How Does Applied Behavior Analysis Differ From Cognitive Behavior Therapy?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and applied behavior analysis (ABA) are both disciplines within the field of applied psychology that focus on patient-oriented care. While there is significant overlap between the skills and topics of the fields, the terms represent two distinct approaches to addressing mental health care needs. CBT takes a much broader approach to encourage wholesome and lasting development in the patient, while ABA addresses specific and immediate behavioral issues. Professional therapists often implement aspects of both disciplines in the course of their work, although some eventually specialize to advance their career.

Related resource: 40 Best Applied Behavior Analysis Graduate Certificate Online Programs

The Cognitive Behavioral Approach

For practitioners, the ultimate goal of CBT is to help the patient change their behaviors by addressing the thoughts, emotions, and habits that influence them. Therapists talk with patients to identify behavioral challenges and set goals for improvement. Frequent conversational therapy sessions are a common feature of these programs and are typically essential to success. Rather than focus on past events or experiences, psychologists use these discussions to draw the patient towards present solutions and future ambitions.

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Potential Applications for CBT

The cognitive behavioral approach has shown positive results for patients suffering from a wide range of disorders. It can be effectively used to help manage substance abuse disorders, emotional control issues, and other potentially dangerous conditions, according to the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. CBT is also a component in treatment strategies for patients suffering from severe anxiety, eating disorders and chronic depression.

Addressing Problematic Behaviors with ABA

Rather than develop the patient’s overall emotional state or attitude, applied behavior analysts instead focus on tangible and quantifiable progress. As a form of evidence-based care, ABA revolves around a cycle of measurement, treatment, and evaluation to refine strategies around the recipient’s individual needs. Therapy sessions may take the form of basic conditioning, with an immediate reward or punishment to encourage or discourage certain exhibited behaviors. Skilled practitioners use these smaller sessions to build towards much broader and impactful changes in behavior. ABA therapy is completely constructed around specific treatment goals, so it can be comfortably scaled and adapted to match the needs of the recipient.

Careers in Behavior Analysis and Therapy

Many psychology students have the opportunity to study topics related to both CBT and ABA as they work on their degree. However, they may have to specialize into narrower subject areas oriented around one of the two disciplines when pursuing a graduate or doctoral degree. While there are entry-level job opportunities for undergraduates, licensed therapists, researchers and many other advanced positions require additional education. Many employers also require behavior analysts and therapists to have professional credentials from a relevant professional organization, like the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB).

Effective psychological therapy is just as life-changing, and potentially even life-saving, for people as any other form of health care. Many mental, emotional and developmental disorders can be effectively managed through intervention by a skilled therapist who understands how to leverage both cognitive behavioral therapy and applied behavior analysis.