Psychology is full of areas of study that work to benefit individuals both mentally and emotionally on a daily basis. This primarily revolves around improvement of the human mind. Behavior modification, a field that studies human behavior extremely close is one area of psychology that focuses on modifying and eventually eliminating undesirable human behaviors and/or transforming them into desirable deeds. Over the past two weeks, I have chosen to observe and record my boyfriend’s (Jake) undesirable behavior of biting his nails.
Using the processes of behavior modification, I have created a method to change his behavior to benefit his lifestyle and health. At the start of any behavior modification process a target behavior must to be identified. In Jake’s case, the target behavior, or the behavior that is going to be modified, is exemplified by his habit of biting his nails (aka Jake will no longer bite his nails). Nail biting is typically a sign of stress, anxiety or sometimes of just boredom (NPR, “Nail Biting: Mental Disorder or Just a Bad Habit”). The habit can simultaneously serve as comforting feeling or a distraction from the problem at hand.
Severe cases of nail biting can become extremely dangerous because the hands and nails can carry so many bacteria that can harm the human body. Intense biting can also cause tears in the skin that can become infected. The negative stimuli that produce Jake’s desire to bite his nails can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression. Even though my boyfriend does not possess a severe enough case for those health threats to affect him, if he continues to bite his nails as much as he does, I worry that he could become susceptible to bacteria and disease.
Because of this, my procedure will focus on eliminating his nail biting in hopes that it can be extinguished before it gets too bad. Throughout this process of modifying Jake’s behavior, the main goal is to decrease his nail biting. Throughout this assignment, both Jake and myself have decided to primarily focus on the behavioral discrepancy, biting his nails. The decrease in this behavior will not only be replaced by an alternate, more preferred, behavior (tic-tac chewing), but could also end up eventually reducing the feelings of stress and anxiety that may be triggering the nail biting.
This will serve as the behavioral criterion (or goal) we have established throughout relationship as client and observer, as well as the foundation for this assignment. Besides the goal of this study, in the behavior modification process many logistics need to be consented on between the observer and client. Jake and I have mutually agreed that I am the independent observer, also known as the person who is associated with the client on a regular basis in a natural environment that is suitable for observing but also is comfortable enough for Jake’s behavior to take place in.
As the independent observer, my role was to act as an observer according to the clients’ availability and behavior, as well as, possess extreme closeness to examine the target behavior every time it takes place and record the observations as soon as they happen for accuracy. Jake, on the other hand, consented to take part in the behavioral change process as somebody who shows the target behavior, otherwise called the client. Both the observer and the client should be present amidst the observation period and in the right setting.
For this process, the observation period depended on both of our availability and the set of rules enforced by my personal observation preferences. For example, the observation period should be when the target behavior (nail biting) was at it’s highest chance of occurring, which for Jake was when he was studying for an exam, sitting in class, or watching TV. All of these activities involve some type of emotional response, mostly stress or anxiety (but boredom was also shown while watching TV), which served as an acceptable time to observe and record data.
In addition to the logistics behind this study, a recording method and recording instrument need to be decided upon as well. Throughout the process, I used the Continuous Recording Method, which involved me recording every little thing that happened during the observation period regarding the target behavior and including the frequency and duration. The frequency is the number of times the target behavior (nail biting) occurred during a specific observation period, and the duration is be the total amount of time the behavior occurred from the start of the observation period to the end.
To keep track of all the numbers I collected, I used a data sheet for the frequency and duration of Jake’s nail biting to mark the occurrence of the behavior, as it happened, in order to have the correct information. This data tracking helped me to clearly arrange and read the data collected, not just for my personal understanding but also for others who may be interested in reading and analyzing this study. On each data sheet I defined the target behavior as nail biting and listed the dates I was recording (baselines and treatments).
Next to those days, I wrote the frequency of the behavior, and finally I included a daily total column that showed the data for specific day. The next step to this assignment, the functional assessment of any study, is developing a key factor for interpreting the information. This basic principle of behavior analysis is the actual process of accumulating all the information from the study together and organizing it to figure out the ABCs; antecedents, behaviors and consequences. In Jake’s case, the A, or the antecedent stimulus that evokes his behavior; studying or working causes him to bite his nails.
Since this is a conduct that as the observer and client we are attempting to diminish, an S? would be present. The S? is the antecedent stimulus that is present when the behavior is not being reinforced, which in this case, would be the tic-tac I give Jake every time he begins to bite his nails. In addition, the antecedent would technically be considered as an antecedent manipulation, since during this study, we are trying to manipulate Jake’s feelings that trigger a nervous response with treatment.
Next, the B, or behavior, in this study would be the actual action of Jake’s nail biting, this is what I observed and what can be analyzed in the final stage. Finally, the C, or consequence would be the feeling of relief Jake gets from his nail biting. All together this exemplifies a process concerning the aversive stimulus automatically becoming eliminated, or at least reduced, as a consequence of the behavior. This is called automatic negative reinforcement.
Based on the assessment of Jake’s nail biting, I have decided that the best procedure to achieve our desired change in the target behavior would have to be an extinction of the problem behavior and differential reinforcement of an alternative behavior; I needed something that will still allow Jake to relieve some of his work anxiety. Extinction is a previously reinforced behavior that is no longer followed by the reinforcing consequences it once was, and as a result, the initial behavior is weakened and eventually stops occurring in the future (Merriam-Webster. m. 2011). In Jake’s case, nail-biting habits must be extinct in order for the study to be considered effective. This treatment is usually the best and first choice when trying to get rid of problem behaviors, as it eliminates the reinforcer for the problem behavior while at the same time applying an alternate behavior to take its place. The alternate behavior for Jake (as stated above) was chewing Tic-Tacs, which will entail practicing a procedure that desires the decrease in problem behavior with the help of a reinforcing, alternative behavior in its place.
This is known as a differential reinforcement of alternative behavior. The alternate behavior of chewing Tic-Tacs is similar to nail biting in the sense that Jake will still be able to move his mouth in the same way and chew, however, the Tic-Tacs will prevent from the pain and possible infection that comes from nail biting. The constant motion of the mouth tricks the mind into thinking it’s satisfied, which in addition, also tricks the antecedent stimulus. As a result, Jake will chew tic-tacs now when studying instead of his nails.
However, before implementing these sometimes intense behavior modification processes, when using extinction, one must make sure it is safe to use them and that there will be no bad consequences. Since Jake’s nail biting is not yet a severe problem that results in him getting an infection or harming himself in an extreme way, I decided, as the observer, that using extinction is an okay. This technique was implemented during the treatment phase of this study as Jake’s nail biting frequency built up due to the amount of work and assignments he had to do.
During the study, when he would bring his hand up to his mouth, I would push his hand down and give him a tic-tac instead. I then gave him praise for this, as that is necessary in eliminating the undesired behavior. In an effort to implement maintenance, also known as an attempt to keep the target behavior when the observer is not around, I gave Jake a pack of gum. I told him that every time he went to class or sat down to study he was to chew on a piece of the gum.
Seeing as we want the undesirable behavior of nail biting to be extinct, it was important to generalize him with the gum and use the maintenance for our behavior change. My treatments in this study were a success. Eventually, Jake’s behavior of biting his nails was eliminated as seen from the graphs featured above. He showed a strong decrease in the unfavorable behavior from treatment on day one through day four, but experienced a hard set back on day five as he was studying for a midterm and grew sick of the tic-tacs—only his nails would suffice.
However, the last two days of implementing the tic-tac chewing alternate behavior, Jake proved the study to be a success, as did not experience any urges to bite his nails or even bring them near his mouth. His natural instinct became reaching for a tic-tac when getting overwhelmed with his work. As a follow-up on this study, exactly one week from the last day I observed and treated Jake in this setting, I watched him again without his knowledge while he was doing homework.
Through the intense practice of extinction and maintenance that took place earlier, and differential reinforcement, Jake did not bite his nails once. Because the undesirable behavior did not take place, even days after stopping treatment, I can determine that the nail biting behavior was extinguished. In the future I look forward to Jake not biting his nails and risking the infection and sickness that can come with.