It is not a question of starting. The start has been made. It’s a question about what’s to be done from now on.
— B. F. Skinner (1974). "Walden Two," p. 257, Hackett Publishing

What is Behavior Analysis

Behavior analysis is the scientific study of behavior. Behavior analysts ask Why does behavior change over time? They seek answers by looking at the biological and environmental factors, although they are primarily interested in the role of environment in behavior change. Many behavior analysts do either basic or applied research. Others specialize in applying behavior change principles to enhancing quality of life.

Why is the field called behavior analysis?

The term ‘behavior analysis’ was coined by B. F. Skinner, generally considered the founder of behavior analysis. The term was meant to distinguish the field as one that focuses on behavior as a subject in its own right, rather than as an index or manifestation of something happening at some other level (in the mind, brain, psyche, etc.). Skinner believed that thinking and feeling were covert forms of behavior. “Thoughts and feelings do not explain behavior,” he wrote, “they are more behavior to be explained.” Skinner thought that the concept of mind belonged to the philosophers, and that science should focus on behavior. These ideas form the core of behavior analysis today.

 If thoughts and feelings do not explain behavior, what does?

Behavior analysts make the assumption that all behavior is the product of two kinds of variables: biological and environmental. Biological variables include anatomical structures (birds can fly, people can’t), normal physiological processes (digestion, respiration, neurological changes resulting from experience), and anomalies in anatomy and physiology due to injury or disease. Genes influence behavior indirectly through their effects on anatomy and physiology. Environmental variables include any changes in the environment (a rise in temperature, the availability of food, comments by other people, cultural customs). Behavior analysts are primarily interested in the role of environment in behavior change.

Is it true that behavior analysts claim that behavior is explained solely by the environment, that biology doesn’t matter?

 Not so. It’s true that most behavior analysts focus their attention on environmental variables, but no behavior analyst has ever denied that biology plays an important role in behavior. Skinner (whose first interest in graduate school was in physiology) repeatedly noted that biological variables are important, but he thought they should be left to anatomists and physiologists, and that behavior analysts should focus on the influence of the environment. He argued for an analysis of behavior as an end in itself and not as a mere indicator of underlying mental or neurophysiologic processes. Not all behavior analysts agree with Skinner on that point. Some study the effects of drugs, disease, or nutrition on behavior.

Are behavior therapists the same as applied behavior analysts?

There are similarities between the two, but the terms are not synonymous. Behavior therapists tend to accept the underlying assumptions of behavior analysis. However, they tend to use Pavlovian procedures and focus on problems involving covert behavior, such as anxiety disorders, depression, and unwanted thoughts and feelings. Applied behavior analysts tend to use procedures based on operant procedures and tend to focus on overt (publicly observable) behavior.

I’ve heard that applied behavior analysts use drugs, psychosurgery, and electro-convulsive shock therapy to change behavior. Is this the case?

Not true. Behavior analysts do NOT use drugs, psychosurgery, or shock therapy to treat behavior problems. These procedures generally are provided by licensed physicians working in psychiatric hospitals. Training in applied behavior analysis does not include experience in these procedures, and they play no part in applied behavior analysis practice. Some applied behavior analysts work in hospital settings and may work with patients who have received these treatments from a physician, but applied behavior analysts themselves do not participate in these procedures.

 Is behavior analysis becoming more widely accepted?

There are still many people with misconceptions about the field. This is largely due to misrepresentations of behavior analysis both in the popular media and in textbooks. Legitimate behavior analysts are also hurt by reports of abuse by people who incorrectly claim to be using behavior analysis in treating behavior problems. Because of this problem, ABA International® has established standards for accreditation of graduate training programs in behavior analysis, and the Behavior Analysis Certification Board® has created standards for certification of behavior analysts. 

Despite misrepresentations and misuse, interest in the field has grown steadily. Over the past 60 years, applied behavior analysis has become recognized as the treatment of choice for behavior problems associated with mental retardation, autism-spectrum disorders, brain injury, and other disorders. Many people also recognize that applied behavior analysis is capable of producing remarkable results in classroom learning. In recent years, interest in the field has grown especially rapidly outside the United States. ABA International has nearly 5,000 members from 42 countries and its affiliated chapters have a total membership of about 13,000 world wide.

*Information sited from the Association for Behavior Analysis ABA International