Behavioral Analysis

By: Kylie Luo

Image Credit: Flickr @ Dean Hochman

With the rising popularity of the show Criminal Minds, the words “behavioral analysis” commonly spark conversations about the FBI, BAU, and profiling. As interesting as the field of criminology and behavioral analysis seems, there is a lot of work and knowledge behind it, especially for working in as prestigious an environment as portrayed in the television series. So what really is behavioral analysis and where did it come from?

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a scientific technique that applies the psychological beliefs of conditioning and its role in social significance, largely focusing on change in behavior due to the environment. The ultimate goal of this technique is to develop a better understanding and enhance social skills and understanding, as well as determine what is and isn’t normal.

Through the many developments and long standing history of psychology, behavioral analysis is fairly new. It was first introduced as behavior therapy by Ole Ivar Lovaas in the 1960s and 70s to help treat children on the autism spectrum. It was, and still commonly is, based on the findings of Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner and their theories of classical conditioning and positive reinforcement, respectively. Through positive reinforcement, Lovaas taught children to better respond to environmental challenges, subsequently increasing their functional learning and IQ scores. From Lovaas’s experiments, behavioral therapy became much more common, dividing into several different techniques such as pivotal response training, behavior mapping, differential reinforcement, sensory strategies, and many more.

In order to better understand the ideas behind ABA, we must first look at where it stemmed from. Ivan Pavlov was a well known psychologist who developed the theory of classical conditioning. His famous experiment, involving dogs, sound stimulus, and food, helped to reinforce the idea that objects or events could trigger a conditioned response. Similar to how a school bell alerts students that their next class will start, Pavlov rang a bell when he brought out food for his dogs. Eventually, after repeating this several times, once he rang the bell without the presence of food, the dogs would still salivate because they were conditioned to think that food would be coming.

On the other hand B.F. Skinner, a later psychologist, developed the theory of radical behaviorism, which described free will as non-existent, and an illusion. He argued that all human behavior was a result of conditioning throughout life. One key idea that he had tied into his radical behaviorism idea was that reinforcement is necessary, and is more efficient when the reinforcement is positive rather than negative. This was demonstrated in his box experiment, known as the Skinner Box. In this, he placed a hungry rat inside of a box with a lever. Once the rat pushed the lever, a food pellet would be given to it. Eventually the rat associated the action of pushing the lever with the positive reward of getting food.

These two theories, as previously mentioned, came together to create the beginnings of behavior therapy, which is still used to this day to help children and those who struggle in social situations through the ideas of positive conditioning. Though this is the most common way ABA is applied, all of the other branches relating to this study stem from the idea that human will and desire is a science and is trained. Think about that the next time you watch Criminal Minds!


Image Credit:

No changes were made to the following image, box | Dean Hochman | Flickr, License: Creative Commons Legal Code

What Did You Learn?


1. What is the significance of Ivan Pavlov’s experiments?

Many later forms and theories of psychology all relate back to the idea presented in Pavlov’s dog experiment. This experiment reinforced the idea of classical conditioning, and that behavior is a learned trait that can be done or undone.

2. A student who previously struggled with school has been prompted to study with the promise of receiving a treat upon achieving a good grade. After getting several As and Bs on tests, all of which were rewarded, he eventually studied on his own without incentive. What theory does this reinforce?

The student, being positively rewarded for good grades and continuing to do so is an example of positive reinforcement, as similarly demonstrated in the Skinner Box experiment. Though after, his continued efforts for good grades without incentive is an indicator of classical conditioning, as theorized by Pavlov.

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