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Applied behavioral analysis: definition, techniques and uses

Applied behavioral analysis: definition, techniques and uses

January 25, 2023

Applied behavioral analysis, a scientific-practical procedure that it has its origin in the radical behaviorism of B. F. Skinner , has evolved a lot since pioneers like Skinner began to develop the paradigm of operant conditioning about 100 years ago.

In this article we will describe the applied behavioral analysis and its main techniques and utilities .

  • Related article: "Behaviorism: history, concepts and main authors"

Defining applied behavioral analysis

The term "applied behavioral analysis" or "applied behavior analysis" refers to a type of procedure that uses the principles and techniques of the psychology of learning to modify behavior of people who need help. More specifically, the applied behavioral analysis is based on the Skinnerian operating paradigm.


In general, it consists of substituting inappropriate behaviors for other functionally equivalent but more desirable ones. For this it is necessary to carry out in the first place functional analysis of behavior, that is, determining contingencies s between the answer, the motivation to execute it, the stimuli that precede it and the consequences that maintain it.

The concept is very close to that of behavior modification; Currently, both are frequently used interchangeably, although "applied behavioral analysis" is considered more correct because it has a broader meaning and emphasizes the relevance of functional behavior analysis.


This discipline has been applied in a very particular way to favor the education of children with autism spectrum disorders (especially the one related to language), although it is also used in people with intellectual or physical functional diversity, with severe mental disorders or substance dependence, as well as in non-clinical or educational contexts.

Historical evolution

Burrhus Frederick Skinner developed the paradigm of operant conditioning reconceptualizing the knowledge contributed by his predecessors in behavioral orientation in the framework of radical behaviorism, which deals with behavior observable without treating hypothetical constructs, in particular the mind, as basic components.

However, unlike what many psychologists think, the operating model and radical behaviorism do not deny or ignore the importance of thoughts and other intermediary psychological variables. In fact, the most common in the functional analysis of behavior is that motivations, beliefs, expectations and other cognitive processes are included.


The behavioral analysis applied as such goes back to the 1960s . At this time, researchers and theorists from the universities of Washington and Kansas began to work systematically in this field and founded the journal "Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis", of which Skinner himself would be president until his death.

A particularly important academic in this field was Ivar Lovaas, who promoted and contributed in a key way to the systematization of the use of applied behavioral analysis in cases of infantile autism. The popularization of this discipline in the following decades greatly increased the range of performance of applied behavioral analysis.

  • Maybe you're interested: "The theory of B. F. Skinner and behaviorism"

Techniques and methods used

Applied behavioral analysis, as is the case with operant conditioning in general, is based largely on the concept of reinforcement , which is defined as the strengthening of a certain response because its execution has positive consequences (or, more correctly said, appetitive) for those who carry it out.

In this framework, the withdrawal of contingent reinforcers to unwanted behaviors is fundamental, which is called "extinction", as well as the application of new reinforcers after carrying out the behaviors that are to be consolidated. It is preferable that the reinforcement be immediate, but beyond this it is best to individualize it.

Another key component of applied behavioral analysis is the high degree of structuring of procedures . This allows for a systematic evaluation of the progress in treatment or training, and is especially important for people with autism due to their characteristic need for environmental structuring.

Some of the most common psychological techniques in applied behavioral analysis are modeling (learning by observation and imitation), molding (progressive improvement of a response), chaining (division of complex behavior into segments) and the differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors with which it seeks to eliminate.

  • Related article: "5 behavior modification techniques"

Applications of this discipline

As we mentioned previously, the most characteristic procedures of applied behavioral analysis are those that are related to Autism, Asperger's syndrome and other pervasive developmental disorders . The key aspects of these disorders are deficits in communication, in social interaction and in the variety of the behavioral repertoire.

In these cases the applied behavioral analysis has a wide variety of utilities, such as the development and refinement of spoken language and other procedural skills ; for example, it is common for children with these disorders to have difficulties in learning basic self-care skills.

From a clinical point of view, the applied behavioral analysis can be used in practically any type of problem, given that it is a very general intervention framework. However, it can be especially useful for the consolidation of alternative behaviors to those that characterize the specific pathology of the client.

Beyond education and clinical psychology, other fields in which applied behavioral analysis is used include the promotion of health and physical exercise, medical interventions , job security, the management of dementias and the training and care of non-human animals.


ABA Autism Training - Chapter 1 - The Discrete Trial (January 2023).


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