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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