Is ABA a part of psychology or a separate discipline?

The answer to this question is that while many people have historically viewed behavior analysis as a branch of psychology, the two disciplines take fundamentally different and antithetical perspectives to account for variability in human behavior. This divergent view can be summed up as follows.

Psychology looks to explain behavioral variability by appealing to internal causes that are typically seen as inside the mind (e.g., mood states, personality traits, hypothesized structures such as ego, and/or drive states)

Behavior analysts seek to identify how changes in the environment that occur as function of a behavior occurring relate to the occurrence or non-occurrence of that behavior in the future. It looks to identify functional relations between these two variables (behavior and its consequences).  Analyses of behavior are conducted using the Operant Learning Paradigm.  This is commonly described as the ABC’s or Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence. The more technically correct version is the Stimulus-Response-Consequence (SRC) paradigm.

In short, the difference can be stated as follows: In the ENVIRONMENT (Behavior Analysis) versus inside the MIND (Psychology).

Psychology as a discipline largely hypothesizes internal explanations (personality traits, mediating forces, and other structures in the brain, etc.) explain differences in human behavior.

To demonstrate the difference here are two examples of how behavior analysts and psychologists account for or explain the same behavior.

  • Why does a person go to the refrigerator?
  • Psychologist: Because they are hungry.  The “hunger drive” causes the person to seek food in the refrigerator.  The cause of behavior is internal and precedes the occurrence of the behavior.  Hunger or being hungry is WHY and this “drive state” explains the behavior of going to the refrigerator.
  • Behavior analyst:  Views going to the refrigerator as a learned behavior.  A person “learns” to go to the refrigerator WHEN they are hungry because other behavior does not result in a reduction in being hungry.  The specific behavior of going to the refrigerator, opening it, taking food and eating it is learned as a function of the effects of going to the refrigerator.  Other behavior that does not result in a reduction in hunger are not learned under the antecedent condition of being hungry.  Reducing “hunger” is the consequence of going to the refrigerator and getting food.  This consequence SELECTS going to the refrigerator and not to the window or bedroom or any other behavior that the person could do at the moment they are “hungry”.   Hunger is a physiological state, and once in this state a person could do anything (and could learn to do anything). However, behaviors that diminish the state of being hungry are much more likely to be learned than behavior that does not.  In short it is the CONSEQUENCE of going to the refrigerator that teaches us to repeat that behavior, not the condition of being hungry.

Some examples of Antecedent Causes Consistent with a Psychology Perspective:  Being in a bad mood, being angry, feeling sad, having personality traits such as being quick to judge, easily frustrated, liking to criticize, being a “non-conformist”,

Antecedent Causes Consistent with a Behavior Analysis Perspective:  Antecedents and antecedent conditions “set the occasion” for behavior to occur, they do not cause behavior to occur.  However what behavior is learned and continues to occur over time is the behavior or behaviors that result in reinforcing consequences for the behavior.  Or that the behavior that is learned occurs because it enables the learner to escape or avoid non-preferred consequences.   It can be said that Antecedents “signal the availability” of reinforcement (or the ability to avoid non-preferred conditions). If you reliably hit the brakes on your car when you see a policeman with a radar gun, you are demonstrating this phenomenon. The radar gun does not “cause” you to slow down, rather the ability to avoid a ticket (consequence) is why you have learned to slow down at the sight of the officer. Failure to learn this lesson may result in an unpleasant consequence. As a result (for most people) hitting the brakes is selected over hitting the gas pedal in this environmental condition.

Interventions flow from philosophy:

Psychology: If you believe that the CAUSE of swearing or aggression is being in a bad mood or being angry, then hypothetically your treatment must remove the cause. In this case, making someone never be in a bad mood or never be angry is simply not possible. Treatment, from this perspective is therefore – NOT POSSIBLE.  Since I cannot make you NOT angry – (and anger causes you to swear or hit) I cannot make you not swear or hit others.

Behavior Analysis: If your perspective is that the consequences of behavior shape what is learned and not learned, then changing the environments response should enable you to change the behavior that is selected.