Psychology is a term that most people understand and could probably define. But ask someone, “What is applied behavior analysis?” and you may get some confused responses.
Applied behavior analysis is a specialty within the branch of psychology known as behaviorism. The scientists who developed behaviorism in the early 20th century believed that the best way to understand the human experience was to observe what humans do and say. Initially, the science did not probe deeply into complicated factors underpinning behavior but instead implemented a system to reinforce positive behaviors and deter negative behaviors. From this field of study, applied behavior analysis was developed as a professional therapy practice that guides patients and clients in achieving desired behavioral changes in their lives.
Therapists practicing in the applied behavior analysis field are required to hold a credential from the Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB). Many states also require therapists to obtain a license. There are several levels of certification but all require at least a bachelor’s degree, preferably a behavioral analysis degree or similar degree in the field of human behavior.
Certified applied behavior analysts work with people of all ages in a variety of settings, but it is most recognized for its success in helping people with autism. According to the BACB, in some cases, applied behavior analysis has nearly eliminated symptoms of autism altogether. It is recognized by the U.S. Surgeon General’s office as an effective autism treatment.
Dr. Paul Jenkins, associate professor at National University, says that despite the discipline’s presence in many settings, the phrase, applied behavioral analysis, is becoming linked in the public mind with autism because it is so strongly impactful in that area. “As a general rule, people with autism don’t engage well with psychotherapy,” he explains. “They engage better when the therapist can look very strictly at what behaviors are causing problems and what can we do to change those behaviors.”
Is a Behavioral Analysis Degree Different From a Psychology Degree?
There are differences between the two, but if your goal is to become an applied behavior analyst, you can obtain certification with any degree that has a heavy concentration dealing with how to study human behavior. The BACB has other requirements on top of the degree, but completing a behavioral analysis degree or a degree in psychology or many of its subfields — counseling, performance psychology, psychopathology, forensic psychology, to name just a few — will meet the degree requirement.
As to the exact distinction between applied behavioral analysis and psychology, Jenkins says applied behavioral analysis is a subset within psychology. Psychology has many fields that aren’t as focused on overtly observable behaviors. The science of psychology often poses questions that are more difficult to answer through quantifiable means. It deals with intangible subjects such as emotion, cognition, and motivation.
“Applied behavioral analysis is one of those things where the research element of it — the scientific study element — is completely integrated with the application. It assumes there’s no point to analyzing somebody’s behavior unless you are turning that into a program to help change that behavior. It’s applied research. You’re using empirical data and analysis of that data in the interest of applying it to helping somebody.”
What Is Human Behavior?
If you’re considering enrolling in a college program to learn how to study human behavior, then the way you answer this question may be essential in deciding which kind of degree to pursue.
If you think of human behavior in terms of how it can be shaped through reinforcements and disincentives, you are likely well suited to the pursuit of a behavioral analysis degree. You could find yourself in a career helping people with autism or developmental challenges, helping people recover from brain trauma, helping the elderly deal with memory issues, helping parents provide nurturing homes in which their children can thrive, helping educators create class environments that engage students, managing workplace teams, or consulting with businesses to achieve staff productivity. These are only a few of the areas in which the science of human behavior is applied.
On the other hand, if you think of human behavior more in terms of a person’s subjective experience — the internal feelings and thoughts that lead to the decisions people make — then you might consider a career in psychotherapy, counseling, teaching, or research. Psychology has many areas in which to specialize, including, to name a very few, counseling, geriatric psychology, pediatric psychology, forensic psychology, psychopathology, sport psychology, performance psychology, and alcohol and drug abuse counseling.
Can Human Behavior Be Studied Scientifically?
Behavioral analysis and psychology are both firmly grounded in the application of the scientific method. In studying how to reinforce and improve human behavior, theories are formed and then proved or rejected based on observations made in controlled and carefully designed studies. Human psychology also relies on tests involving human subjects, but they must be calibrated to account for the challenges inherent to the study of phenomena that can’t be directly observed or quantified. Chief among these challenges is the fact that test-takers are always aware they are being tested, and the fact that test-takers are self-reporting their experiences, which are affected by internal biases.
How to Study Human Behavior at National University
A degree in the study of human behavior can take your career in many directions, but the two main roads head toward counseling or organizational management opportunities.
If you’re called to a profession helping people lead more fulfilling lives by modifying their behavior, National University’s Master of Science in Applied Behavioral Analysis can prepare you to pass the board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) exam. The program prepares you to provide services to individuals and families, or to work in group homes, schools, mental health organizations, health care settings, and business and industrial settings, among many options. Courses in this program are available both online and in person. For more information about the Master of Science in Applied Behavioral Analysis program, individual classes, and teaching faculty please visit our program page.