What is Applied Behavior Analysis?

Most people join the psychological professions because they want to help others overcome challenges, reach their full potential and become their best selves. If you’re reading this, chances are good that you too enjoy that feeling. Yet as time goes on, you might long for a greater challenge in the psychology discipline, especially if you already have a bachelor’s and master’s degree and have practiced for years.

However, even those who have not yet stepped foot into a clinic or office, figuratively or literally, are often interested in the terminal degrees available in the field. These offer the highest salaries, the most opportunity for interesting work and the greatest prestige, and so they naturally appeal to psychologists. If that sounds like a career move in which you’d be interested, then you might want to consider a Doctor in Psychology.

Specifically, a Doctor of Psychology, or PsyD, in Applied Behavior Analysis. This fascinating and challenging field will test your psychology skills while enabling you to help some of the neediest patients in the world today. Want to make a difference and love your career? Let’s talk about applied behavior analysis today.

What Is Behavior?

First, how do psychologists define behavior? This is a word we use every day, and yet not necessarily in the sense that psychologists use it. Indeed, behavior is a term equally applied to animals, plants and even tiny bacteria or viruses. That said, while we know where the term behavior is used, it’s not so easy to parse out what it means.

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines behavior as “the potential and expressed capacity for physical, mental, and social activity during the phases of human life.” Nature adds that “Human behaviour refers to the way humans act and interact. It is based on and influenced by several factors, such as genetic make-up, culture and individual values and attitudes.” In other words, behavior is influenced by where people grow up, whom they are related to, their own innate predispositions, the demands of their environment and more.

Looking to definitions of animal behavior (a category which, of course, does include humans), scientists have proposed a huge number of definitions. These range from “Externally visible activity of an animal, in which a coordinated pattern of sensory, motor and associated neural activity responds to changing external or internal conditions” to “A response to external and internal stimuli, following integration of sensory, neural, endocrine, and effector components” to the very simple “What an animal does.”

Suffice it to say, the field is complex. It stands to reason, then, that using analysis of that behavior and applying it to a patient’s wellbeing is equally so.

So What Is Applied Behavior Analysis?

Applied behavior analysis, at its most fundamental, seeks to understand human behavior and then effect change using that understanding. This movement began in the early 20th century, based on the science of behaviorism, a then-popular school of psychology. Although that school has become slightly less prevalent, the principles remain.

There is good reason for turning to them as a means of changing human actions and habits. As the Behavioral Analysis Certification Board (BACB) points out, behaviorism “is based upon the premise that attempting to improve the human condition through behavior change (e.g., education, behavioral health treatment) will be most effective if behavior itself is the primary focus.”

It is also important to distinguish between behavior analysis, which involves studying and charting human behavior, with applied behavior analysis. The latter is when a psychologist uses the information available to create treatment programs and approaches that help patients change their behaviors and better manage their lives. This is what an applied behavior analyst does.

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How Does Applied Behavior Analysis Help the Patient?

At root, the goal of applied behavior analysis is to make patients aware of their behavior, then give them the tools to change it. Inherent in this statement is targeting negative behaviors, which come in a huge array of patterns and tendencies. These might include aversions to people, situations or other stimuli that the patient needs to endure in order to live a successful life. It might mean predilections for lying, violence, destructive relationships, addictions or just bad habits. Or it may be as simple as exposing oneself to too much stress.

An applied behavior analyst helps the patient overcome such issues by:

  • Speaking and working with patients to understand their current negative behaviors as well as what they would like those behaviors to look like in future
  • Designing a program of rewards in order to motivate and encourage certain behaviors
  • Working with family members, caretakers or other members of a medical or psychiatric team assigned to an individual
  • Working in a research capacity to design and carry out studies

Applied behavior analysts also commonly work with children, specifically children with autism. Autism comes in a range of forms, but is uniformly damaging to the child’s social, emotional and mental development. Many people with autism are compromised for life by their condition. However, working with a behavior analyst young can help them overcome some of their biggest hurdles by replacing non-adaptive behaviors with new and better ones.

How Can You Become an Applied Behavior Analyst?

One of the best ways to become an applied behavior analyst is to get a Doctor of Psychology, or PsyD. This doctorate is distinguished from a PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, in the sphere of focus. While a PhD degree is geared toward those who want to work in the classroom or in research labs – in other words, in academia – PsyD graduates tend to work closely with the patients themselves. As such, the two degrees are complementary, the first developing principles and strategies the field and the second putting them to use.

SEE ALSO: 9 Careers for Applied Behavior Analysis

Any program in applied behavior analysis will include many of the same principles. These include:

  • Behaviorism and behavior analysis
  • Educational psychology
  • Developmental psychology
  • Addiction psychology and treatment
  • General psychology
  • Industrial or organizational psychology
  • Clinical psychology
  • School psychology

Depending on your interest area and the specific program to which you apply, you will likely specialize in one or several of these focus areas. However, most programs will still give you an overview of all of the above.

What Do You Need to Apply to the Program?

Every admissions department is different when it comes to what they expect from their applicants, but most of them will require the following elements with your application:

SEE ALSO: Top Online PhD Programs in Applied Behavior Analysis

  • Transcript: Note that programs usually require all past transcripts, not just the most recent one. Therefore, if you have multiple master’s degrees in addition to your undergrad, or if you went to more than one university for undergrad, the prospective school will typically require all of them.
  • Letters of recommendation: Because doctoral programs only accept the most qualified candidates who are willing to work the hardest, most need several letters of recommendation from past supervisors or teachers. Some may only need one.
  • Prerequisites: Most PsyD programs have fairly exacting prerequisite requirements. Look up the rules for each program.
  • Essay or letter of intent: This is a writing sample as well as a statement of your purpose or exploration of a topic, so make sure to treat it as such. Get editing help if you need it.
  • The application itself: Most applications are online now. Make sure to note the deadlines carefully and fill out the application completely. Most programs are not forgiving of missed deadlines.

What Do Exams and Licensing Involve?

In order to practice as a psychologist in any capacity, you need to take the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). This test is applicable to all 50 United States. If you have already taken and passed the test and your license is current, you likely won’t need to retake it. Getting the license involves an application that includes test results, clinical hours during school and supervised practice hours after graduation.

According to some sources, the best way to work in the applied behavior analysis field is to get the certification that relates directly to the discipline, the BCBA/BCBA-D from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board. While you don’t need to hold it to work in the field or adjacent fields, it can only help with the job hunt and your later career success.

Is the Job Outlook for an Applied Behavior Analyst Good?

If you graduate with a degree in applied behavior analysis, the outlook is good. “Demand for behavior analysts and assistant behavior analysts is increasing,” explains the BACB. “Annual demand for individuals holding BCBA/BCBA-D certification has increased approximately 4,209% from 2010 to 2020, with increases seen in almost every state.

SEE ALSO: Salary Outlook with Ph.D. in Applied Behavior Analysis

The increase in demand has been similar to the increase in the total number of individuals holding BCBA/BCBA-D certification.” Moreover, “Annual demand for individuals holding BCaBA certification also increased in the same time period, with the largest increases occurring in the last 4 years (95 postings in 2014 to 1,040 in 2017, a 995% increase).”

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Further Resources for Candidates in Applied Behavior Analysis

Need a few resources to keep you informed during the application process and program, or afterward? Here are a few of the best to help you along the way:

  • Human Behavior, Defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica: This extremely thorough definition of human behavior takes readers through the development of behavior throughout a person’s entire lifetime. From the acculturation babies learn to the adjustments made in adolescence, adulthood and old age, the entry examines how behavior changes physiologically, socially and mentally. Its is an invaluable resource to those in or considering the field.
  • Behaviorism Glossary: For those who are new to this lesser-known branch of psychology, a glossary may prove helpful. Here are some of the most common terms in behaviorism, which still apply to the discipline of applied behavior analysis today.
  • What Is Applied Behavior Analysis?: Many applied behavior analysts use their work to benefit children, especially children who suffer from autism. For that reason, it’s helpful to understand how applied behavior analysis applies in that sphere, and this resource does just that.

Now that you have a firm understanding of what applied behavior analysis is and how you can help patients by holding a degree and certification in the field, all you have to do is get started!