Behavior Analysis in Psychology

Applied behavior analysis with boy in wheelchair.
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Behavior analysis is the scientific study of behavior. It focuses on understanding why people behave the way they do, how behavior can be changed, and how certain behaviors can be prevented. By utilizing the principles of learning theory, behavior analysts can improve the quality of life for individuals and families.

Behavior analysis is often used in mental health treatment to help people overcome problem behaviors. It can also be helpful in organizational settings to enhance employee performance. The basic principles of behavioral analysis are often adapted for use in educational settings and the workplace.

This article discusses different types of behavior analysis and the history of this approach. It also explores some of the practical applications for this field of psychology.

What Is Behavior Analysis?

Behavior analysis is based on the foundations and principles of behaviorism. Behaviorism is a branch of psychology rooted in the idea that all behaviors result from conditioning processes. This branch of psychology focuses on understanding how associations, reinforcement, and punishment can be used to shape human behavior.

Division 25 of the American Psychological Association is devoted to the area of behavior analysis. This division of the APA suggests that it is the specific focus on behavior as a subject that makes this field unique.

According to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, behavior is the result of circumstances. Behavior analysis seeks to understand the impact of the events that come immediately after a behavior. This understanding can be a useful tool for modifying problematic behaviors and teaching more adaptive responses.

These strategies can be used in a wide variety of situations to help children and adults make positive changes in their lives.

Types of Behavior Analysis

There are two major areas of behavior analysis: experimental and applied. The experimental side focuses on adding to the body of scientific knowledge about how people learn. The applied area focuses on using that knowledge to help people overcome problems they may be facing.

Experimental Behavior Analysis

Experimental behavior analysis involves basic research designed to add to the body of knowledge about behavior. The goal of this area is to add to our fundamental understanding of human behavior.

Psychologists conduct primary research to explore how environmental influences affect behavior. In particular, mental health professionals observe how naturally occurring consequences impact the responses that people display.

Applied Behavior Analysis

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) focuses on applying behavior principles to real-world situations. This process involves taking what researchers know about behavior and using it in individual, social, and cultural contexts. For example, behavior analysts might use what they know about learning and behavior to help kids experiencing behavioral issues.

Those who work in 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.


Behavior analysis is both a scientific and applied discipline. Scientific research helps professionals understand the learning process, which then allows professionals to utilize this knowledge to help people change behaviors and improve lives.

History of Behavior Analysis

Behaviorism was primarily established through the work of three theorists: Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, B. F. Skinner.

  • Ivan Pavlov discovered the conditioning reflex during his studies with dogs, establishing classical conditioning as a learning method. His research demonstrated that an environmental stimulus (e.g., a ringing bell) could be used to stimulate a conditioned response (e.g., salivating at the sound of the ringing bell).
  • John B. Watson extended Pavlov's theory to human behavior. His research demonstrated how a fear response could be learned through conditioning processes.
  • B. F. Skinner later introduced the concept of operant conditioning, in which reinforcement leads to the desired behavior.

These concepts 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.

Behaviorism no longer dominates psychology, but behavioral techniques are still widely used today. Behavioral approaches are important in areas including psychotherapy, counseling, education, and even parenting.

Techniques Used in Behavior Analysis

Behavior analysis is primarily based on understanding behavior and its consequences. Because of this, the techniques that behavior analysts use are usually focused on teaching people more effective ways of behaving.

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. The process 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 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 response.

Behavior analysis also often incorporates social consequences for behavior. For example, attention is a social consequence that often follows a behavior.

In some cases, people may engage in certain disruptive behaviors as a way to get attention from others. Removing the attention after the behavior would make the behavior less rewarding, which would eventually cause that response to decrease. 

Applications of Behavior Analysis

Behavior analysis has many practical applications. It can be used in mental health treatment, particularly when focused on helping children and adults learn new skills or reduce problem behaviors. It is often used to improve skills in children and adults with developmental conditions.

Behavior analysis can be a particularly effective learning tool for helping children with autism or developmental delays acquire and maintain new skills. Applied behavioral analysis therapy is a specific approach frequently used to treat autism and other conditions.

Psychologist Ivar Lovaas developed one form of ABA therapy known as the Lovaas method to teach skills to people with autism. This approach relies on a process known as discrete trial training to mold behavior. 

What Is Discrete Trial Training?

Discrete trial training involves breaking down behaviors into smaller components. Each component of the behavior is then systematically taught using reinforcement.

The Lovaas method is often used to help children gain communication skills that can then be applied at home and school. The approach incorporates parental involvement to practice discrete trials in a home environment. Advocates of this approach suggest that the program can improve verbal communication and socialization skills while also reducing problem behaviors.

This approach to behavior analysis has demonstrated efficacy when it comes to helping children with autism develop new skills. One study found that it improved behaviors, language, social abilities, and play skills.


Behavioral analysis is an approach that has both theoretical and practical applications. The field has many applications, including mental health, education, organizational performance, and healthcare.

While rooted in the work of behaviorist thinkers, behavior analysis continues to have a significant influence today. Behavior analysts utilize strategies such as shaping, reinforcement, chaining, and prompting to help people change behaviors and acquire new skills.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.