What is ABA?

ABA is defined as the science in which the principles of the analysis of behavior are applied systematically to improve socially significant behavior, and in which experimentation is used to identify the variables responsible for change in behavior.

(There are A LOT of Myths and Misconceptions about ABA. Please take time to read about those here.)

In  1968 an article was published that has set the standard for “what aba is”. Below is a link to the article and a brief summary of their points:

7dimensions 2

Baer, D.M., Wolf, M.M., & Risley, T.R. (1968). Some current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis1, 91-97. (full text, pdf)

  • Applied: Applied interventions seek to deal with behaviors of social significance. Practitioners look at the individual (or animal) and work to change behaviors that will directly impact their quality of life.
  • Behavioral: Applied interventions deal with observable measurable behavior. It is not enough for some one to report they have changed their behavior or way of thinking, one must be able to observe the change in behavior.
  • Analytic: Applied interventions require an objective demonstration that the procedures caused the effect. This means you cant just start an intervention and then claim it is the reason for improvement with out showing this through data and experimental control (even in applied settings). This is done through experimental design.
  • Technological: Applied interventions are described well enough that they can be implemented by anyone with training and resources. There are no secret recipes in ABA. It is not a special sauce that we keep to our selves or copyright. Our methods are transparent and replicable.
  • Conceptual Systems: Applied interventions are RESEARCH BASED and arise from a specific and identifiable theoretical base rather than being a set of packages or tricks.
  • Effective: Applied interventions produce strong, socially important effects.
  • Generality: Applied interventions are designed from the beginning to operate in new environments and continue after the formal treatments have ended. It is not enough to design an intervention for the ‘now’. From the get go, good practitioners have a plan on how they will fade artificial cues, supports and reinforcement so that the behavior can occur in the natural environment.


Skinner had a vision of behaviorism being used to widely address many of society’s problems big and small. Unfortunately today our field has yet to realize that dream. The good news is that when we have used ABA to tackle challenges….its kicked some serious a**. No really, I’m not exaggerating. ABA has become the gold standard in the treatment of autism and developmental disabilities. Commercial programs that have used behavior analytic principals like weight watchers have been extremely successful and ABA has been successfully applied to a variety of issue including disease prevention, health and exercise, littering, gerontology, parenting, human resources, …and the list goes on.

Yet, still we have failed to realize the dream, and society is missing out on some pretty quality stuff. Why? 3 biggies I see are:

1. A ton of stigma associated with behaviorism and lots of myths and misconceptions. Even reading some very intelligent and educated individuals ‘criticisms’ of behaviorism, like Chomsky, are so way way off base you are left wondering if they actually every read more than a few pages or just Googled some terms.

2. We live in a “I want it now and I don’t want to have to work to get it” society….ahem….lemonade and cayenne pepper diet. ABA is not a get rich quick scheme or fad diet. It takes time and effort.

3. We as behaviorists have failed to make ABA accessible to the mainstream population. This is a biggie. Lets face it, we love our jargon. I am guilty of this as much as the next gal. One of the things I LOVE about ABA is the technical precision, including the language. BUT to even use basic terms like operant or negative reinforcer and you lose people. Start talking about reflexive CEOs  and people start to avoid you all together.