Pro-Social Modelling

Pro-social modelling is a simple and effective technique that can contribute to behaviour change in forensic clients. It refers to the ways in which individuals working with involuntary clients can model and reinforce pro-social values to elicit similar values in their clients. This is done through the positive reinforcement of a client’s desirable thoughts and actions, while confronting pro-criminal or anti-social behaviours. Ultimately, this practice aims to move clients towards a more pro-social life. Workers who implement these practices generally show higher levels of empathy and socialisation, and have clients with improved outcomes, such as reduced rates of arrests and incarceration as well as lower rates of recidivism.

Pro-social modelling practices are based on learning theory, such that a client is more likely to replicate their positive behaviours if they understand the links between their actions and the associated rewards. Thus, it is essential that pro-social modelling is demonstrated promptly following desirable behaviours so that the client can clearly observe the link between the behaviour and reward.

Pro-social behaviours that should be rewarded/reinforced:

  • Attending appointments and being punctual
  • Being optimistic of progress towards goals and achievements
  • Prosocial interpersonal skills (politeness, kindness, empathy)
  • Accepting responsibility for offences
  • Actively participating in treatment
  • Following orders and directions from staff
  • Participation in pro-social activities (e.g. sport, hobbies, attending classes/work)
  • Attending job interviews
  • Distancing oneself from pro-criminal social groups
  • Associations with non-criminal peers
  • Expressing understanding of the harmful effects of substance use/criminal activity
  • A focus on problem-solving approaches
  • Empathy for victims

Ways for workers to model pro-social attitudes/behaviours:

  • Keeping appointments and being punctual
  • Being reliable – don’t make promises you can’t keep
  • Respecting the client’s feelings
  • Ensure you are rational and fair in your interactions with the client
  • Expressing negative views about criminal behaviour
  • Interpreting people’s motives in a positive way (e.g. “most police are really just doing their jobs” rather than “that police officer is being unfair”)
  • Being optimistic about the benefits of obeying the law
  • Being non-judgemental
  • Expressing empathy
  • Constructively challenge anti-social or pro-criminal attitudes and behaviours
  • Understand how personal or cultural factors can influence a client’s behaviours. (I.e. through talking to the client about their cultural perspective). Thus, ensuring approaches are relevant and beneficial to the client.
  • Being consciously aware of your actions and the ways in which you may be influencing clients

Ways to reinforce positive behaviours:

  • Demonstrate positive body language (e.g. smiling, attentive listening)
  • Verbal praise
  • Sharing positive information with other workers involved with a client (e.g. CCOs)
  • Reducing frequency of contact
  • Providing a positive report for parole or court
  • Making positive comments in case notes
  • Clearly indicate the attitudes/behaviours you wish to be elicited by the client
  • Reinforcement should occur immediately in response to pro-social behaviours

While confrontation of undesirable behaviour is an important aspect of pro-social modelling, it must be used sparingly and amongst a wider approach of positive reinforcement to ensure it has therapeutic benefit and avoid deterioration of the therapeutic alliance. Importantly, excusing, avoiding or ignoring, rather than addressing, anti-social behaviours is associated with poorer client outcomes. Confrontation of anti-social values should involve first, identifying undesirable rationalisations or behaviours as well as the potential reasons underlying them. Then, the situation should be re-framed within a positive framework to demonstrate more appropriate responses, while still acknowledging that a client’s negative feelings may be justified.

For more information on pro-social modelling, have a look at these publications:

Cherry, S. (2010). Transforming Behaviour. London: Willan.

Chris Trotter & Tony Ward (2013) Involuntary Clients, Pro-social Modelling and Ethics, Ethics and Social Welfare, 7:1, 74-90,

Trotter, C. (2009). Pro-Social Modelling. European Journal of Probation1(2), 142–152.

Trotter C. 2013. Effective community-based supervision of young offenders. Trends & issues in crime and criminal justice No. 448. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.

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