Science in Christian Perspective



A Biblical Basis for Behavior Modification
Psychology Department
Spring Arbor College
Spring Arbor, Michigan 49283

From: JASA 29 (September 1977): 111-113.

Experimental psychology has been attacked and discounted by some Christians because they do not agree with some experimental psychologists' opinions of how its basic principles should be applied. An integration of objectively verifiable principles of learning with the Christian faith seems a more beneficial course. Building upon the basic assumptions that there is no real conflict between Gods Word (the Bible) and Gods world, and that becoming a Christian involves an attitude but not necessarily a behavior change, this paper discusses the similarities between the findings of experimental psychology and the teachings of Jesus Christ. A cost-benefit model for self-control is also presented.

One area of psychology which has received little acceptance in the Christian community is experimental (behavioristic) psychology' with its attendant therapeutic approach, behaviorial therapy (the application of basic learning principles to modify behavior). Experimental psychology has been assailed with such emotion-laden terms as "pseudoscientific," "mechanistic," "dehumanizing," and "ratomorphic," with little attention being given to its objective data and much being given to the opinions of its proponents.2 Should we reject objectively verifiable principles of learning because we disagree with some experimental psychologist's idea of how they might be applied? Instead of living in fear of some malevolent "behavioral engineer," we could better use these principles to rearrange our own lives.

The purpose of this article is to offer an integration of a behavioristic and a Christian approach to behavior modification.

Basic Assumptions

As a Christian experimental psychologist, I have operated under the assumption that there is no conflict between God's Word and God's world. Both are His creations, and He "is not the author of confusion" (I Cor. 14:33, KJV). Any apparent conflicts are perceived and not real ones. This does not mean that there may not be misinterpretations by man; however, knowledge of each should aid in the interpretation of the other. We as Christians must be careful not to assume that our personal interpretation of the Word is the correct one if it conflicts with others' interpretations of the world, and vice versa. We must also take care not to worship either the Bible or the world, but to be ever mindful of their common Creator.

My second assumption is that becoming a Christian involves a change in attitude and commitment, but not necessarily a change in behavior. There is often a gap between what we as Christians will-to-do and what we will-do. Although commitment to behavior change is an important first step, it is in no way a guarantee that change will take place (i.e., we are still subject to the laws of learning). Perhaps commitment, prayer, and a tested change strategy would be a more suitable approach for modifying behavior.

A Biblical Basis

A number of the basic principles of learning which have been the subject of extensive research by experimental psychologists were also mentioned by Christ. He stressed that Christians should analyze their behavior and understand that it is influenced by environmental events which precede and follow it. A close scrutiny of the gospels reveals several such observations which Christ made.

At least twice Christ appeals to us to analyze and change our behavior (self-control):

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye, with never a thought for the great plank in your own? Or how can you say to your brother, "Let me take the speck out of your eye," when 0 the time there is a plank in your own? You hypocritical First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's.' (Matt. 7:3-5, New English)

The second passage suggests that we realize that there are cause-effect relationships in the earth and sky about us, but we fail to carefully analyze the cause-effect relationships that exist in the world of behavior.

He also said to the people, 'When you see cloud banking up in the west, you say at once, "It is going to rain", and rain it does. And when the wind is from the south ; you say, "Mere will be a heat-wave", and there is. What hypocrites you arel You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; how is it you cannot interpret this fateful hour?

'And why can you not judge for yourselves what is the right course? When you are going with your opponent to court, make an effort to settle with him while you are still on the way; otherwise he may drag you before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the constable, and the constable put you in jail. I tell you, you will not come out till you have paid the last farthing.' (Luke 12:54-59, NEB)

One important class of stimuli which must be under stood if we wish to control behavior consists of discriminative stimuli (antecedent cues). When a response has been reinforced in the presence of a certain stimulus, that stimulus increases the probability that the response will recur when it is again presented (i.e., " physical circumstances, social settings, the behavior of other people, and your own thoughts"3 may serve as discriminative stimuli). Christ seems to suggest, as have psychologists,4 that we may need to eliminate some discriminative stimuli which set the occasion for inappropriate behavior.

'If your right eye is your undoing, tear it out and fling it away; it Is better for you to lose one part of your body than for the whole of it to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand is your undoing, cut it off and fling it away; it is better for you to lose one part of your body than for the whole of it to go to hell.' (Matt. 5:29-30, NEB) (See also Matt. 18:8-9 and Mark 9:43-47)

A second important class of stimuli includes reinforcers (rewards), pleasant events which follow a response and increase the probability that it will recur. One important reinforcer which psychologists have recognized and which Christ warns us about is the attention of others (social reinforcer5). He warns that in our acts of devotion we can receive man's reward or God's, but not both.

'Be careful not to make a show of your religion before men; if you do, no reward awaits you in your Father's house in heaven.

'Thus, when you do some act of charity, do not announce it with a flourish of trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogue and in the streets to win admiration from men. I tell you this: they have their reward already. No; when you do some act of charity, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing; your good deed must be secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.' (Matt. 6.1-4, NEB. See also Matt. 6:5-6, 16-18)

Christ also assures us that our acceptance and aid for others will be rewarded.

'And if anyone gives so much as a cup of cold water to one of these little ones, because he is a disciple of mine, I tell you this: that man will assuredly not go un-rewarded.' (Matt. 10:42, NEB)

'For the Son of Man is to come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and then he will give each man the due reward for what he has done.' (Matt. 16:27, NEB)

'But you must love your enemies and do good; and lend without expecting any return; and you will have a rich reward: you will be sons of the Most High, because he himself is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.' (Luke 6:35, NEB)

A third class of stimuli consists of aversive stimuli, annoying events which tend to decrease the probability of the recurrence of a response they follow and increase the probability of the recurrence of a response which removes them. Christ warns of the aversive consequences of our inappropriate (sinful) behavior

A little later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, 'Now that you are well again, leave your sinful ways, or you may suffer something worse.' (John 5:14, NEB)

'He who does not dwell in me is thrown away like a withered branch. The withered branches are heaped together, thrown on the fire, and burnt.' (John 15:6, NEB)

He who puts his faith in the Son has hold of eternal life, but he who disobeys the Son shall not see that life; God's wrath rests upon him. (John 3:36, NEB)

Another important principle involved in the control of behavior is modeling (imitation). "New responses may be learned or the characteristics of existing response hierarchies may be changed as a function of I serving the behavior of others."6

'Treat others as you would like them to treat you.' (Luke 6:31, NEB)

'Pass no judgment, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; acquit, and you will be acquitted; give, and gifts will be given you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap; for whatever measure you deal out to others will be dealt to you in return.' (Luke 6:37-38, NEB)

A Behavior Modification Model

One of the major objections to behavior therapy has been the control that the therapist possesses when he decides what behavior needs to be changed and manipulates the consequences of that behavior. In recent years there has been a move toward self-control in which the individual sets the goals and designs and implements his own change strategy. This seems to be what J. B. Watson, the founder of behaviorism, was calling for fifty years ago:

I think behaviorism does lay a foundation for saner living. It ought to be a science that prepares men and women for understanding the first principles of their own behavior. It ought to make men and women eager to prepare themselves to rearrange their own lives, and especially eager to prepare themselves to bring up their own children in a healthy way.7

The behavior we engage in seems to be determined by our perception of the cost-benefit ratio (environmental consequences). I am defining cost as the presentation of an aversive stimulus or the postponement or removal of a reinforcing stimulus, and benefit as the presentation of a reinforcing stimulus or the postponement or removal of an aversive stimulus. Christ pointed out the many benefits of becoming a Christian, but he also pointed out the costs.

And to all he said, 'If anyone wishes to be a follower of mine, he must leave self behind; day after day he must take up his cross, and come with me. Whoever cares for his own safety is lost; but if a man will let himself be lost for my sake, that man is safe. What will a man gain by winning the whole world, at the cost of his true self (Luke 9:23, NEB)

'If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even his own life, he cannot be a disciple of mine. No one who does not carry his cross and come with me can be a disciple of mine. Would any of you think of building a tower without first sitting down and calculating the cost, to see whether he could afford to finish it?' (Luke 14:26-28, NEB)

Although the principle that we engage in that behavior which we perceive as maximizing benefit and minimizing cost is quite deterministic, it allows for freedom of choice. As frequently happens when we try to establish a new and appropriate behavior, benefit is perceived to be greater than cost, but when We initiate the behavior, we discover that the cost (fatigue, loss of reinforcement from the previous behavior) is greater than originally anticipated. Unless something is done to increase the benefit, the behavior ceases. At that point in time when we perceive that the benefit outweighs the cost, we can structure our environment in such a way that the benefit will continue to be higher than the cost in the future.

In order to diminish or eliminate an undesirable behavior, we must increase the cost of that behavior. It is also very helpful to increase the benefit of a desirable behavior which is incompatible with the one which is to be eliminated.8

Let him who steals steal no more; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need. (Eph. 4:28, New American Standard)

The basic principles of learning which have been investigated and applied by experimental psychologists are supported by Christ's statements about behavior.

The ultimate goal of the change strategy is to increase the benefit of the desired behavior until the period of greatest cost has passed so that the behavior will persist even in the absence of the added benefit.

The structuring of a self-control strategy involves at least three important steps, "the specification of a behavior, the identification of its antecedent cues and environmental consequences, and the implementation of an action plan that alters some of these antecedents and/or consequences."9 The books by Mahoney and Thoresen, Watson and Tharp, and Williams and Long (see References) are excellent guides for the person who wishes to implement a self-control strategy.

In conclusion, the basic principles of learning which have been investigated and applied by experimental psychologists are supported by Christ's statements about behavior. The appropriate application of these principles can modify our own behavior.

ISchultz, Duane. A History at Modem Psychology. (New York: Academic Press, 1975), p. 257.
2Andrews, Allan R. Psychology as Scientism: Alienation by Objectivity. journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 27, 1975, pp. 55-59 and 130-135.
Watson, David L. and Tharp, Roland G. Self-directed Behavior: Self-modification for Personal Adjustment. (Monterey: Brooks/Cole, 1972), p. 148.
Watson, D. L. and Tharp, R. G., op cit., p. 53.
DeRis, William J. and Butz, George. Writing Behavioral Contracts: A Case Simulation Practice Manual. (Champaign: Research Press, 1975), p. 5.
6Bandura, Albert and Walters, Richard H. Social Learning and Personality Development. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963), P. 47.
7Watson, John B. Behaviorism. (New York: Norton, 1925), p. 248.
Williams, Robert L. and Long, James D. Toward a Self-Managed Life Style. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975), p. 26. 9Mahoney, Michael J. and Thorensen, Carl E. Self-Control: Power to the Person. (Monterey: Brooks/Cole, 1974), p.