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A behavioral contract is a contract between two or more parties that establishes a behavioral pattern for a specified time in the future. This can be useful when someone wishes to lose weight, become more organized, or increase the amount of time they spend studying. There are five components of a proper behavioral contract.

The target behavior must be identified. For example, how many pounds does the subject wish to lose? Or how much time to they wish to study? How the target behavior will be measured must also be indicated. For example, in the obesity case, a scale would measure the amount of pounds lost. In the studying case, a stop watch could count the time, then that could be recorded on a data sheet.

The time frame that the behavior should be performed in must also be specified. Perhaps the subject must lose ten pounds by Christmas, or another subject must study at least one hour per week day for the next week. What are the contingencies to the behavior? Or in other words what will be used to reinforce desirable behavior, or punish undesirable behavior. Who will implement the contingency? Perhaps the subject’s best-friend, husband, or parent.

There are several types of behavioral contracts: one-party contract, two-party contract, and quid pro quo contract. In the one-party contract, the subject wishes to change their behavior, and asks another person to be the contract manager and implement the contingencies. In a two-party contract, two people identify same or different target behaviors and complete them in the same period of time. The behavior of one subject is the reinforcer for the other subject. However, the quid pro quo goes one step farther, and states that if one person does not carry out their end of the bargain, the other person is allowed to drop the contract until the next stated time period.

Behavioral contracts are a form of antecedent manipulations. These manipulations make the target behavior more likely to occur. The environment is manipulated ahead of time. One-party contracts are the most productive if the contract manager can be trusted to be fair. Two-party contracts are reliable if both parties are responsible enough to accomplish that which they agree to accomplish. Quid pro quo contracts are only proper if the reinforcer of one person is potent enough to motivate the other.

The current theory on why behavioral contracts work is based on rule governed behavior. When a person has to follow a set of rules, or else suffer consequences, they are more likely to attempt to succeed. Set marks on how successful they must be allows them to reduce anxiety as they accomplish their goals. When they are below their quota in the desired behavior they will induce anxiety within which stimulates desirable behavior to reduce the unconditioned punisher of anxiety.

Behavioral contracts must be set at an attainable level or else anxiety will always be present, thus habituating the subject to anxiety. This will condition the subject that a contract is equal to anxiety. For example, if you are trying to get a child to study an hour a day, but currently they are not studying at all. First ask them to study ten minutes a day, then slowly increase the increment. Program for success!