Behavioral Analysis: Understanding the Science

In most circles, psychology conjures the image of people discussing their past and how they feel about it to solve their problems. Behavioral analysis looks only at how environment influences how a person acts, with thoughts and feelings an outcome of this influence, not the driving force. Today it is applied to a broad range of concerns from diet to autism to workplace improvement.

What is Behavioral Analysis?

Behavioral Analysis explains a person's behavior, good or bad, as a result of his or her environment. In other words, when a person acts a particular way, the feedback he or she receives determines future behavior. Organisms change behavior based on consequences, which could be positive or negative. A positive, or desired, consequence is also called "reinforcement" and is essential to making a change, as is punishment.

A Brief Historical Look

John Watson began the behaviorism movement when he declared in 1913 that all of an organism's behavior is controlled by preceding events in the organism's environment. In 1928, B.F. Skinner, introduced "operant behavior" theory, concluding that consequences determine behavior. The cognitive revolution, an intellectual movement in the 1950s, made the case for mental states and their role in behavior, a theory conflicting with Skinner's findings. By the 1970's, the cognitive movement all but replaced behaviorism as the preferred psychological practice. A combination of the two, cognitive behavioral therapy, is widely practiced today.

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Behavioral Analysis Studies

Ivan Pavlov's famous experiment where a dog that hears a bell just before mealtime will later salivate when it hears the bell regardless of food being served was a catalyst for behaviorism, though he was not himself a behaviorist. His experiment proved that behavior can be modified based on preceding stimulus. The next big breakthrough in the theory came when Skinner, during college, worked with starving rats and levers that gave food. Skinner proved that behavior can be manipulated based on a reward that follows desired behavior. This rat experiment, and the box and levers he invented to measure the rats' responses, is knows as the Skinner Box.

Modifiable Behaviors

Developmental disabilities are well-known behavioral challenges treated by applied behavioral analysis, autism being the most notable. However, the psychological treatment can be used for simple parenting problems like toilet training, dieting and exercise, zoo management, education and any other situation where social behaviors need to be corrected. Incentive programs at work are behaviorism-based because they reward good work. Teachers often apply the study to work with their classrooms as well as with individual students who need particular support.

People use behavioral analysis in their everyday lives without realizing it. Placing a photo of a thin person on the refrigerator changes the environment so as to change behavior (only eat when hungry, for example). According to the theory, a deep look at someone's past does not necessarily mean new ways of acting. Only when the environment changes through incentives and punishments can a person change social behaviors.