Adult behavior modification is the process of changing the way an adult responds either mentally or physically to a specific stimulus. The process of behavioral modification in adults can be applied to everything from stopping a drug addiction to making your bed regularly in the morning. Though an often difficult process in adults, as they are already set in their ways, behavior modification can be successfully accomplished with high levels of success.
Operant conditioning is a term coined by B.F. Skinner to encompass all learned behavior that humans and animals voluntarily use to "operate" in the world. The most simplistic description of this process is that people will perform voluntary actions to get something they want or avoid something they don't want. For example, working all week grants a person a paycheck. That is something he wants and, as such, he performs the behavior of going to work regularly. Conversely, a person may choose not to speed while driving to avoid a ticket. This behavior of proper driving helps her avoid something she doesn't want.
Reinforcement answers the classic question of "What do I get out of it?" when applied to a behavior. Positive reinforcement is the addition of a pleasurable experience in reaction to something someone has done. For an adult, modifying his behavior may be as simple as praising him for performing a desirable behavior. Pointing out the good job an alcoholic is doing by not drinking for several days or taking an employee aside and thanking her for coming to work every single day without calling off. These pleasurable experiences help reinforce the adults likelihood of repeating these behaviors as apposed to calling off again or going to a bar.
Negative reinforcement is the process of changing behavior by taking away an unpleasant consequence if the behavior is performed. Avoiding the loss of a raise because you are not turning your work in on time or mowing your lawn to avoid getting a fine from your landlord are examples of negative reinforcement. Adverse behavior is avoided by performing an action and, as a result, the action is repeated prior to the adverse reaction. Using negative reinforcement to modify adult behavior is not the process of adding negative consequences, but rather pointing out the negative consequences that could be avoided if the adult would change her behavior. Educate and explain to the adult that losing the raise or the need to pay a fine for improper lawn care may be avoided if he simply changes how he is behaving.
The Problem with Punishment
All too often, the idea of punishment is applied to change an adult's behavior. This is rarely effective, as changing behavior must come before the behavior is committed, not as a response to it. Reinforcement is much more effective as it seeks to increase a behavior where punishment seeks to weaken a behavior or remove it entirely, and well-established behaviors are not easily broken. Further, punishment is often only temporarily effective. Once enough time has passed the punishment is forgotten and behavior often repeated. Whereas with reinforcement the positive addition or negative removal of stimuli is always going on and consistently helping to make a behavior more likely to remain or happen again. Further, punishment is a way to say "Don't do this!" but often never gives alternative behaviors that should be followed, and, because no alternative exists in the mind of the adult, she will often default to the only behavior she knows works.