Behavior Analysis in Psychology

Applied behavior analysis with boy in wheelchair.
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Behavior analysis is rooted in the behaviorist tradition and utilizes learning principles to bring about behavior change. Some branches of psychology strive to understand underlying cognitions, but behavioral psychology is not concerned with mentalistic causes of behavior and instead focuses on the behavior itself.

Behavior analysis has robust practical applications in mental health treatment and organizational psychology, particularly when focused on helping children and adults learn new behaviors or reduce problem behaviors. Behavior analysis is often used to build abilities in children and adults with disabilities increase academic skills in school settings, and enhance employee performance.

Behavior Analysis Defined

Behavior analysis is a science-based on the foundations and principles of behaviorism. Division 25 of the American Psychological Division is devoted to the area of behavior analysis.

According to Division 25, the fact that behavior analysis focuses on behavior as a subject makes it unique. The division also explains that this analysis of behavior can occur in three different ways.

  • Through the experimental investigation of behavior
  • Through applied behavior analysis: This process involves taking what researchers know about behavior and applying it in individual, social, and cultural contexts.
  • Through the conceptual analysis of behavior: According to Division 25, this addresses the philosophical, historical, theoretical and methodological issues in behavior analysis.

Experimental and Applied Behavior Analysis

There are two major areas of behavior analysis: experimental and applied.

  • Experimental behavior analysis involves basic research designed to add to the body of knowledge about behavior.
  • Applied behavior analysis, on the other hand, is focused on applying these behavior principles to real-world situations.

Those who work in the field of applied behavior analysis are interested in behaviors and their relationship with the environment. Rather than focusing on internal states, ABA therapists focus on observable behaviors and utilize behavioral techniques to bring about behavioral change.


According to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board: "Professionals in applied behavior analysis engage in the specific and comprehensive use of principles of learning, including operant and respondent learning, in order to address behavioral needs of widely varying individuals in diverse settings. Examples of these applications include: building the skills and achievements of children in school settings; enhancing the development, abilities, and choices of children and adults with different kinds of disabilities; and augmenting the performance and satisfaction of employees in organizations and businesses."


Behaviorism was largely established through the influential work of three theorists including Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, and B.F. Skinner. Pavlov discovered the conditioning reflex during his studies with dogs, establishing classical conditioning as a learning method. His research demonstrated that an environmental stimulus (i.e. ringing bell) could be used to stimulate a conditioned response (i.e. salivating at the sound of the ringing bell).

John B. Watson extended Pavlov's theory to apply to human behavior, publishing his landmark article Psychology as the Behaviorist View It in 1913 and establishing behaviorism as a major school of thought.

B.F. Skinner later introduced the concept of operant conditioning in which reinforcement leads to the desired behavior. These concepts continue to play influential roles in behavior analysis, behavior modification, and psychotherapy.

Behaviorism was once a very prominent school of thought within psychology, although its dominance began to decline during the 1950s as psychologists became more interested in humanistic and cognitive approaches.

However, behavioral techniques are still widely used today in psychotherapy, counseling, education, and even in parenting.

Techniques and Strategies

Some of the techniques used by behavior analysts include:

  • Chaining: This behavior technique involves breaking a task down into smaller components. The simplest or first task in the process is taught first. Once that task has been learned, the next task can be taught. This continues until the entire sequence is successfully chained together.
  • Prompting: This approach involves using some type of prompt to trigger the desired response. This might involve issues a verbal cue, such as telling the person what to do, or a visual cue, such as displaying a picture designed to cue the response.
  • Shaping: This strategy involves gradually altering a behavior, rewarding closer and closer approximations of the desired behavior.

Applications of Behavior Analysis

Behavior analysis has proven to be a particularly effective learning tool for helping children with autism or developmental delays acquire and maintain new skills. These treatments include the Lovaas Method and ABA (applied behavior analysis) and utilize techniques such as discrete trial training. The basic principles of behavior medication are often adapted for use in educational settings, the workplace, and childcare.

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