Definition and scientific principles of ABA


Let’s go over a basic explanation of what Applied Behavior Analysis means.

One of the most popular and widely accepted definitions of applied behavior analysis comes from the writings of Cooper, Heron and Heward (2014). These authors state the following definition of Applied Behavior Analysis in their book: Applied Behavior Analysis:

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): the science in which tactics derived from behavioral principles are applied to improve socially meaningful behavior and experimentation is used to identify variables responsible for improving behavior.

Applied behavior analysis focuses on the science of behavior. It can be applied to human and animal behavior. What differentiates ABA from other fields such as psychology, counseling or teaching is in the focus, goals and methods put forward (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2014).

The orientation, objectives and methods of ABA can be found in the following characteristics of the field:

  • ABA services focus on objectively defined behaviors
  • Behaviors addressed in ABA include those that are socially meaningful
  • The objective is to improve the targeted behaviors
  • ABA uses methods that allow them to show that the intervention was responsible for the behavior change
  • Scientific inquiry methods are used within the ABA. This includes:
    • Have an objective description of the behavior
    • Quantification
    • Controlled experimentation

As Cooper, Heron, and Heward (2014) explain the meaning of Applied Behavior Analysis, they also provide this insight:

Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, is a scientific approach to uncover environmental variables that reliably influence socially significant behavior and to develop behavior change technology that derives practical benefit from these findings.

ABA as a science

ABA is considered a science. It is also important to understand what science means.

Science is a systematic approach to finding and organizing knowledge about the natural world (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2014).

The goal of any science-based field of study is to develop a better understanding of the subject being studied. ABA as a science focuses on developing a better understanding of socially meaningful behaviors.

The science behind ABA consists of efforts to understand the behaviors and stimuli studied through different levels of description, prediction and control.

  • ABA uses description throughout its efforts to accurately and objectively describe the target behaviors under study.
  • The ABA uses prediction in its efforts to show that two events are related or correlated.
  • ABA uses control through its efforts to identify which variables reliably predict the occurrence of a behavior or event. Control is one of the most valuable methods that can be used by science to help us better understand our world.

Other characteristics of science, and therefore characteristics of ABA, include (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2014):

  • Determinism Scientists assume that the universe, or at least the part they study, is lawful and orderly in the sense that everything happens as a result of other events. Events happen systematically.
  • Empiricism Scientists are objective in everything they do.
  • Experimentation Scientists conduct experiments to better understand the functional relationships that help them understand what influences or causes a behavior or event.
  • Replication Scientists are repeating their experiments to develop greater confidence in their conclusions. Rather than interrupting an intervention after a positive or negative result, ABA practitioners repeat their experience to verify their results.
  • Parsimony Scientists try to use only the information necessary and sufficient to explain a particular phenomenon. They first explore the simpler or more logical explanations before considering more complex explanations.
  • Philosophical doubt Scientists are open to questioning what appears to be taken to be the truth. They maintain a healthy level of skepticism about their own efforts and those of others in order to allow for the possibility of better outcomes and better treatment or research strategies to be developed.

ABA is a science that focuses on socially meaningful behaviors. It incorporates the basic principles and attitudes of science, including using experimentation to show causality between an event and a behavior. Objectivity and parsimony are also included in ABA practice and research.


Cooper, John O., Heron, Timothy E. Heward, William L .. (2014) Applied Behavior Analysis /Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson / Merrill-Prentice Hall.


Comments are closed.