffectively, and consequently one that becomes ineffective for the individual in question” (Rimm & Masters, 1974).

Schedules of reinforcement:


Interval: (a) fixed, (b) variable

Ratio: (a) fixed, (b) variable

Shaping, definition:

 The reinforcement of successive approximations of the desired target response emitted by the individual.

Extinction, definition:

“The decrease in responding that occurs when the reinforcement following the response no longer occurs” (Hall & Lindzey, 1970).

 Time-out from reinforcement:

Time-out procedures, which involve the elimination of rewarding consequences typically contingent upon a behavior, as well as the removal of all other potentially rewarding stimuli that are present, but not necessarily contingent upon, the maladaptive behavior (for instance, immediately following a misbehavior, the child is sent to a quiet room with few, if any, interesting playthings).  Time-out procedures may be administered by a therapist, but often their effectiveness is increased if they are controlled by individuals who populate the life space of the person under treatment and, therefore, have greater contact with him.  Close attention must be given to the training of these individuals, which involves giving them some degree of expertise in the administration of the behavior-change procedures to be employed” (Rimm & Masters, 1974).

Contingency management:

“To dispense a reinforcer contingently is to dispense it following a desired behavior (one whose frequency is to be increased) and to take care that the reinforcer be dispensed only following desired behaviors” (Rimm & Masters, 1974).

“It is not an uncommon comment that all too frequently, clinicians focus upon the elimination, or extinction, of maladaptive behaviors and ignore the more positive goal of strengthening adaptive behaviors that are infrequent, or initiating adaptive behaviors that are absent from an individual’s repertoire” (Rimm & Masters, 1974, citing Meehl, 1962).

Without commentary:

“There is another point of similarity,” Frazier said at last when he saw that I was not going to speak.  “I don’t know whether you’ll understand this, Burris. I expect you’ll laugh.  But try to forget your professional cynicism.”

He dropped the telescope and hesitated for a moment.  Then he flung his hand loosely in a sweeping gesture which embraced all of Walden Two.

“These are my children, Burris,” he said, almost in a whisper.  “I love them.”

He got to his feet and started back along the ledge.  I followed carefully.  He turned into the underbrush and waited for me to catch up.  He was embarrassed and rather confused.

“What is love,” he said, with a shrug, “except another name for the use of positive reinforcement?”

“Or vice versa,” I said.


(B. F. Skinner, Walden Two, 1948/1962, pp. 299-300).




 We are here to help you…

 Learn to Live Better ®