What This Behavior Analysis All About?

What is Behavior Analysis?

Author: Ryan O'Donnell, MS, BCBA

Author: Ryan O'Donnell, MS, BCBA

There are a lot of people who influenced the creation of the field of study known as "Behavior Analysis." It's not that easy to draw the lines, so this serves as an into. The most well known is B. F. Skinner.  The majority of his life's work was dedicated to the understanding of why living things did what they did. It's important to not forget the fact that there were many others studying similar topics before, during, and after Skinner. A single blog cannot provide the depth, but hopefully, over time, we can do some justice.  Others that I have found interesting, and will surely write on at various times include, John B. Watson, Paul Schiller, Edward Thorndike, JR Kantor, Ivan Pavolv, Israel Goldiamond, Zing-Yang Kuo, - all in the past, with current players including, Susan Schneider, Steven C. Hayes, Linda Hayes, Anthony Biglan, Janet Twyman, T. V. Joe Layng, among many many others.

The most important thing to know about our field is that it has grown and expanded significantly since the early work began. Many are not aware of this work though.. There are entire branches that are achieving great success, from a reading program that teaches reading and reading comprehension to children without ever hearing or seeing them (Headsprout), to online programs that aim to raise the ability to relate quickly, or think extremely fluently - tied to IQ (Raise Your IQ). There are dozens more - those are just a few of our favorites. Anecdotally it really seems that we're at the beginning of a sort of "explosion" of behavior analytic resources, with BACB certificant rates growing exponentially, as well as the continual need for real-world problems related to human behavior to be solved.  

In short, Behavior Analysis is a scientific field of study that studies behavior of living things. Behavior includes anything that a person (or living thing) does.  Here's a list of core components of Behavior Analysis:

...Knowledge development ... so as to create a behavioral science more adequate to the challenges of the human condition.— Hayes, Barnes-Holmes & Wilson (2012)
  1. principle-focused - meaning there are basic relations that we can utilize to better understand and use to problem solve in our world. 
  2. contextual in nature - although two things that we do may look similar, the situation may actually indicate that they mean many different things.  For example, reaching your arm out in front of a new person you met often leads to a handshake, but the same reach while on the ledge of a cliff can lead to some quick help from a fellow friend. The two different conditions establish the importance of the behavior we are interested in - or, said another way, the two contexts. Context makes meaning of the situation.
  3. interdisciplinary in nature - that is, it recognizes that things people do include other professions and perspectives (biological, sociological, ecological, etc.). 
  4. distinctive branches - philosophical, experimental, technological and applied branches that are all intertwined and influence each other.
  5. studies the whole event - or the whole person and what they do as a whole because leaving things out leads to a less thorough understanding (and less that we can learn to leverage to our advantage to get more of what we want or do not want in our life).
Representation of Behavior Analysis - Image created by the Institute of Meaningful Instruction, LLC - free to share!

Representation of Behavior Analysis - Image created by the Institute of Meaningful Instruction, LLC - free to share!


There are a few different ways that our field symbolizes the various branches of our field. The image above is one way that it is typically represented. We'll share slightly different variations at some point, but for now, this will do: 

  1. Philosophy - This branch works on the boundaries of what is included in a science of behavior.  There are various types of behaviorism that we may dive into from time to time. Each has slightly different boundaries of what is included or excluded.
  2. Experimental Analysis of Behavior - This is the basic research branch of our field. Studies span over a hundred years back, including a variety of different animals, including humans. 

  3. Applied Behavior Analysis - This branch aims to study socially significant issues (i.e., real world problems that people face day-to-day) and includes a few "rules" (i.e., the seven dimensions of applied behavior analysis by Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968)
  4. Behavioral Technology This branch takes the previous three and blends them into a useful technology to help solve an everyday problem (when we say "behavioral technology" think process - or a way to consistently do something that will allow you to confidently achieve a goal). This is arguably the end-goal of a science of behavior - an understanding thorough enough and relevant to the everyday issues that people come into contact with (e.g., problem-solving techniques, psychological disorders, self-management, goal attainment) that are then freely accessible to be capitalized on. 

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