Understanding the Role and Domains of Experimental Behavior Analysis

Experimental behavior analysis represents a school of thought in psychology based upon radical behaviorism that calls for inductive, data-driven approaches to establishing functional relations between antecedents and behaviors. The empirical observations gained in experimental behavior analysis allow practitioners to predict and control behaviors through operant conditioning techniques.

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It’s hard to overstate the role of experimentation in the practice of applied behavior analysis. Observation of stimulus responses and a manipulation of the consequences of those responses (or behaviors) are central to the so-called ABCs of applied behavior analysis (ABA):

  • Antecedent – The prompt, or initial situation, leading to a behavior.
  • Behavior – The action or behavior in response to the antecedent.
  • Consequence – The reinforcement mechanism associated with the behavior.

But the practice of applied behavior analysis rests on theories and techniques that are first developed and tested in carefully designed experiments. And it is experimental behavior analysts that typically test those theories in controlled environments.

Experimental Behavior Analysis Tests Theories of Radical Behaviorism

Experimental behavior analysis is based on B.F. Skinner’s theories of radical behaviorism, which view all observable actions as behaviors, which are subject to analysis and modification through operant conditioning techniques. Skinner broke down the relationships between antecedent, behaviors, and consequences using the Four-Term Contingency Model:

  • Motivating Operations – The environmental factors setting the stage for a stimulus/response cycle
  • Discriminative Stimulus – A cue or antecedent setting the stage for a behavioral response
  • Behavior – The response itself, which alters the environment in some way (and is therefore observable and measurable)
  • Consequences – The reinforcing or punishing stimuli evoked by the behavior which will tend to reinforce or discourage it

Behavior analysts view all observable behaviors as fitting within this framework, and manipulate the variables to find methods of modifying those behaviors.

While every behavior analyst has elements of experimentation in their practice, those working specifically in experimental programs are at the cutting edge of the development of new techniques in the field.

One project, conducted at the behest of the CDC, examined behavioral and psychological factors influencing occupational accidents in the roofing industry in California. The researchers conducted in-depth analysis of accident data and subjected a sample of involved workers to exhaustive testing designed to assess behavioral factors that might have been involved in the accidents. As with many studies in behavioral analysis, the project did not result in any major breakthroughs, but laid a foundation on which to build later research.

This sort of research is emblematic of the rules of experimental behavior analysis, which generally follows a gradual progression toward effective approaches to behavior modification built on close observation and careful experimentation.

Experimental Design in Behavior Analysis

A core skill for all behavior analysts is in designing experiments that are valid measures of manipulations of environment or consequence. Although the ABCs are straightforward in theory, in reality, patients exist in complex environments and are influenced by consequences that can be both subtle and ambiguous. Applying the tenets of applied behavior analysis requires an ability to sift through the chaff of these ambiguities and devise reinforcers that truly influence the subject behaviors.

The subjects of the experiments can be either human or animal. Much of the original investigation into operant conditioning involved animal subjects. Animal research has the advantage of involving fewer variables than work with human subjects, allowing clearer links to be established between stimulus and behavior.

Special apparatus and experimental designs can further clarify experimental approaches. B.F. Skinner developed one such device, the operant conditioning chamber, or Skinner box, in the 1930’s while a student at Harvard. A Skinner box is designed to contain an animal subject and reduce environmental stimuli to a minimum—typically, a lever inside that can be activated by the occupant will deliver some reward if pressed in response to a particular stimulus introduced by the researchers.

By isolating both the antecedents and consequences to only those introduced in the course of the experiment, the researchers are better able to state with confidence that any behavioral modifications observed are solely attributable to their experiment, and not any ancillary circumstances.

Working as an Experimental Behavior Analyst

Working as an experimental behavior analyst entails careful observation and, frequently, multiple attempts with careful, objective comparisons made between each of them.

Experimental behavior analysts commonly work in academia. They are instructors and researchers working for colleges and universities. Others are employed in health care or by government agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They may work with animal subjects, human subjects, or both. They frequently have overlapping responsibilities in instruction or other jobs that disseminate information, such as editing industry journals or authoring studies on their experiments.

Many of them have advanced degrees in psychology. A PhD is commonly required for tenure-track positions involving experimental behavior analysis. Behavior analysis may be only one of a variety of clinical approaches investigated in such positions. A great deal of freedom is afforded to such researchers. They have a general charge to engage in pursuits that further organize and contribute to the growth of the body of knowledge of psychology and behavior analysis.

Some behavior analysts, including a few who have been intimately involved in experimental behavior analysis, question the utility of experimentation in such controlled circumstances. Their argument is that results generated in these artificial environments rarely have any real-world application, since complications are inherent in real environments.

But by generating the basic conceptual approaches and validating them with experimental data has lead to real advances in the field. For example, basic experimental behavior analysis research first turned up the differential outcomes effect in animal subjects. The effect was found to reinforce learning when different reward patterns were consistently associated with different behaviors… a verbal compliment, for instance, when a dog correctly obeyed a command to sit, versus a treat when the dog correctly obeyed a command to lay down.

The technique has now been tested and is in use successfully with human patients, for instance in this study teaching sign language to mentally impaired adults.

This sort of ongoing experimentation in behavior analysis and the diffusion of the results into applied behavior analysis is a system that keeps the field at the cutting edge of treatments for a variety of mental and behavioral issues, such as:

  • Depression
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Fears and phobias
  • Anger management issues
  • Anxiety disorders

Further Resources for Experimental Behavior Analysis

The Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior – A peer-reviewed journal published by the Society for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior.

Society for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior – A professional association of researchers which publishes the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.

American Psychological Association Division 25 – Division 25 is the section of the APA dealing with behavior analysis; the primary mission of the division is to promote basic research into experimental behavior analysis.

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