“Behavioral modification” is a grab bag of techniques for changing behavior. They are based on what psychologists know about the effects of rewards and punishments on behavior. Unlike some psychological methods, which delve into the roots of behavior, behavioral modification focuses on the behavior itself and ignores its causes.
Dog obedience classes offer a good example of behavioral modification. The teacher makes no effort to find out why Rex bites strangers in the buttocks or sits with his rear paws sticking out in front. Rather, the teacher guides you in using rewards and punishments to get your dog to obey your commands and have good posture while doing so.
Some weight-loss clinics teach behavior-modification methods to their patients. The idea is that people can use these tools to wean themselves from unhealthful behaviors and to acquire good habits. This idea makes a lot of sense. If you can train a dog to stand quietly and ignore the urge to lunge at a passing squirrel, you may be able to train yourself to eat moderately and ignore the urge to lunge at the last brownie on the plate.
Some researchers use a four-step behavior-modification plan to help people change their eating and exercise habits. The steps are simple, and you can follow them at home.
1. Have a clear idea of what behavior you want to change. Keeping a diary of everything you eat will show you exactly what you are eating now. It can also be a way to track your progress to healthier habits later.
2. Set short-term goals. For example, you might decide to lose 1 pound this week and to exercise 4 days this week. For this step to work, you need a way to know whether your behavior change is working. Here’s where the bathroom scale comes in. It can let you know whether you really have changed your behavior and how effective those changes are.
3. Figure out what triggers a behavior for you, and brainstorm ways to control those triggers. For example, if seeing food around the house makes you want to eat, you might keep foods stored in closed cabinets. If you have trouble resisting food urged on you at parties, you might rehearse saying “no.” If you can never remember to exercise, putting your shoes next to the door may help.
4. Change the rewards you get from your habits. Eating high-fat food is fun. So is lying around watching TV. To increase the appeal of more healthful habits, you can reward yourself with money or nonfood treats.
Some studies find that people, including people with diabetes, have an easier time losing weight or keeping weight off if they are taught behavior-modification methods. But other studies find behavioral modification has no effect on weight loss or that the effects soon wear off. More research is needed to fine-tune behavioral modification so that it works more reliably and its effects last longer.