5 Research Topics for Applied Behavior Analysis Students

Research Topics for Applied Behavior Analysis StudentsThe field up applied behavior analysis (ABA) is continuously growing. The job outlook for an ABA-type of career is quite positive as the need for behavior specialists persists. Applied behavior analysis, or ABA, fulfills essential roles in far-ranging fields, such as education, parenting, medicine, criminology, and even animal psychology. While this may seem like a lot of ground for new students to cover, it means there’s quite a wide range of interesting topics to study. 

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Whether you are in an ABA program right now or would like to be soon, it may be time to start thinking about research topics for your thesis or dissertation. All higher-level ABA courses will require students to have substantial independent research experience, which includes setting up a research experiment or trial, taking data, analyzing data, and suggesting next steps. And this also includes writing a professional paper either to turn in or submit to a scientific journal. 

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Overall, there will be quite a bit of research and writing that occurs in an ABA program. 

If you’re currently in a program, read about these five research topic examples that might pique your curiosity.

1. Industrial Safety

Industrial SafetyApplied behavior analysis can be used to determine how cohorts or specific populations perform under common conditions. It may also help devise improvements that benefit these groups. Although industrial or occupational safety may not be the first thing that comes to your mind when contemplating research topics, there are a lot of studies and data in the world of behavior-based safety. Industrial safety is much needed as there are dozens of high-risk occupations out there that individuals take a chance at every day they clock in. 

In one classic study from 1987, researchers examined how creating a token economy might increase safety at dangerous industrial sites. The study rewarded pit-mine workers when they and their colleagues avoided incidents that resulted in personal injury or equipment damage. They also rewarded workers who took extra steps to ensure the safety of others and report incidents. By using applied behavior analysis to incentivize self-motivated conduct modification, the researchers created improvements that persisted for years.

Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) “is an approach to occupational risk management that uses the science of behavior to increase safe behavior and reduce workplace injuries.”

Successful applications of BBS programs adhere to the following key principles (Geller, 2005):

  • Focus interventions on specific, observable behaviors.
  • Look for external factors to understand and improve behavior.
  • Use signals to direct behaviors, and use consequences to motivate workers.
  • Focus on positive consequences (not a punishment) to motivate behavior.
  • Use a science-based approach to test and improve BBS interventions.
  • Don’t let scientific theory limit the possibilities for improving BBS interventions.
  • Design interventions while considering the feelings and attitudes of workers within the organization.

The field of BBS can always improve, and your contribution to it through research can help. Consider choosing industrial safety and ABA as one of your research topics.  

2. Autism Spectrum

Autism SpectrumAccording to Autism Speaks, ABA has been employed to help those with autism spectrum disorders learn applicable skills since the 1960s. Many studies demonstrate the efficacy of these methods in helping children and adults communicate, build social relationships, master self-care, and find employment.

Advocates also note that there remains a small but significant portion of autism sufferers who don’t respond to conventional techniques. There’s an ongoing need to study alternative methods and explore why certain approaches don’t work with some individuals. ABA techniques and their relation to autism-spectrum disorders will continue to pose important research questions for some time.

Not only can you conduct your own research (legally and ethically), and study other works of scientific literature, but you can be in the middle of it all like the professionals at the Marcus Autism Center do.

The center at Marcus is one of the most highly-regarded in the field of autism in the United States. They have a behavioral analysis research lab where clinician-researchers with expertise in applied behavior analysis. 

According to their site: 

“Although this work continues, the Behavior Analysis Research Lab recently expanded its research focus to include randomized clinical trials of behavioral interventions for core symptoms of autism, as well as co-occurring conditions or behaviors, such as elopement (e.g., wandering or running away) and encopresis (e.g., toileting concerns). Our goal is to disseminate the types of interventions and outcomes that can be achieved using ABA-based interventions to broader audiences by studying them in larger group designs.”

Depending on where you live, there may be experiential research opportunities for you as a student to dive into, such as the positions they have open at Marcus. 

3. Animal and Human Intelligence

Animal and Human IntelligenceBehavior-analytic research has employed animals like rats and pigeons for many decades. Although many of the earliest techniques and applications of such research were later decried as inhumane, modern applied behavior analysis techniques can be used to foster healthy relationships between humans and other species.

For example, researchers note that in 2010, dogs bit 4.5 million Americans annually, with 20 percent of bites needing medical intervention. They further suggest that ABA can provide a valid framework for understanding why such bites occur and preventing them. Similarly, studies that examine why rats may be able to detect tuberculosis or how service dogs help people involve learning about these creatures’ behaviors. 

AAB, or Applied Animal Behavior, is an example of an organization that conducts research, supports animal behaviorists, and promotes the well-being of all animals that work in an applied setting. 

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The Animal Behavior Society is another example, which is the leading professional organization in the United States that studies animal behavior. They say that animal behaviorists can be educated in a variety of disciplines, including psychology biology, zoology, or animal science. 

There is definitely room for more research in the field of animal behavior and its impact on humans. 

4. Criminology

CriminologyNumerous factors affect the likelihood that an individual may commit a crime. Although many, such as poverty, are highly politicized or publicized, they’re not completely understood. 

One study showed a potential correlation between allowing high-risk students to choose their schools and their likelihood of criminal involvement. While school choice didn’t affect academic achievement, it generally lowered the risk that people would commit crimes later in life. 

Criminologists, behavioral psychologists, and forensic psychologists are all hired to work with local law enforcement and even the FBI to determine the motives of criminals along with the societal impacts, generational changes and other trends that might help be more proactive in the future. Mostly, they investigate why people commit crimes.

If you have ever watched a forensics TV show like Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) then you have a good idea of what their job entails. Between criminal profiling, working directly with a team, and investigating and solving cases is what it’s all about. 

Experts on applied behavior analysis state: 

“Its value to law enforcement investigations and criminal rehabilitation efforts make it an essential tool for any forensic psychologist. Research shows that successful application of applied forensic behavior analysis can lead to lower recidivism rates in convicts and a higher success rate in apprehending criminal suspects.”

Applied behavior analysis students who research these fields could play big roles in advancing societal knowledge.

5. Education

EducationThose who work in the world of education know a thing or two about applied behavior analysis. Even those who have not directly studied ABA are likely to work with behavioral strategies and interventions with their students and might not even know it. 

ABA is all around in education––you just cannot escape it! Everything, even academics, revolves around behavior. Whether it is on the county level or the classroom, there are FBAs, BIPs, data collection, positive reinforcement, consequences, token economies, trial and error, behavioral interventions, and much more. 

And teachers aren’t the only staff privy to ABA. School social workers, school counselors, behavioral specialists, and paraprofessionals all have access to ABA and can implement strategies based on individual student needs. 

Education techniques rely heavily on applied behavior analysis. Instructors may be tasked with giving consequences to students or devising custom lessons, and these tasks often involve understanding how to incentivize appropriate behavior while motivating learners.

Like other kinds of ABA, applied education research also provides the opportunity for internships and postgraduate residency programs. Because many of this field’s modern foundations lie in education, classroom-based research is a natural fit for students who want to apply their discoveries.

Research Topics for Applied Behavior Analysis Students: Conclusion

Applied behavior analysis is complex, but studying it is extremely rewarding. This field provides students at all educational levels with ample opportunities to contribute to scientific knowledge and better people’s lives in the process. There are almost too many fields to choose from in terms of where you want to lean. Think about your interests, what you have access to in your surrounding area (unless you are willing to move), and consider what type of research will help you move forward in your educational career and beyond. There are ABA programs and careers out there waiting for each of you! 

Brittany Cerny

Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University

Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University

Updated December 2021