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Behaviour Analysis

Behaviour is everything that we do – our actions, our thoughts, our language, and our feelings are all behaviours.

What is Behaviour Analysis?

Behaviour Analysis is perhaps best described as the science of learning. Like most sciences, Behaviour Analysis involves both basic scientific research and the use of that scientific knowledge to help people in the real world. Thus, Behaviour Analysis has two “branches” – an experimental and an applied branch.

The experimental branch of Behaviour Analysis in concerned with ongoing research related to the basic science and principles and is called the Experimental Analysis of Behaviour. Historically, Behaviour Analysts identified basic principles of learning (i.e., how we develop new behaviours). The basic science of Behaviour Analysis continues to develop today. For example, recent research has investigated new developments in our understanding of how we learn language and also the influence of language on the learning of other behaviours.

The practical application of basic scientific knowledge about learning is the second branch of Behaviour Analysis – Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). ABA focuses on positive behaviour change for individuals, groups of people, and society at large. The primary focus of ABA is on behaviour that is important to people and enables them to lead more fulfilling lives.

At the individual level, we might want to help a child or adult learn a new skill. For example, we might be interested in teaching a child with significant special educational needs to read. We might also be interested in how to train an athlete to maximise her performance, or a worker in a high risk environment how to carry out a procedure safely.

At a group level, behaviour analysts have worked on problems such reducing absenteeism at work, increasing hand washing by hospital staff to reduce risk of infection, and organising classroom environments (including what the teacher does and how they teach) to ensure that all children can learn effectively.

At the societal level, we might be interested in strengthening behaviours that are of benefit to society as a whole (such as getting communities to recycle more or encouraging  people to volunteer to support others in need) or reducing behaviours that represent a general risk  (such as not using a telephone whilst driving or practising safe sex to reduce the spread of disease). Ways of making changes to the behaviour of individuals for overall societal benefit have received much attention recently with the publication of the book Nudge and by the establishment of the Behavioural Insights Team.

Values

The values shared by behaviour analysts working in applied settings have been defined by several seminal articles across the past 40+ years (e.g., Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968; Wolf, 1978; Van Houten et al., 1988).  These values include

  • Focus on the individual

Behaviour analysts ensure that the goals, methods, and outcomes of any intervention are important, understandable, and acceptable to the person whose behaviour is being changed, as well as to those who care about the person (e.g., parents, carers, teachers). Any decisions made about how behaviour will be assessed or changed are sensitive to the individual circumstances of the person and are aimed at improving quality of life.

  • Focus on positive intervention and use of least restrictive alternative

Behaviour analysts value the use of positive, reinforcement-based interventions as the first choice for enacting behaviour change.

  • Focus on skill acquisition

Behaviour analysts take a constructive approach to behaviour change and view acquisition (not reduction) of behaviour as the primary goal.  Behaviour analysts value equipping individuals with skills that will make them more successful across a range of life domains (e.g., work, leisure, home).

  • Reliance on science as basis for assessment and intervention

Behaviour analysts have a commitment to using evidence-based practice.  This commitment involves selecting strategies validated by research, as well as evaluating the efficacy of any interventions they implement (i.e., data-based decision-making).

  • Focus on ecological validity of intervention strategies and behaviour change

Behaviour analysts value lasting change.  They recognise that an individual’s skills must be portable across different environments and across time, and consider the wider context in which behaviour occurs when planning strategies.