ABA Definition: Concepts and Characteristics

What is ABA?

Applied behavior analysis, ABA, is classified as a specific scientific discipline focused on applying empirical techniques to change certain behaviors. Autism Speaks, an advocacy agency, uses an ABA definition that states, “ABA is a therapy based on the science of learning and behavior.” The principles of learning along with behavioral strategies and environmental modifications are utilized to improve socially significant behaviors. Applied behavior analysis is used today in a variety of settings that include:

  • autism treatment facilities (including those using early intensive behavioral intervention)
  • hospitals
  • group care centers
  • schools
  • offices
  • factories
  • pet training facilities
  • zoos

The principles of ABA can be used to help children and adults reduce inappropriate behavior and gain:

  • social skills
  • academic skills
  • communication skills

Related resourceTop 15 Best Applied Behavior Analysis Online Programs

The History of Applied Behavior Analysis

Applied behavior analysis as developed in the 1960s was based on principles developed by renowned psychologist B.F. Skinner some two decades earlier. In fact, the American Psychological Association’s applied behavior analysis definition specifically states that ABA is an extension of Skinner’s behavioral principles to practical settings. Skinner developed a strategy of behavior modification which became known as operant conditioning. This resulted in the delineation of what is known as the ABCs of behavior analysis:

  • Antecedent
  • Behavior
  • Consequence

An antecedent is the initial stimuli or prompt that happens right before a behavior occurs. Behavior is the action that follows the initial stimuli or prompt. Finally, a consequence is a reinforcement mechanism associated with the behavior or outward response to the initial stimuli or prompt.

By the 1960s, the concepts developed by Skinner evolved to some degree. They became the impetus for what is now known as applied behavior analysis.

Seven Characteristics of Applied Behavior Analysis

A 1968 article by Donald Baer, Montrose Wolf, and Todd Risley in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis provides what remains yet today the essential guide to ABA. The heavily relied on article delineates a set of seven characteristics in describing ABA:

  • Applied
  • Behavioral
  • Analytic
  • Technological
  • Systemic
  • Effective
  • Generality

Applied: Applied behavioral analysis is intended to focus on the social significance of a particular behavior studied. By way of example, an ABA researcher may study the eating behavior of people who eat too much or too little. This is undertaken as a means to change behavioral patterns to benefit the individuals involved.

Behavioral: ABA is considered a pragmatic course of analysis of human behavior. It has the ultimate objective of asking how would it be possible to get a person to do something more effectively. As a pragmatic endeavor, verbal descriptions are regarded as behavior in and of themselves. Verbal descriptions are not deemed substitutes for the particular behavior being illustrated or described.

Analytic: The analytic component or characteristic of ABA is considered successful when an analyst both understands and successfully manipulates events that control a particular target behavior. In a laboratory setting, this can prove to be relatively easy in many instances. Outside of a lab, this is not always easy not ethical. The authors referenced a moment ago outlined two methodologies that are deemed oftentimes effective but also ethical. These methodologies are multiple baseline design and reversal design.

The multiple baseline method is used in situations involving behaviors that seem irreversible. Several different behaviors are measured. An intervention is then applied to each of the measured behaviors in turn. Ultimately, the effectiveness of an intervention is ascertained or measured by examining changes in only the behavior to which the intervention itself was applied.

The reversal design calls for an experimenter to measure a selected behavior. Some type of intervention is then introduced. The behavior is measured again, after which the intervention is eliminated or reduced. This is followed by yet another measurement of the behavior at issue. The intervention is regarded as effective to the extent that behavioral changes change due to the insertion of an intervention and then revert back when the intervention is removed or reduced.

Technological: ABA must be undertaken in a manner that permits another competent researcher to repeat accurately a study. From a technological standpoint, this type of analytic research must be capable of a clear and detailed description.

Systemic: Another characteristic of applied behavior analysis is that ABA itself must be conceptually systemic. What conceptually systemic means is that ABA should not merely generate a list of what are deemed effective interventions. Rather than merely generating some sort of list of interventions, ABA necessitates the use and identification of methodologies that apply effective interventions grounded in recognized behavioral principles.

Effective: Analytical methodologies associated with ABA will be theoretical, at least initially. With that said, it is imperative that a methodology that initially is theoretical proves effective. A selected intervention must produce a result sufficient enough to qualify for practical us. If that doesn’t occur, a particular analysis will be deemed to have failed.

Generality: Finally, a characteristic of applied behavior analysis is that interventions must be generally applicable or usable. In other words, methodologies utilized need to be such that they work in different environments and apply to more than one individual behavior. In addition, methodologies need to have long-lasting effects.

Supplemental Proposed Characteristics

After the turn of the 21st century, five supplemental ABA characteristics were proposed in a treatise by a group of researchers, including:

  • William Heward
  • Timothy Heron
  • Nancy Neef
  • Stephanie Peterson
  • Diane Sainato
  • Gwendolyn Cartledge
  • Ralph Gardner
  • Lloyd Peterson
  • Susan B. Hersh
  • Jill C. Dardig

The supplemental proposes characteristics have not been firmly adopted, although they were reported by the Association for Science in Autism Treatment and other organizations. The five proposed characteristics are accountable, public, doable, empowering, and optimistic.

Accountable: The proposed accountable characteristic means that applied behavior analysis must have demonstrably effective methods. The accountable elements necessitate repeated measuring of the success of an intervention. It further demands changes to improve the effectiveness of an intervention as necessary.

Public: Theoretical analyses, methodologies, and results of applied behavior analysis must be published and subjected to scrutiny. Making these elements public demands the use of understandable or accessible language.

Doable: ABA needs to be useful or doable. By this it is meant that interventions should be made available to an array of different types of individuals:

  • Therapists
  • Educators
  • Parents

Through appropriate training and planning, various interventions can be utilized and applied by nearly any individual willing to invest the time and effort. Interventions should be made available to a person who desires to modify his or her own behavior.

Empowering: Applied behavior analysis should permit clinicians the ability to assess their own skill level associated with ABA. This is designed to permit to enhance their level of confidence in regard to their effectiveness as far as applied behavior analysis is concerned.

Optimistic: Finally, optimistic is a proposed ABA character. Clinicians and researchers should be optimistic in the sense that their endeavors are socially meaningful.

Concepts Underpinning Applied Behavior Analysis

In addition to the various characteristics that define applied behavior analysis, there are some seven concepts that underpin ABA:

  • Behavior
  • Environment
  • Reinforcement
  • Punishment
  • Extinction
  • Relations
  • Verbal behavior

Behavior: In regard to ABA, behavior is said to reference movement by a living being that in turn changes some aspect of the environment. For example, behavior in the ABA context is the particular response of a person in a specific situation coupled with the effect of the impact of that action.

Environment: Environment is defined as the ubiquitous constellation of stimuli in which a person or other organism exists. This includes internal and external stimuli.

Reinforcement: Reinforcement is the key element of behavioral conditioning. It is the process within ABA through which behavioral conditioning or change occurs.  Positive reinforcement is the idea that if a behavior is followed by a reward, that behavior is likely to be repeated.

Punishment: Punishment is a process that involves a consequence immediately following a particular behavior. Punishment for the purposes of ABA comes in positive and negative forms. Positive punishment reinforces desired target behavior while negative punishment is designed to eliminate negative behavior. Among laypersons and others not particularly familiar with ABA, positive and negative reinforcement are the terms used in place of punishment

Extinction: In the context of ABA, extinction represents withholding a response to a certain behavior that in fact reinforced that conduct. By withholding a reinforcing response, a behavior desired to be altered is said to be set on a course to be extinguished.

Relationship: Relationship is a simpler term for what technically is known as three-term contingency. ABA focuses not only on the immediate stimuli or condition that results in a particular behavior but considers what is called an antecedent stimulus or condition as well. Rather than “if A, then B” ABA focuses on “if AB, then C.”

Verbal Behavior: Finally, verbal behavior represents a concept underpinning applied behavior analysis. This stems directly from Skinner’s work in the 1940s. Simply put, a verbal response to a particular stimulus or condition is the equivalent of some sort of physical conduct or movement arising from a stimulus or condition.

A Career in Applied Behavior Analysis

In nearly all cases, jobs in ABA will require at least a master’s degree.  Oftentimes, a doctorate is required. A degree can be in applied behavior analysis but commonly is in a related area like education or psychology. If a person is interested in working in a particular sector, a degree might also be in fields as varied as animal science or business. Prior to pursuing advanced studies, an undergraduate degree in psychology or education forms a solid basis for moving forward academically to pursue a career in applied behavior analysis.

In addition to classroom work, a person’s intent on a career in applied behavior analysis is well served taking part in an internship or externship while in school. Teaming up in this manner with an organization or business that utilizes applied behavior analysis provides valuable first-hand experience in the field.

Bear in mind that a good number of ABA positions in the United States require specific certification. In the healthcare arena, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) certificate from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, may be required.

If a person desires to be employed in a position involving ABA and animals, the Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) certificate from the Animal Behavior Society may be necessary. At this time, about 50 percent of all U.S. states require specific licensing or certification for people working in the realm of applied behavior analysis.

Use of Applied Behavior Analysis in the 21st Century

ABA is broadly utilized in the healthcare arena today. Applied behavior analysis is being used in the treatment of:

  • autism spectrum disorder
  • depression
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • anger management issues
  • other mental health conditions and issues

A special note about ABA and autism spectrum disorders is necessary due to some prevailing confusion associated with ABA and people on the spectrum. Despite the use of ABA therapy to attempt to diminish certain challenging behaviors, ABA is not properly classified as being synonymous as a therapy for autism. ABA can be a helpful tool to facilitate behavior change or teaching social skills.  The effectiveness of ABA is dependent upon specific factors associated with a particular case of a person with an autism spectrum disorder. Specifically, an individual’s intellectual functioning and what is known as diagnostic severity impacts the likely effectiveness of ABA in a particular case.

ABA is also more widely used in business settings today. Indeed, organizational behavior management is in fact a specialized derivation of applied behavior analysis. More recently, behavior analysts and others have determined that ABA is effective in regard to individuals and groups in a business or employment setting.

Beyond healthcare and business, ABA techniques, strategies, and theories are incorporated into a broad array of different modern educational and classroom practices. Applied behavior analysis is particularly evident in the development, implementation, and application of programming for special needs students.

When B.F. Skinner developed the principles and techniques that evolved into ABA therapy, his focus was on animals. At that time, Skinner was able to train pigeons to guide missiles during World War II. ABA is widely utilized by pet trainers and in zoos to increase desired behavior.


A trained behavior analyst utilizes their knowledge and skills in a variety of areas to help individuals develop socially significant behaviors.  Considering this historical trend, and the apparent effectiveness of ABA, odds are that the use of applied behavior analysis will continue to expand into different areas and disciplines during the coming decade. Consequently, employment opportunities in ABA are expected to continue to be available to properly educated women and men at a decent pace during the coming decade.