Dissemination of Behavior Analysis

Special Interest Group (DBA-SIG)

Applied Behavior Analysis

Applied Behavior Analysis is an applied natural science devoted to developing and applying procedures for effective and beneficial behavior change. The goal is the application of science to alleviate human suffering.

One well-known application of behavior analysis is an effective treatment to help children with autism. But behavior analysis is more than a treatment for these children; it has broad application in improving the human condition. For example, it has been used in AIDS prevention, conservation of natural resources, education, gerontology, health and exercise, industrial safety, language acquisition, littering, medical procedures, parenting, seatbelt use, sports, and zoo management! 

Lets talk about what ABA is, and what ABA is not.

1) ABA is not a treatment model.

2) ABA is not autism-specific.

3) ABA is the research domain of a natural science of behavior as it applies to socially significant change.

There are 7 distinct characteristics of ABA that make it separate from other things:


Behavior Analysis is the science of behavior. Applied Behavior Analysis is the science of behavior of people in the applied setting. ABA is committed to enhancing the lives of people. The behavior scientist must choose behaviors that are of social significance...not to the scientist, but to the consumer! Now -- there may be people that are consumers of applied behavior analysis that say they like their current behavior patterns, but they also want things that these patterns preclude. Applied behavior analysis takes into consideration more than just the short-term behavior change, but also looks at how behavior changes can affect the consumer, those who are close to the consumer, and how any change will affect the interactions between the two.

What about the behavior scientist that chose to teach the consumer to brush his hair -- how is that socially significant? In a case such as this, a behavior scientist may choose to teach a consumer how to brush their hair, even though the consumer states that they don't care about their hairstyle...if the consumer also states that they'd like to get a significant other. After observing the consumer trying to get dates, the behavior scientist notices that all date potentials are not attracted to the messy hair. Sometimes simple changes have MAJOR effects!


You may think -- no duh! But, Baer, Wolfe, and Risley made some very good points when they chose to include this! The first point made is that behavior itself must change, not just what the consumer SAYS about the behavior. Thus -- it is not the goal of applied behavior analysis to get their consumers to stop complaining. If we had a consumer that was referred because he was depressed. It is not our goal to get him to say that he's no longer depressed, but to change the behaviors that characterize his depression. Second -- behavior must be measured with the utmost care! It is not acceptable in ABA to be sloppy with measurement of behavior. Nor can a behavior scientist resort to the measurement of non-behavioral substitutes! Finally -- and arguably most important is that we measure behavior with other humans. This means that their behavior (of recording the consumer's behavior) is subject to the same principles and laws that we are using for intervention! We must be very careful to analyze their behavior and make certain that any change in behavior of our consumer is truly that rather than some sort of change in measurement by our observers.


When discussing analytic, we mean that the behavior scientist can demonstrate believable control over the behavior that is being changed. In the lab, this has been easy as the researcher can start and stop the behavior at will. However, in the applied situation, this is not always as easy, nor ethical, to do. This difficulty must not stop us from upholding the strength of our science. Baer and his colleagues referred to two designs that are best used in applied settings to demonstrate control and maintain ethical standards. These are the reversal and multiple baseline designs. The reversal design is one in which the behavior of choice is measured prior to any intervention. Once the pattern appears stable, an intervention is introduced, and behavior is measured. If there is a change in behavior, measurement continues until the new pattern of behavior appears stable. Then, the intervention is removed, or reduced, and the behavior is measured to see if it changes again. If the behavior scientist truly has demonstrated control of the behavior with the intervention, the behavior of interest should change with intervention changes.

Baer et al make a very good point that many reversals may not be available as behavior changes that are being sought tend to meet reinforcers that are outside of the experiment, and thus will maintain the behavior, even once the behavior scientist's intervention is removed. The other design is multiple baseline. This is good if a reversal of behavior is not possible or ethical. This time, the behavior scientist takes the baseline (measures behavior prior to intervention) of several behaviors. Then, the behavior scientist applies an intervention to a single behavior while leaving the others without intervention. If that behavior changes and the other behaviors remain at similar levels as baseline that lends credence to the efficacy of the intervention. Then, the behavior scientist adds an intervention to another of the behaviors, monitoring for change in the newly selected behavior. How many other disciplines will not only provide interventions and then prove to you that they worked? If they don't -- they're not behavior analysis!


This is very important to development and the refinement of our science. When a study or intervention is technological, it means that if someone else were to read its description, that person would be able to "replicate the application with the same results" (Baer et al., 1987). This means that the description must be very detailed and clear. Ambiguous descriptions do not qualify. Cooper et al (2007) describe a good check for the technological characteristic: "have a person trained in applied behavior analysis carefully read the description and then act out the procedure in detail. If the person makes any mistakes, adds any operations, omits any steps, or has to ask any questions to clarify the written description then the description is not sufficiently technological and requires improvement."

Conceptually Systematic

If you've had a behavior analyst help change behavior of yourself or someone close to you -- you may have thought -- wow! what a neat idea! I'd like to try that to change my _______ behavior. Then, when you tried, it didn't work. Individual people respond differently to environmental stimuli. This means that while one 'trick' may work for person A, it may not work at all for person B. Fortunately, ABA is more than just a bag of tricks to change behavior. Its based on a few basic principles of behavior. While it is generally characterized by the types of interventions used to improve behavior -- the different tactics and techniques are simply extended from these basic principles. Thus -- all ABA must remain conceptually systematic so that a) behavior analysts don't get stuck applying a 'trick' to a person. A behavior analyst may attempt one intervention, find out its not effective, and can use the principles of behavior to determine/create another intervention that will work. If the behavior scientist does not remain conceptually systematic -- the science will become a bag of tricks, and if they don't work, the scientist won't have any way to create an intervention that will work. Furthermore, a bag of tricks are difficult to expand upon and learn/teach.


This is pretty self-explanatory. We want to make a difference. Telling Bob that his situation is statistically better than it was prior to intervention doesn't make him feel any better. Thus, behavior analysis requires that not only do we change behavior to a socially significant level but that we also examine whether the initial reason that this behavior was chosen has been changed. If Bob came to a behavior analyst because he couldn't get a date, and we teach him social skills so that he's engaging in positive statements, compliments, and gentlemanly behavior at least 5 times a day (it was 0 before intervention), we've effectively changed his behavior, but if he's not getting dates -- we are not being effective! Every behavior scientist should be asking -- 'Is this intervention making a difference?' -- if not -- then its not applied behavior analysis.


Generality: Behavior change must not only change in the condition/situation in which the intervention was implemented, but that it should also change in other settings. Behavior change can also generalize to related behaviors.

So -- the BCBA who works with my child is not engaging in ABA? 

Unless this BCBA is conducting applied research, then the analyst is engaging in the fourth domain of behavior analytic science -- professional practice which is informed and guided by the science. This means that your BCBA will be using empirically determined interventions to change behavior to be more successful, isn't that great?!


DeVries, J. E, Burnette, M. M., & Redmon, W.K. (1991). AIDS prevention: Improving nurses' compliance with glove wearing through performance feedback. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 24, 705-711

Brothers, KJ, Krantz PJ, & McClannahan, LE (1994). Office paper recycling: A function of container proximity. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 27, 153-160.

Dardig, Jill C.; Heward, William L.; Heron, Timothy E.; Nancy A. Neef; Peterson, Stephanie; Diane M. Sainato; Cartledge, Gwendolyn; Gardner, Ralph; Peterson, Lloyd R.; Susan B. Hersh (2005). Focus on behavior analysis in education: achievements, challenges, and opportunities. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson/Merrill/Prentice Hall. ISBN 0131113399.

Gallagher, S. M., & Keenan, M. (2000). Independent use of activity materials by the elderly in a residential setting. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 33, 325-328.

De Luca, R. V., & Holborn, S. W. (1992). Effects of a variable-ratio reinforcement schedule with changing criteria on exercise in obese and nonobese boys. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 25, 671-679.

Fox, D. K., Hopkins, B. L., & Anger, W. K. (1987). The long-term effects of a token economy on safety performance in open-pit mining. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 20, 215-224.

Drasgow, E., Halle, J. W., & Ostrosky, M. M. (1998). Effects of differential reinforcement on the generalization of a replacement mand in three children with severe language delays. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 31, 357-374.

Powers, R. B., Osborne, J. G., & Anderson, E. G. (1973). Positive reinforcement of litter removal in the natural environment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 6, 579-586.

Hagopian, L. P., & Thompson, R. H. (1999). Reinforcement of compliance with respiratory treatment in a child with cystic fibrosis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 32, 233-236.