6. Behavioral Contingency Management

Homme and Tosti (1965) have stated that “either one manages the contingencies or they get managed by accident.  Either way there will be contingencies, and they will have their effect” (p. 16).  It was stated earlier that the contingent management of a reinforcer entails the dispensation of the reinforcer following the target behavior, but only following the occurrence of the target behavior 18 (Rimm & Masters, 1974).  Most behavioral management programs include a combination of contingencies.  For example, in the study by Burchard and Tyler (1965) previously reported, both aversive techniques (i.e., the isolation procedure), as well as positive reinforcement techniques (i.e., tokens), were used.  Typically, behavioral contingency programs include some provision to positively and/or negatively reinforce adaptive or prosocial behavior, that is, the target behavior, as well as some provision to punish the deviant behavior with an aversive consequence.

Punishment is to be conceptually differentiated from negative reinforcement.  Punishment is defined as “the situation when an aversive stimulus is presented after a particular act and cannot be escaped or avoided” (Kanfer & Phillips, 1970, p. 322).  On the other hand, we have previously seen that a negative reinforcer, by disappearing, strengthens behavior (Skinner, 1969).

In discussing the relative merits of reinforcement versus punishment techniques, Rimm and Masters (1974) state:

It is clear that punishment may be effectively used to modify behavior… and that there may be particular behavior problems that respond better, or perhaps exclusively, to aversive procedures.  And while there may be a choice between using positive reinforcement and punishment procedures, there are several good reasons for preferring reinforcement techniques….  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 [Rimm and Masters’ emphasis], and consequently one that becomes ineffective for the individual in question (pp. 192- 193).

It is important to emphasize that Rimm and Masters (1974) do not oppose the use of aversive techniques, but that these techniques should be used judiciously and by well-trained individuals, and only in the absence of an effective reinforcement technique.  Bandura (1969) endorses a similar position:

The use of aversive control is also frequently questioned on the grounds that it produces a variety of undesirable by-products.  This concern is warranted, as we shall see later.  Many of the unfavorable effects, however, that are sometimes associated with punishment are not necessarily inherent in the methods themselves but result from the faulty manner in which they were applied.  A great deal of human behavior is, in fact, modified and closely regulated by natural aversive contingencies without any ill effects….

Punishment is rarely employed as a sole method for modifying behavior; but if it is used judiciously in conjunction with other techniques designed to promote more effective response options, such combined procedures can hasten the change process.  In addition, aversive consequences are frequently used to modify deviant behavior that is automatically self-reinforcing upon occurrence and in cases where certain response patterns must be brought rapidly under control because of their injurious effects upon the performer or other persons (p. 294).

Furthermore, Meehl (1962) has expressed concern with many clinicians who deliberately focus on the maladaptive or deviant behaviors without strengthening or increasing the frequency of adaptive behaviors already present, or without instituting new behaviors in the person’s repertoire.

Some of the side effects of punishment previously referred to by Rimm and Masters (1974), and by Bandura (1969), have been studied by Risley (1968) and by Becker (1971).  Becker (1971) proposes that some deviant behaviors have their origins in punishment, such as the following:

Cheating,         to avoid the punishment that goes with being wrong.

Truancy,          to avoid or escape the many punishments that go with school failure, poor teaching, punitive administration of school.



(from home),    to escape the many punishments parents can use.

Lying,              to avoid the punishment that follows doing something wrong.

Sneaking,        to avoid being caught “misbehaving.”

Hiding,            to avoid being caught (Becker, 1971).

Another situation of concern in the use of punishment procedures is that in which parents punish deviant behavior, but seldom, if ever, reinforce their children’s appropriate behavior.  One such case was reported by Tharp and 21 Wetzel (1969), who studied the case of a family in which the parents had to be trained to use techniques of contingency management with reinforcement, rather than with punishment, in order to effectively control their children.

Contingency management procedures have been successfully applied by parents and teachers in the modification of a multitude of different behaviors.  Examples of some of the applications include: extreme withdrawal (Brawley, Harris, Allen, Fleming, & Peterson, 1969; Allen, Hart, Buell, Harris, & Wolf, 1964); hyperactivity and aggressive behavior (Allen, Henke, Harris, Baer, & Reynolds, 1967; Nixon, 1965, 1966; Hall, Lund, & Jackson, 1968); depressive feelings and marked overdependency (Wahler & Pollio, 1968); extreme passivity (Johnston, Kelley, Harris, & Wolf, 1966); classroom behavior (Homme, Csanyi, Gonzales, & Rechs, 1970; Buckley & Walter, 1970; Patterson & Gullion, 1968/1971); and parents’ manuals on the modification of children’s behavior (Patterson, 1971/1975; Becker, 1971; Azrin & Foxx, 1974).

A recent example of the application of behavioral contingency management appears in a study by Ayllon, Smith, and Rogers (1970).  These authors treated an 8-year-old child with a problem of school phobia.  The school phobic behavior was redefined as zero or low probability of attendance.  The treatment consisted of the training of the child’s mother not to reinforce his staying at home, and to start implementing a home-based, motivational program to reinforce school attendance.  In addition, the child’s refusal to attend school would result in punishment.  Ayllon et al. reported that the child began attending school regularly, and this behavior was maintained a month after the procedures were withdrawn, as well as at the time a 9-month follow-up was conducted.

Two techniques of contingency management deserve special attention because of their importance to the research procedure used in this investigation.  The techniques referred to are, namely, contractual agreements and the time-out from reinforcement procedure.


© 1976 Angel Enrique Pacheco, Ph.D., C.Psych.  All Rights Reserved.



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