Applied Behaviour Analysis, or ABA, is the application of the scientific study of human and animal behaviour. It is founded by the research of Ivan Pavlov (Classical Conditioning) and B.F. Skinner (Operant Conditioning). 

Behaviour is just like a story. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. In ABA, this is called the ABCs of behaviour, which stands for Antecedent, Behaviour and Consequence.

Stimulus, Behaviour, Consequence - Three Term Contingency


The Environment

There is always something that happens before a behaviour. For example, before I take paracetamol for pain relief, I need to be experiencing pain. This environmental stimuli – the experience of pain, triggers my behaviour of taking painkillers. We can therefore assume that there is a relationship between environmental stimuli and behaviours. These are called associations.

We are all born with a few of these associations already existing, known as reflexes. These include the gag reflex and the withdrawing from something that is causing us pain, such as a hot surface. Ivan Pavlov demonstrated that these can also be learnt. With his study with dogs, he observed that every time a dog was presented with food, it salivated. He then rang a bell every time food was presented to the dog. Over several presentations, this previously neutral stimulus became paired with the food, until Ivan only had to ring the bell, and the dog would salivate.

We see this in everyday life, just like when after we drink too much tequila at a party and then vomit profusely for the rest of the night. After this, even the smell of that tequila can make us feel nauseous.


The Consequence

There is also always something that we get out of engaging in a behaviour. This is the consequence of that behaviour.

If we get something enjoyable out of engaging in the behaviour, we are more likely to engage in that behaviour again in the future. We would therefore say that the behaviour was ‘reinforced’ and the enjoyable thing we got out of engaging in the behaviour is called the reinforcer. Alternatively, our behaviour can also be reinforced when something we don’t like is taken away (e.g. pain when we take a painkiller).

If we got something aversive (something we don’t like) from engaging in the behaviour, then we are less likely to engage in the behaviour again when in the same situation. We would therefore say the behaviour was punished, and the thing we don’t like is the punisher. Our behaviour can also be punished if something we like is taken away when we engage in a behaviour (e.g. a child’s game console is taken away for ‘bad’ behaviour). 


So why do we engage in behaviour?

In ABA, we call the reason we engage in a behaviour the ‘Function’ of the behaviour. A behaviour is therefore ‘maintained’ by these functions.

Although there is often a debate as to how many and what these ‘functions’ are, I go on the basis of there being five functions of behaviour: Sensory, Attention, Escape, Tangible and Avoidance.

Sensory – We like how the behaviour makes us feel, see, hear, smell or taste. For example, I light a candle because I like how it makes the room smell, or I click my pen because it feels comforting to me.

Attention – We engage in a behaviour because it get a certain reaction from someone else. I call someone’s name and they look and listen to me. I complete that homework early because my teacher will be happy with me.

Escape – We engage in a behaviour to escape from, or end, something we don’t like. I exit the mall because it’s too loud and overcrowded. I shout at my child to stop them from hitting me.

Avoidance – We engage in a behaviour to avoid something we don’t like. I reprimand my child to stop them from grabbing the dog’s tail, so he doesn’t get bitten. I go into my closet to get an umbrella to take with me because it’s raining outside and I don’t want to get wet.

Tangible – We engage in a behaviour to get something. I go to work to get money. I go to the fridge and open it to get a glass of milk.

As you can see, all of these functions relate to the consequence of the behaviour, or what we get out of engaging in a behaviour.


How do we change behaviour?

People are always manipulating the environment, so in essence, people can manipulate other people’s behaviour.

If I would like you to do a certain behaviour more in the future, I can positively reinforce that behaviour (give you something you like for engaging in the behaviour), for example, I can praise you or I can give you a reward (e.g. money for work), or I can negatively reinforce the behaviour by taking something away that you don’t like, for example pain being taken away by painkillers or there being less noise if I leave a busy shopping mall.

If I want you to engage in less of the behaviour in the future, I can either positively punish the behaviour, for example shouting or spanking a child, or negatively punish the behaviour by taking away something you like, for example taking away a child’s Xbox when they misbehave, or taking away someone’s freedom because they committed a crime.


Is reinforcement and punishment equal?

Research shows that in most cases, reinforcement is more effective than punishment. Therefore, if we want to decrease an undesirable behaviour, it is far more effective to teach and reinforce desirable behaviours, while making the undesirable behaviour no longer work for them.

For example, if someone is committing crimes to get money, it is far more effective to teach them more desirable and socially acceptable ways of making money and help them to do that instead. Punishing them does not help them to change their situation. For this reason, many people reoffend when they are released from prison, as they are not able to get a job and make money in a socially acceptable way. Another example includes if a child with autism hits you because they want to escape a difficult task, it’s more effective to teach them how to ask for help or a break, and encourage them to do that instead of hitting you. 


These basic principles are the foundation of Applied Behaviour Analysis. The application of these principles, as you can see with the range of examples in this post, is very wide and broad. Everyone engages in behaviour, so the scientific principles of behaviour can be used for everyone. ABA is used to teach children on the autism spectrum functional behaviours in a systematic way. It is used by big industries, such as casinos, to keep you at their machines and tables. It is used in prisons to reform convicted criminals. It is used to teach pets and animals tricks and to decrease their problem behaviours. It is used in government and policy to nudge people into engaging in behaviours that are better for them and society. It is used by schools, universities and organisations to more effectively teach people new skills.

The possibilities of ABA are endless.

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