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with Heather Gilmore, MSW, LLMSW, BCBA

What is Applied Behavior Analysis: Definition and Scientific Principles of ABA

What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?

Let’s review a basic explanation of what applied behavior analysis means.

One of the most popular and most 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 the principles of behavior are applied to improve socially significant behavior and experimentation is used to identify the variables responsible for the improvement in behavior.

Applied behavior analysis focuses on the science of behavior. It can be applied to human and other animal behavior. What makes ABA different from other fields like psychology, counseling, or teaching is found within the “focus, goals, and methods” emphasized (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2014).

The focus, goals, and methods of ABA are found within the following characteristics of the field:

  • ABA services focus on objectively defined behaviors
  • Behaviors addressed in ABA include those that are socially significant
  • The goal is to improve the targeted behaviors
  • ABA uses methods that allow them to show that the intervention was responsible for the behavior change
  • The methods of scientific inquiry are used within ABA. This includes:
    • Having 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 for discovering environmental variables that reliably influence socially significant behavior and for developing a technology of behavior change that takes practical advantage of those discoveries.

ABA as a science

ABA is referred to as a science. It is important to understand what science means, as well.

Science is “a systematic approach for seeking and organizing knowledge about the natural world (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2014).”

The goal of any field of study that is based on science is to develop a greater understanding of the subject being studied. ABA as a science is focused on developing a greater understanding of socially significant behaviors.

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

  • ABA utilizes description through its efforts to accurately and objectively describe the targeted behaviors under study.
  • ABA utilizes prediction through its efforts to show that two events are related or are correlated.
  • ABA utilizes control through its efforts to identify what 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 are studying, is lawful and orderly in that everything happens as a result of other events. Events happen systematically.
  • Empiricism – Scientists are objective in all their activities.
  • Experimentation – Scientists conduct experiments to better understand functional relations that help them to understand what influences or causes a behavior or event to occur.
  • Replication – Scientists repeat their experiments to develop greater confidence in their conclusions. Rather than discontinuing an intervention after one positive or negative result, ABA practitioners repeat their experiment to verify their findings.
  • Parsimony – Scientists attempt to use only information that is necessary and sufficient to explain a particular phenomenon. They first explore explanations that are the most simple or logical before considering more complex explanations.
  • Philosophic Doubt – Scientists are open to questioning what seems to be seen as truth. They maintain a healthy level of skepticism of their own and others’ efforts in order to allow the possibility of better outcomes and better treatment or research strategies to develop.

What is ABA?

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


Cooper, John O., Heron, Timothy E.Heward, William L.. (2014) Applied behavior analysis /Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Pearson/Merrill-Prentice Hall.

What is Applied Behavior Analysis: Definition and Scientific Principles of ABA

Heather Gilmore, MSW, BCBA

Heather is a freelance writer, Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), and social worker. Heather takes interest in topics related to parenting, children, families, personal development, health and wellness, applied behavior analysis, as well as Autism, ADHD, Depression and Anxiety. Contact Heather if you would like to inquire about obtaining her freelance writing services. You can view more articles and resources from Heather at and email her at [email protected] You can also advertise your autism services at one of Heather's websites: Heather is the developer of the "One-Year ABA Parent Training Curriculum."


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APA Reference
Gilmore, H. (2019). What is Applied Behavior Analysis: Definition and Scientific Principles of ABA. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 9, 2020, from