What Is Applied Behavior Analysis?

(Note: As some of you know, I’m currently working on a master’s degree in behavior analysis. This is a recent class assignment—to explain applied behavior analysis in a succinct, clear manner so that someone unfamiliar with the field can understand the basics of applied behavior analysis. I’d love for you to leave a comment and let me know what you think about this post. Specifically, I’d like for you to let me know if any parts of it would benefit from more explanation or clarification.)

One hundred years ago, it was a radical notion to use scientific principles to study the behavior of people. Even today, many people are unsure if there can be a science of human behavior. Science is usually about observing, predicting and controlling events in the natural world. How can this be useful for human behavior which is infinitely subtle, complex and individual?

Actually, with careful observation and measurement, we can use scientific methods to study why people behave in certain ways. However, not only can we figure out what factors influence behavior, we can use the information to help people live happier, healthier, more productive lives.

The field of applied behavior analysis is just that. Researchers, teachers, parents and others use scientific principles to study how the physical and social environment impacts behavior. Then, they can use this information to help seemingly diverse groups of people—everyone from children with autism to disruptive fourth graders to business executives.

But what does applied behavior analysis really mean?

What does behavioral mean?

We use applied behavior analysis to study observable behavior of people and animals. Behavior analysts are interested in physical behaviors that can be counted in some way–what movements did someone make, where did the person make them, for how long, and so on.

Behavior analysts are also interested in how the environment affects behavior. They will often record what happens immediately before and after a certain behavior. This can include a person’s previous actions, physical events in the environment, or things another person said or did. Interestingly, with careful observations, very clear patterns emerge between a subject’s behavior and other environmental events.

Many people (falsely) think that behavior analysts deny that people have thoughts, feelings, emotions and dreams. This is certainly not the case! However, since another person cannot see them, they are difficult, if not impossible, to study accurately and precisely. When people report on their thoughts and feelings, these self-reports can vary from day to day and are impossible to check for accuracy. Instead, behavior analysts want to see exactly what’s going on and the relationship between people’s behavior and their environment.

In the past, many disciplines have used thoughts and feelings as explanations for behavior. For example, a parent might say that Sally hit Billy because she was angry. And she likely was! However, behavior analysts try to find how other environmental events might explain the cause of behavior and emotions. For example, perhaps Sally hits Billy because every time she does, he’ll give her the toy he is playing with. Studying the environmental consequences related to a behavior gives us much more information about what factors actually influence behavior.

What does analysis mean?

Attempts to teach, change and influence behavior aren’t new. People have been trying to change each other’s behavior for centuries. However, what behavior analysts are interested in is controlled research that demonstrates exactly what causes a new behavior to be learned or an old behavior to be changed.

For example, if we try to teach a classroom of children to recycle by showing them a video about recycling, hanging posters around the classroom, telling them to recycle, and modeling the behavior for them, which of these components (if any) will actually have an impact on their behavior?

Systematic research provides information about what specific components of procedures and teaching methods actually create long-term behavior changes. Careful data collection and observation can also alert researchers to other interesting variables or environmental factors that they might not have realized were significant. Behavior analysts are interested in demonstrating the underlying basis for why certain techniques change behavior so that these techniques can be used effectively in a variety of situations.

What does Applied mean?

What does it mean for a science to be applied? Applied means that behavior analysts are interested in studying socially relevant problems in their natural environment. Laboratory research is important for discovering basic principles in a tightly controlled environment. However, applied research leads to discovering if and how these basic principles can be useful to society. Applied behavior analysts want to help people and communities solve the real world problems that are important to them.

Behavioral principles and research methods have been used in a wide range of applications, including:

Helping parents teach children to act appropriately at restaurants
(Bauman, Reiss, Rogers, & Bailey 1983).

Using internet based programs to help people quit smoking
(Dallery & Glenn 2005).

Teaching adults with mental retardation to exit buildings when they hear a fire alarm
(Bannerman, Sheldon, & Sherman 1991)

Using clicker training to safely teach “problem” horses to load into trailers
(Ferguson & Rosales-Ruiz 2001).

Evaluating the impact of programs to promote seat belt use
(Cope, Moy, & Grossnickle 1988)

Reducing bullying behavior at elementary schools
(Ross & Horner 2009)

And many more applications!

Final Thoughts

Many times society attempts to control and influence behavior through aversive means–punishments, threats, penalties and the like. One of the strengths of applied behavior analysis is that behavior analysts have been able to demonstrate positive methods and solutions to motivate people and animals to learn and encourage people to behave in ways that are beneficial to themselves.

Behavior is incredibly individual and complex. Behavior analysts do not profess to know everything about behavior. Neither are the able to or interested in controlling all aspects of a person’s behavior.

However, the scientific study of behavior can help us discover why people and animals behave in certain ways. Behavior analysts apply what they learn to help people who want to change their own behavior and to help people be much more effective when teaching and working with others.


Baer, D. M., Wolf, M. M., & Risley, T. R. (1968). Some current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 91-97

Baer, D. M., Wolf, M. M., & Risley, T. R. (1987). Some still-current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 20, 313-327

Bannerman, D. J., Sheldon, J. B., & Sherman, J. A. (1991). Teaching adults with severe and profound retardation to exit their homes upon hearing the fire alarm. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 24, 571-577.

Bauman, K. E., Reiss, M. L., Rogers, R. W., & Bailey, J. S. (1983). Dining out with children: Effectiveness of a parent advice package on pre-meal inappropriate behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 16, 55-68.

Cope, J. G., Moy, S. S., & Grossnickle, W. F. (1988). The behavioral impact of an advertising campaign to promote safety belt use. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 21, 277-280.

Dallery, J. & Glenn, I. M. (2005). Effects of an internet-based voucher reinforcement program for smoking abstinence: A feasibility study. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 38, 349-357.

Ferguson, D. L., & Rosales-Ruiz, J. (2001). Loading the problem loader: The effects of target training and shaping on trailer- loading behavior of horses. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 34, 409-424.

Ross, S. W. & Horner, R. H. (2009) Bully prevention in positive behavior support. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 42, 747-759.

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  • Lizblackman

    Great article Mary! Well written and thought provoking and easy to understand. I am sending it to some friends who've been asking what you're up to and I'm also intrigued by some of your sources. More feedback to come as I look into it in more detail!

    Would love to know about applied behavioral analysis on efficiency in the workplace and also how it is utilized in Montessori-style classroom settings, both interests of mine 🙂


    • Thanks for commenting! 🙂

      There is actually a lot of material about using behavior analysis principles

      to improve efficiency and motivation in business settings. I'll find you

      something to read, although we have our big conference this weekend, so it

      will probably be at least sometime next week.

      Something I was reading over the weekend (by a behavior analyst named

      Goldiamond) briefly mentioned Montessori. You would probably like some of

      the things he has to say.


  • Blonde Knox

    I am interesting in learning more about Behavious Analysis. Where would be a good place to start? This is more of a hobby then employment learning. I was wondering if you could help me to find a good starting point.

    • Thanks for the question. Where to start depends on your background, as well as how in depth you want to go. 

      Karen Pryor's book “Don't Shoot the Dog” is a great introduction to some of the basic principles of behavior analysis. It is a fun read and is written so that someone without any prior knowledge about behavior analysis can understand the basics. 

      One of my favorite textbooks is “Behavior Principles” by Ferster, Culbertson and Perrott-Boren (2nd edition). The book is out of print, but it is pretty easy to find inexpensive used copies on amazon or ebay. 



  • from the ranch

    Very nice writing there. Describing the behavior through a consequence of action via children fighting is interesting but I think  a lot of inaccurate conclusions can be drawn from that. Sally may be an Asperger case or be a Narcissist or Sociopath which simply leads to a consequence that includes a reward for her,  has nothing to do with the actual system of reward but is more of a brain design difference.  Clicker training is interesting, this article on gaming is revealing.People are being clicker trained. Thank You Microsoft….http://www.cracked.com/article

    • Thanks for the comment!

      Behavior analysts are interested in the relationship between behaviors and environmental consequences. 

      Sally might hit Billy for a variety of reasons, including:
      –when she hits Billy, Billy will give up the toy he is playing with
      –when she hits Billy, he stops annoying her and goes into the other room
      –when she hits Billy, he cries and argues with her
      –or other possibilities

      When we analyze the function of behavior, we are interested in how events after the behavior, as well as environmental changes, affect the frequency of the behavior in the future. 

      In any of these cases, Sally could be a child with Asperger's, a narcissist, a sociopath or any other “label” that we want to put on her. The label still doesn't explain why Sally did the behavior or give us information to help us change the behavior.

      Looking to the environment does–if we know how the environment controls the behavior, we can change these environmental variables in order to decrease (or increase) the number of times that Sally hits Billy. 


  • Lili

    Hi Mary, Thanks for this article! I am in the middle of reading Paul Chance’s “First Course In Behavior Analysis” and this is a really fun, easy-to-follow book that would be great for anyone who is new to the subject (as I am). I’d love to get more book recommendations!

    • Hi Lili,

      I have not read the Paul Chance book, but I’ve heard others speak highly of it. I am glad you are enjoying it!

      What sorts of books are you looking for? More related to behavior analysis / science or more related to how the science can be applied to animal training?

      Here are a few recommendations:

      Behavior Principles, 2nd edition (1975). Ferster, Culbertson, & Perrott-Baron
      Out of print, but there are several copies on half.com for under $3. This is an older book, but a great text. One of my professors uses selections from it for both his undergraduate and graduate classes. There several chapters on stimulus control that are well written. The book has a nice format. For many sections, there large blocks of text from some of the original research studies, followed by a detailed explanation by the authors.
      Ferster was a close associate of Skinner- together they did all of the early work on schedules of reinforcement.

      Carrots and Sticks, by McGreevy and Boakes http://purl.library.usyd.edu.au/sup/9781921364150
      This book is pricey, but it’s one that I really like. Lots of good info, the authors get all of the science bits right, and it’s a great reference book as well. Really explains how the principles of behavior and science can be applied to animal training.

      Lads before the wind, by Karen Pryor
      This was Karen’s first book about animal training and it’s one of my favorites. It’s full of stories from when she started training dolphins. The book has a sense of discovery to it and I really enjoyed reading it. It’s a fun read.

      The science of consequences, by Susan Schneider http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1616146621/ref=oh_details_o00_s00_i00 Not in print yet, comes out in about two months. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy and plan to write a review after I read it. The author went to grad school with one of my professors. Should be a good book, I think!

      There is also an 1980 film about research that was done by Skinner and Robert Epstein that I really love. Lucky for us, Epstein has made it available for free on youtube. It’s about half an hour long. I encourage you to check it out at some point, I think you’d really enjoy it. http://stalecheerios.com/blog/training-videos/columban-simulations-smart-pigeons/

      If you take a look at any of these books, I’d love to know what you think after reading them!



      • Lili

        Thanks, Mary! I originally started reading Paul Chance’s book to further understand the science of Learning Theory, to follow on from what I have read in dog training books. So yes, how the science applies to dog training… But now I also find myself really fascinated by how we can change “human behavior” via the same methods. The book by Susan Schneider looks great! I will also check out the YouTube video. Thank you 🙂 P.S. If you need any illustrations for your essays/papers, I would love to contribute.

        • Hi Lili,

          I’m thinking I’m going to have to take a look at the Paul Chance book and then perhaps do a review of it on my blog. I’ve had a few people recently mention it.

          I think Susan Schneider’s book will deal a lot with human behavior, so I bet you’d find it pretty interesting. I think it will also deal with some of the newer research — how behavior analysts are working with biologists and neuroscientists to really try to figure out just how behavior works.
          And thanks for the offer!! I love your illustrations. 🙂
          I might have to take you up on that sometime in the future.



          • Lili

            Thanks, Mary! Yes, please do! And if you do read Paul Chance’s book, I look forward to your review! – Lili

          • Ethan Buchan

            Susan Schnider’s book was great. One particularly interesting thing her book touched upon, which a lot of similar books do not, is the recent research into epigenetics.

  • Julie

    Hi Mary,
    I thought the article was easy to understand and the only question I had was answered in your final thoughts. I checked out “Carrots & Sticks” from library reading now. Always enjoy your blog.
    Dog trainer behavior geek
    PS think you would enjoy reading Roger Abrantes blog this week on the mathmaticall rat

    • Hi Julie,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Also, that’s very cool that you were able to check out “Carrots and Sticks” from the library. I’d love to hear what you think once you are done.

      Thanks for the suggestion about Roger’s blog — I’m off now to go check it out!



  • Melanie Watson

    Many times society attempts to control and influence behavior through aversive means–punishments, threats, penalties and the like. One of the strengths of applied behavior analysis is that behavior analysts have been able to demonstrate positive methods and solutions to motivate people and animals to learn and encourage people to behave in ways that are beneficial to themselves……I attended a Dr Susan Friedman seminar last year where she suggested that the police should send a Costa coffee voucher to everyone who stayed within the speed limit as a thank you! What an incentive…it would never happen of course but it is interesting and made me smile. We all know the speed limit yet we all speed! We all think we can get away with it which mostly we do! Every now and again we get caught when a fine and points come through the post. It is annoying but we make our own excuses and after all it is our choice if we decide to speed or not! The system of fines and punishment does not work because we all think we won;t get caught. How fun would it be to get a thank you and a reward instead! Would that change our behaviour? I wonder!

    • Hi Melanie,

      Thanks for stopping by! I enjoyed your comment.

      You are right — society still so much controls behavior by punishment and aversive means.

      I feel like we know SO much about how to change behavior using positive reinforcement, but these ideas and methods still aren’t being used in most of our interactions with other people. Hopefully in the future society will be based less on punishment and more on positive reinforcement. That would definitely be cool to see.



  • Ethan Buchan

    Maybe a note on why mentalism is inadequate (ie, the problems in it which get in the way of an applied science) would add to the article, (without knowing why mentalism is inadequate, people are unfortunately left supposing that behaviourists miss something fundamental out when they say that people do not act because of how they feel, think, etc).

    To “from the ranch” who said:
    “Describing the behavior through a consequence of action via children fighting is interesting but I think a lot of inaccurate conclusions can be drawn from that. Sally may be an Asperger case or be a Narcissist or Sociopath which simply leads to a consequence that includes a reward for her, has nothing to do with the actual system of reward but is more of a brain design difference.”

    The problem with saying that “Sally hit Billy because she is an aspie/narcissist/sociopath”, is as follows:

    A person is diagnosed with aspegers syndrome, or sociopathy, or called narcissistic, because of how they behave. At present, none of these things are “diagnosed” via the use of brain scans or whatever. As such, to say “Sally is an aspie”, is the same as “Over time, Sally behaves in the way which a clinician will call the behaviour of an aspie”. Therefore, to say “Sally hit Billy because she is an aspie”, is the same as saying “Sally behaved in this way because over a period of time she has behaved in such and such a way”.

    This is an inadequate explanation of behaviour, because behaviour of a person or animal can not cause behaviour in that same person or animal later on. More importantly, this sort of pseudo-explanation adds little to our ability to predict and control behaviour, and consequently cannot be used to stop Sally from hurting Billy, or improve whatever relationship it is that they have. As such, explanations like this are useless to the aims of Applied Behaviour Analysis.

    There may well be neurological differences between aspies, sociopaths, and narcissistic people, and allistic people (“allistic” being a term used to refer to people who are not autistic) and people who are not sociopathic or narcissistic, which make different things reinforcers, or change the extent to which things are reinforcers, but to say “Sally hit Billy because she is an aspie” is to provide an inadequate explanation because the aim of behaviour analysis is to change behaviour for everyone’s benefit, in the same way that the ability to predict and control is the ultimate aim of all of the sciences.

    • Hi Ethan,

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! You certainly make some good points. I would like to write more in the future about the history and philosophy of behavior analysis, about different branches of behavior analysis, and about what behavior analysts believe and why.
      This article was originally written for a class assignment and it was supposed to be short and to the point… there was only so much I could include!



  • Great article Mary. I have been lucky enough to have done the 2 day “Living and Learning with Animals” seminar with Dr Susan Friedman PhD. Her method of training A,B,C’s (Antecedant, Behaviour, Consequence) has been so very useful to me as a trainer/educator. I am excited to be attending her next seminar (Functional Analyses) later this month. I learn so much from your blogs so thank you for sharing your world.