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A Glossary of Terms Defining the Science of Behavior

Updated on July 23, 2017

Applied behavior analysis is the process of systematically applying interventions based upon the principles of learning theory to improve socially significant behaviors to a meaningful degree, and to demonstrate that the interventions employed are responsible for the improvement in behavior.

— Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968 in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis

"Methodological behaviorism is much more characteristic of contemporary behavior modifiers than is radical behaviorism." — From Mahoney, Kazdin, & Lesswing, "Behavior modification: Delusion or deliverance?", as cited in "Annual Review of Behavior Therapy: Theory and Practice" by Franks & Wilson, p. 14, 1974.

Beyond behavior modification: A return to behavior analysis... Before applied behavior analysts had a methodology to identify the conditions maintaining aberrant behavior, the reinforcement histories that gave rise to current behavior-environment interactions were largely ignored.

— Mace, 1994 in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis

Instead, existing repertoires were established and new ones altered by superimposing reinforcement contingencies, punishment contingencies, or both, onto the current environmental contingencies or unknown processes that maintained aberrant behavior. The approach was generically known as behavior modification.

— Mace, 1994 in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis

Behavior modification was an early approach that emphasized how powerful reinforcement and punishment contingencies can change behavior regardless of its causes. Applied behavior analysis was an approach that emphasized the analysis of functional relations between behavior and its causes (Mace, 1994).

— Pelios, Morren, Tesch, and Axelrod, 1999 in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis

We briefly summarize...the foundation for the field of behavior modification.... Modification of psychotic and various aggressive, disruptive and otherwise undesirable behaviors was accomplished through the use of [presumed] positive and negative reinforcement procedures used with and without extinction.

— Mace & Critchfield, 2010 in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior

...the basic and applied sectors of behavior analysis were disconnected in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Mace, 1994)... ABA changed abruptly in the mid-1980s... Known collectively as functional analysis methodologies, these procedures shifted the focus of ABA research to determining the factors that maintain undesirable behavior and using this information to promote replacement behaviors that serve the same function (e.g., see Pelios, Morren, Tesch, & Axelrod, 1999)...

— Mace & Critchfield, 2010 in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior

ABA is the application of basic learning principles, including Operant and Respondent Conditioning, to change socially significant behavior.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the application of basic behavioral learning principles, including Respondent and Operant Conditioning as well as Social Learning Theory, to change socially significant behavior. Such changes to 'socially significant behavior' include: reducing substance abuse and phobias, promoting diet and exercise, organizing workers in the labor force, precluding school violence, and even training canines. In addition, ABA is widely used and empirically substantiated to be highly effective when utilized as the basis for intensive, early interventions for children diagnosed with autism.

For educators, social workers, psychologists, parents, mental health professionals, and college students entering into similar fields, it is crucial to understand the true science of Behavior Analysis. Currently, many often equate ABA with Discrete Trial Training (DTT). DTT is a technique based on Operant Conditioning principles when implementing early intervention for children with autism.

The student learning about ABA should realize that college textbooks tend to write various definition and category errors on the subject, the most common of which are the following: Radical Behaviorism focuses exclusively on observable behaviors; Operant Conditioning does not involve stimulus control and only uses consequences to change behavior; and ABA and Behavior Modification are synonymous (some college textbooks even state that ABA is just one form of Behavior Modification used as an early intervention for children with autism).

In fact, Behavior Modification is an expired term that was a structural approach mainly concerned with the use of presumed consequences—which today is considered to be a rather linear approach. ABA, on the other hand, is a functional approach that seeks to identify the function of behavior, including the antecedent stimuli triggering the behavior to occur, as well as establishing replacement behaviors, and allowing the client to select the reinforcer that he or she finds most motivating.

Despite the evidence, in recent years, some psychologists who conduct studies claimed to have used 'behavior modification' in their experiment. However, it is an outdated label and these researchers are still unclear about the true science of Behavior Analysis.

This can be used as a cutting-edge, valid resource for students and professionals alike. It should also be noted that applications of ABA do go beyond this glossary; for example, AIDS prevention, overcoming gambling addictions, providing effective college teaching, etc.

Behavior Analysis: The term, initially coined by B.F. Skinner, is used to describe the scientific approach to learning. It involves the use of stimulus control and differential reinforcement contingencies, stimulus-response procedures to promote various reflexes, or modeling through observational learning. Behavior Analysis also assesses the events occurring in the environment to explain the function of behavior—whether such behavior is internal, verbal, and/or observable. That way, we know which environmental events to manipulate so changes are made in the organism's behavior. Also called the science of behavior, it has three subcategories: Radical Behaviorism (the philosophy of the science), Experimental Analysis of Behavior (EAB), and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

Radical Behaviorism: Also called Conceptual Analysis of Behavior (CAB). The philosophy and conceptual foundation of Behavior Analysis. Radical Behaviorism initially assesses observable behavior and its precedent—and often postcedent—environmental stimuli that are to be manipulated before altering thoughts and feelings. This is not to imply that thoughts and feelings simply lead to motor behavior. Instead, "[thoughts] and feelings are... behavior [that is] explained" (Pierce & Cheney, 2013, p. 21) through the animal or person's spoken language.

Experimental Analysis of Behavior (EAB): Often refers to the research conducted at the laboratory which consists of studying "the basic laws of behavior"—or principles of behavior. These lawful principles typically involve a Functional Analysis of the following learning theories: Respondent and Operant Conditioning.

Conditioning: Also called Learning.

Unconditioned: The term refers to learning that has yet to be acquired.

Respondent Conditioning: Frequently credited to Ivan Pavlov. In Respondent Conditioning, a neutral (antecedent) stimulus associates with an unconditioned stimulus with the result that the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus. Before conditioning, the target behavior is not elicited when the neutral stimulus is present. After conditioning, however, it is elicited as a conditional response—or reflex in the presence of the conditioned stimulus. Sometimes referred to as Classical Conditioning; see Stimulus-Response (S-R).

Operant Conditioning: Skinner explored how behavior is controlled by preceding environmental stimuli as well as the consequences following such behavior. While the discriminative (antecedent) stimulus often signals the given behavior, consequences that are motivating will likely increase the desired behavior, skill, or task if the living organism (whether it be a person or animal) chooses from an array of reinforcers. The behavior will decrease, however, if the consequence is a punisher, and the behavior will likely no longer occur if extinction is used. See Three-Term Operant Contingency (A-B-C).

Social Learning Theory: Also referred to as Observational Learning or Modeling. A scientific theory to learning which emphasizes that behavior is to be altered by observing someone else's actions and imitating what they do, usually accredited to Albert Bandura. When employed in a structured Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI) program, the therapist might give the child a manual prompt to feel the therapist's lips completely close and release while saying "buh" before having the child imitate that action on their own lips.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): The application of Behavior Analysis and basic learning principles to bring about measurable changes in behavior that are socially significant, whether to train canines, reduce phobias, or deliver intensive teaching interventions to children with autism, just to name a few. The goal of ABA is to understand the function of the underlying behavior. Moreover, in a given situation where behaviors are too difficult to manage, new, replacement behaviors are generally taught.

Behavior Modification: As perfectly defined by Julie Skinner Vargas, an educational psychologist who happens to be B.F. Skinner's daughter: "Older term for procedures to change behavior, including: 1) the explicit use of reinforcement or punishment, and 2) Respondent Conditioning as in [the form of] Desensitization [called Flooding (or Prolonged Exposure Therapy)]" (Vargas, 2013, p. 341) without the use of a Functional Behavior Assessment. It was mainly practiced during the 1970s and '80s, and is currently outdated. To put simply, the procedure lacked not only a Functional Analysis but also Skinner's Radical Behaviorism, or his Conceptual Analysis of Behavior. See Methodological Behaviorism.

Methodological Behaviorism: The term is frequently used to describe John B. Watson's form of behaviorism during the early 1900s. Also, this "traditional" form of behaviorism most closely resembled the core philosophy of Behavior Modification. That is, like Behavior Modification, Methodological Behaviorism focused exclusively on altering topography; in other words, observable behaviors.

Stimulus-Response (S-R): Refers to the hallmark of Respondent Conditioning; Stimulus-Response (S-R) procedures outline how pairing environmental stimuli evoke a conditional response (or reflex).

Three-Term Operant Contingency (A-B-C): Refers to the hallmark of Operant Conditioning; reveals the if-then connection between Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence. Also called Three-Term Contingency or A-B-C Contingency Analysis.

Antecedent: An observable environmental stimulus that precedes behavior; it comes in two distinct forms: the Neutral Stimulus (NS) and Discriminative Stimulus (Sd).

Neutral Stimulus (NS): An antecedent stimulus that initially associates with an unconditioned stimulus, as used in Respondent Conditioning.

Discriminative Stimulus (Sd): An antecedent stimulus that signals the behavior, as used in Operant Conditioning. When behavioral stimuli is controlled properly by the Sd, it is called Stimulus Control; if the response does not correctly correspond to the Sd, a Stimulus Delta (S-delta) has occurred. As perfectly stated by Cooper et al. (2007), "the history of differential reinforcement is the reason an Sd increases the momentary frequency of the behavior."

Behavior: Central to Behavior Analysis, behavior is a biological event that constantly occurs in the environment. While public events refer to observable behavior—particularly motor and vocal actions, private events are, as Skinner called it, "[behavior] within the skin" (Skinner, 1974, p. 24). The latter event consists of the organism having thoughts, feelings, and dreams.

Consequence: An observable environmental contingency that follows the behavior, as used in Operant Conditioning. Consequences include reinforcers, punishers, and extinction.

Reinforcement: Consequences (reinforcers) that increase the likelihood of the target behavior.

Positive Reinforcer: Any stimulus added resulting in the likelihood of such behavior to increase.

Negative Reinforcer: Any stimulus removed resulting in the likelihood that the behavior will increase.

Punishment: Consequences (punishers) that decrease the likelihood of the target behavior.

Positive Punisher: Any stimulus added resulting in the likelihood of the target behavior to decrease.

Negative Punisher: Any stimulus removed resulting in the likelihood that the behavior will decrease.

Extinction: The process by which all reinforcement becomes discontinued; when used with children, this is often accomplished by ignoring.

Data Collection: The process of collecting data on specific dimensions of behavior.

Functional Analysis: Examination of the variables that underlie the function of the target behavior.

Replacement Behavior: Introducing a new, alternative behavior which fulfills the same function as the aberrant behavior. For example, see Functional Communication Training (FCT).

Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA): An assessment implemented to analyze and evaluate behavior; precedes a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP).

Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP): A plan conducted after an FBA to outline an intervention that will measurably change behavior. Also known as Behavior Management Plan, or Behavior Support Plan (BSP).

Applied Animal Behavior (AAB): The application of behavior analysis (ABA) to the training of animals, such as canines.

Behavioral Economics: Also known as Applied Behavioral Economics, it is the application of the theory of supply and demand to societal issues.

Organizational Behavior Management (OBM): The application of behavior analysis (ABA) to the management of organizations. OBM involves the following processes and procedures: system analysis, positive reinforcement, modeling, performance management, and behavior-based safety.

Positive Behavior Support (PBS): An application of behavior analysis (ABA) that focuses on establishing a support system between families, teachers, and counseling faculty. It is frequently used to manage the behavior of young children and adolescence, used as a School-Wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS) and sometimes implemented in the home setting. Also referred to as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS).

Verbal Behavior (VB): A technique devised by Skinner consisting of five verbal operants, including mand, tact, intraverbal, echoic, and autoclitic. It is highly effective when used to teach children with autism. When VB is employed in Clinical Behavior Analysis therapies or Behavioral Economics, see Relational Frame Theory.

Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI): A collection of ABA-based teaching interventions used for children with autism and developmental disabilities under the age of 5 and implemented at an intensity of 30 to 40 hours per week. EIBI consists of instructional strategies proven to help children with autism establish eye contact, verbally communicate, improve their IQ scores and adaptive functioning (or daily living skills), as well as replacing maladaptive behaviors with functional ones and also covering a wide array of other behavioral targets. When used with older children, it is called Intensive Behavioral Intervention (IBI).

Discrete Trial Training (DTT): Developed by Ivar Lovaas and colleagues, it is the most common teaching procedure of EIBI which consists of more than 25 hours per week of repeated and structured techniques of teaching by systematically breaking tasks down and using positive reinforcement strategies to acquire new skills. It is the simple application of the Three-Term Operant Contingency, following three steps: the antecedent discriminative stimulus (Sd), or the therapist's instruction; the behavior, or more specifically, the child's response (R); and the consequence, particularly the stimulus reinforcer (SR). Also called Discrete Trial Instruction (DTI).

Errorless Learning: A structured EIBI strategy that is initially incorporated into a DTT program to prevent 'errors' from occurring. The errorless teaching procedure relies on high forms of prompting followed by less prompts and eventually prompt fading to ensure that prompting is not being relied on. Further, the antecedent stimulus called the establishing operation (EO) enhances the likelihood that the stimulus reinforcer (SR) will be effective in promoting such skills. For instance, when teaching the child to respond to their name, it will involve the following steps: 1) the therapist's instruction (Sd; "Look at me") while holding a favorable item (i.e., cookie) between their eyes and by the top of their nose; 2) the modeled prompt (EO), or moving the cookie gradually toward the child's eyes and back to the therapist's; 3) the child's response (R), which is establishing eye contact with the therapist; and 4) the consequence (SR), referring to the therapist's verbal praise, "Nice looking!" before giving the cookie to the child.

Natural Environment Training (NET): Refers to the various EIBI teaching procedures used to generalize new skills through play-based, child-led activities in a natural setting. For example, if the child is to verbally request—or mand—for an item, it has to be child-initiated. This item also must be something that the particular child finds motivating. Related terms include Incidental Teaching and Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT).

Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT): Previously known as Natural Language Paradigm (NLP). Derived from the science of ABA, it was developed by Robert and Lynn Koegel as a naturalistic, play-based teaching procedure for children with autism and other developmentally delays. The goal of PRT is to foster behaviors, including motivation, responsivity to multiple cues, self-management, and social initiations, which are pivotal to teaching new skills.

Functional Communication Training (FCT): A training procedure in which the learner with autism or related developmental disability has to use their words or some other functionally equivalent form of communication. For instance, if the child is non-verbal and having a tantrum, the therapist won't draw any attention to their tantrum and only acknowledge the child if he or she points to what they want when using the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) board.

Criminology: The study of criminal behavior.

Clinical Behavior Analysis (CBA): Sometimes referred to as Clinical Behavior Therapy. An array of empirically validated treatments derived from the application of behavior analysis (ABA) that are based on Relational Frame Theory (RFT). CBA encompasses three broad clinical areas: Voucher-Based Contingency Management (CM), Behavioral Medicine, and Cognitive Behavior Therapies (CBTs).

Relational Frame Theory (RFT): Refers to the extension of stimulus equivalent research to cognition and language, sometimes used to teach executive functioning and social cognition (also known as Theory of Mind).

Contingency Management (CM): Precise management of environmental contingencies to acquire certain alterations of behavior, i.e., in the treatment of substance abuse. For drug abuse, patients receive vouchers (typically, financial incentives) to stop taking drugs. People addicted to cigarettes receive nicotine (the replacement behavior). Related terms include Stimulus Control, Systematic Use of Reinforcement, and Token Economy.

Behavioral Medicine: A sub-discipline of CBA consisting of "behavior-change programs that target health-related activities, such as following special diets, disease [prevention strategies], [engaging in] exercise, taking medication [regularly], and so on" (Pierce & Cheney, 2013, p. 471). Related terms include the following: Behavioral Pharmacology, Behavioral Pediatrics, and Behavioral Gerontology.

Behavioral Pharmacology: The field of study concerned with identifying the contingent relationship between behavior and pharmacological products, used in such incidences as Nicotine Replacement Therapy for those who smoke cigarettes.

Behavioral Pediatrics: An area of reasearch that fuses two distinct scientific disciplines: behavior analysis and pediatrics, serving as the basis for, i.e., Pediatric Feeding Therapy.

Behavioral Gerontology: Refers to behavior analytic research on people who are aging as well as the design of treatments implemented to assist them.

Cognitive Behavior Therapies (CBTs): An array of scientifically proven cognitive-behavioral interventions used in psychotherapy, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Functional Analytic Psychotherapy (FAP), Systematic Desensitization, and others.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): A form of clinical behavior analysis (or more specifically, CBT) devised by Marsha M. Linehan that is primarily used for those with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) to alter their suicidal thoughts and self-injurious behaviors. DBT is based on Chain Analysis, a Functional Analytic procedure, and involves the following four principles: distress tolerance, mindfulness, emotional regulation, and interpersonal regulation.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): Based on the pioneering work of Steven C. Hayes, ACT is a clinical application of behavior analysis (CBA) used, i.e., in treating eating and feeding disorders to managing anxiety, depression, tics, and sexual abuse. It follows three processes: mindfulness (which is the replacement behavior), acceptance and commitment, and value-based living.

Integrative Behavioral Couples Therapy: A form of CBT used in the treatment of marriage counseling. Also called Traditional Behavioral Marital Therapy.

Functional Analytic Psychotherapy (FAP): Derived from applied behavior analytic (ABA) principles used in psychotherapy for individuals with a wide range of mental disorders, including personality disorders, depression, or a related disorder.

Behavioral Activation (BA): A FAP used in the treatment of depression.

Desensitization: Also called Exposure Therapy.

Systematic Desensitization: An exposure therapy used to combat specific phobias, requiring the client to gradually expose themselves to that fear as they simultaneously undergo breathing and relaxation strategies (which are the replacement behaviors). Also known as Graduated Exposure Therapy.

Habit Reversal Training (HRT): The technique is used to break various habits, such as tics and trichotillomania, a disorder of impulsive hair pulling. Based on acceptance and commitment therapy, HRT uses five principles: awareness training, competing response training, self-monitoring, and social support as well as generalization training.

Comprehensive Behavioral Intervention for Tics (CBIT): A form of HRT used to decrease the occurrence of tics. In this procedure, every time the individual has the urge to tic, they are redirected in performing a new activity that fulfills the same purpose.

Social Skills Training: A form of CBT used to help people with social concerns, ranging from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), establish friendships with their peers. For the treatment of ASD, the goal is to teach perspective taking; how to reciprocate non-verbal, social cues; and to paraphrase when engaging in conversation with others.

Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA): An individual who received national certification by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) and either practices (Applied) and/or conducts research (Experimental) in Behavior Analysis when working with people. Some states provide licenser laws for BCBAs.

Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB): Someone who received a certification in Applied Animal Behavior (AAB). They either practice and/or conduct research in the field of animal training that is firmly grounded in the science of Behavior Analysis.

Cognitive Therapy (CT): A scientifically proven cognitive intervention used in psychotherapy that was devised by Aaron Beck. In sharp contrast to Behavior Analysis, Cognitive Psychology theorizes that thoughts and feelings are not internal behavior. Rather, they are the antecedents that lead to motor behavior. Therefore, cognitive therapists focus mainly on changing thoughts and feelings but tend to often incorporate behavioral techniques into their practice.


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Almost 45 years ago, Baer et al. (1968) described a new discipline—applied behavior analysis (ABA). This discipline was distinguished from the experimental analysis of behavior by its focus on social impact (i.e., solving socially important problems...). ABA has produced remarkably powerful interventions in fields such as education, developmental disabilities and autism, clinical psychology, behavioral medicine, organizational behavior management, and a host of other fields and populations...

— Timothy A. Slocum et al., 2014 in The Behavior Analyst

Organizational behavior management (OBM) is a sub-discipline of ABA, which is the application of the science of behavior. ABA emphasizes the use of operant and respondent procedures to produce behavior change. Behavior analysis as a science has very explicit goals. Prediction and control of behavior, with an emphasis on control, are the objectives of behavior analysis (Hayes & Brownstein, 1986).

— OBM Network, the official website for the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management (JOBM)

"Clinical behavior analysis (is) the application of the assumptions, principles and methods of modern functional contextual behavior analysis to 'traditional clinical issues.' " — From Dougher and Hayes, "Clinical Behavior Analysis", as cited in "Clinical Behavior Analysis" (Hardcover) by Steven C. Hayes, p. 11, 1999.

Early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) is a treatment approach that is based upon the principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA) and the research of Ivar Lovaas and colleagues at the UCLA Young Autism Project... Influenced by theories of learning and motivation, practitioners of EIBI refer to it as "the science of teaching."

— Susan Hepburn on Springer Link


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