Behavior Analysis: What is it? Where has it been? Where is it going?

Kristen Rollman, MA, BCBA


Behavior analysis has gained a lot of popularity in recent years as it grows both in its research base and application. Many new students, researchers, educators, and clinicians are dipping their toes into the behavior analysis pool, eager to dive into a deeper understanding of its contents and purposes. Discussions surrounding behavior analysis tend to focus mostly on ABA therapy and its popularity in Autism treatment. While ABA, or Applied Behavior Analysis, is a highly effective and very popular approach to treating individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder, ABA and Autism are only small pieces of a much bigger pie. Behavior analysis has a rich history, bright future, and it is definitely worth taking a closer look at.


Most simply put, behavior analysis is the science of behavior. As a science, behavior analysis seeks to understand the underlying principles of behavior for both humans and nonhuman animals. Similar to the other sciences, which rely heavily on investigative research for the expansion of knowledge and application, behavior analysis also uses the scientific method to achieve deeper understanding of its contents.


The history of behavior analysis dates all the way back to the early 1900’s when behaviorist, John B. Watson first published “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It”. Watson’s stance on behaviorism indicated that a person’s environment played a pivotal role in shaping behavior, maybe even more so than genetic variables. This was a novel and eye-opening perspective on behavior, after Freudian views of behavior had been widely accepted and applied for many years.


In the 1930’s, B.F. Skinner began his research with the Operant Chamber at Harvard University and in 1938 he published “Behavior of Organisms”. Skinner’s contribution to our current understanding of Operant Learning has stood the test of time and behavior analysts continue to learn from and expand upon Skinnerian views of behavior to this day.


Over the next several decades, many more highly esteemed psychologists continued to contribute to the science of behavior analysis and in the 1960’s and 1970’s, began to employ their findings more readily in applied settings. Ivar Lovaas and his colleagues really made headway in the 1970’s and 1980’s with their application of behavior analytic principles to reduce severe behaviors and improve communication in individuals with developmental disabilities. Some consider this series of applied research studies to be the beginning of what we know today as Applied Behavior Analysis. Applied Behavior Analysis, more commonly referred to as ABA, is the systematic application of the principles derived from experimental research in behavior analysis to effect significant behavior change across a variety of socially meaningful domains.


The field of behavior analysis continues to grow in both the experimental and applied settings. Through experimental research, the field of behavior analysis continues to unearth new and improved knowledge about behavior for the purposes of description, prediction, and control. Behavior analysts are able to derive descriptive knowledge about behavior through systematic observation. Behavior analysts observe behavior with an objective lens and a willingness to consider new perspectives about the world. Descriptive knowledge opens the door for collaborative efforts, the discussion of new theoretical frameworks, and inquiries that may fuel future investigative research.


Behavior analysts also conduct their research for the purpose of prediction. Data collected in research studies yield valuable information about the relative probability of events and correlational relationships between variables that occur in the natural world. Prediction is an important part of science, and more specifically, behavior analysis. This aspect of behavior analysis focuses on understanding past events and ultimately facilitates the uncovering of new pathways towards better outcomes in the future.


Control is often considered to be the highest level of scientific understanding. In behavior analysis, control plays a crucial role in both experimental research and the applied settings. Control is achieved when a functional relation is established between two or more variables. In other words, a purposeful change in one variable can reliably produce a desired change in the other variable. Control is an important characteristic in this field because it ultimately leads to behavior change. When functional relations are reliably produced, behavior analysts can then apply this knowledge to effect meaningful change for the individuals they work with.


Prediction, description, and control play an important role in driving investigative research and application in the natural sciences. As a science, behavior analysis maintains these characteristics in its utilization of experimental research and its application towards socially meaningful change.


Behavior analysts may work in a variety of experimental and applied settings. Some behavior analysts conduct research in labs, institutions, and universities and contribute their research results to the advancement of the field. Applied behavior analysts, more commonly known as BCBAs (Board Certified Behavior Analysts), typically work in a variety applied settings, including schools, clinics, residential centers, and home-based settings, most often providing behavior therapy services for individuals from all different populations.


There are several other paths that behavior analysts can walk down, too! Some of these subspecialties include, but are not limited to, organizational behavior management, environmental sustainability, health and fitness, and even behavioral sport psychology.


The field of behavior analysis continues to grow rapidly both in research and application. Whether in experimental or applied settings, behavior analysis offers many avenues to explore and holds a lot of space for new growth and opportunity.


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