ABA’s Seven Dimensions

ABA’s Seven Dimensions

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The analysis of individual behavior is a problem in scientific demonstration, reason- ably well understood (Skinner, 1953, Sec. 1), comprehensively described (Sidman, 1960), and quite thoroughly practised (Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 1957 -). That analysis has been pursued in many settings over many years. Despite variable precision, elegance, and power, it has resulted in general descriptive statements of mecha- nisms that can produce many of the forms that individual behavior may take. The statement of these mechanisms estab-

lishes the possibility of their application to problem behavior. A society willing to con- sider a technology of its own behavior appar- ently is likely to support that application when it deals with socially important behav- iors, such as retardation, crime, mental illness, or education. Such applications have ap- peared in recent years. Their current num- ber and the interest which they create appar- ently suffice to generate a journal for their display. That display may well lead to the widespread examination of these applica- tions, their refinement, and eventually their replacement by better applications. Better applications, it is hoped, will lead to a better state of society, to whatever extent the behav- ior of its members can contribute to the good- ness of a society. Since the evaluation of what is a “good” society is in itself a behavior of its members, this hope turns on itself in a philosophically interesting manner. However, it is at least a fair presumption that behav- ioral applications, when effective, can some- times lead to social approval and adoption.

Behavioral applications are hardly a new phenomenon. Analytic behavioral applica-

‘Reprints may be obtained from Donald M. Baer, Dept. of Human Development, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas 66044.


tions, it seems, are. Analytic behavioral ap- plication is the process of applying sometimes tentative principles of behavior to the im- provement2 of specific behaviors, and simul- taneously evaluating whether or not any changes noted are indeed attributable to the process of application-and if so, to what parts of that process. In short, analytic be- havioral application is a self-examining, self- evaluating, discovery-oriented research pro- cedure for studying behavior. So is all experimental behavioral research (at least, according to the usual strictures of modern graduate training). The differences are mat- ters of emphasis and of selection. The differences between applied and basic

research are not differences between that which “discovers” and that which merely “ap- plies” what is already known. Both endeavors ask what controls the behavior under study. Non-applied research is likely to look at any behavior, and at any variable which may con- ceivably relate to it. Applied research is con- strained to look at variables which can be effective in improving the behavior under study. Thus it is equally a matter of research to discover that the behaviors typical of re- tardates can be related to oddities of their

2If a behavior is socially important, the usual be- havior analysis will aim at its improvement. The so- cial value dictating this choice is obvious. However, it can be just as illuminating to demonstrate how a behavior may be worsened, and there will arise occa- sions when it will be socially important to do so. Dis- ruptive classroom behavior may serve as an example. Certainly it is a frequent plague of the educational system. A demonstration of what teacher procedures produce more of this behavior is not necessarily the reverse of a demonstration of how to promote posi- tive study behaviors. There may be classroom situa- tions in which the teacher cannot readily establish high rates of study, yet still could avoid high rates of disruption, if she knew what in her own procedures leads to this disruption. The demonstration which showed her that would thus have its value.

1968, 1, 91-97 NUMBER I (SPRING, 1968)




chromosome structure and to oddities of their reinforcement history. But (currently) the chromosome structure of the retardate does not lend itself to experimental manipulation in the interests of bettering that behavior, whereas his reinforcement input is always open to current re-design.

Similarly, applied research is constrained to examining behaviors which are socially im- portant, rather than convenient for study. It also implies, very frequently, the study of those behaviors in their usual social settings, rather than in a “laboratory” setting. But a laboratory is simply a place so designed that experimental control of relevant variables is as easy as possible. Unfortunately, the usual social setting for important behaviors is rarely such a place. Consequently, the analy- sis of socially important behaviors becomes experimental only with difficulty. As the terms are used here, a non-experimental anal- ysis is a contradiction in terms. Thus, ana- lytic behavioral applications by definition achieve experimental control of the processes they contain, but since they strive for this con- trol against formidable difficulties, they achieve it less often per study than would a laboratory-based attempt. Consequently, the rate of displaying experimental control re- quired of behavioral applications has become correspondingly less than the standards typi- cal of laboratory research. This is not because the applier is an easy-going, liberal, or gen- erous fellow, but because society rarely will allow its important behaviors, in their cor- respondingly important settings, to be manip- ulated repeatedly for the merely logical com- fort of a scientifically sceptical audience. Thus, the evaluation of a study which pur-

ports to be an applied behavior analysis is somewhat different than the evaluation of a similar laboratory analysis. Obviously, the study must be applied, behavioral, and ana- lytic; in addition, it should be technological, conceptually systematic, and effective, and it should display some generality. These terms are explored below and compared to the cri- teria often stated for the evaluation of behav- ioral research which, though analytic, is not applied.

Applied The label applied is not determined by the

research procedures used but by the interest

which society shows in the problems being studied. In behavioral application, the behav- ior, stimuli, and/or organism under study are chosen because of their importance to man and society, rather than their importance to theory. The non-applied researcher may study eating behavior, for example, because it re- lates directly to metabolism, and there are hypotheses about the interaction between be- havior and metabolism. The non-applied re- searcher also may study bar-pressing because it is a convenient response for study; easy for the subject, and simple to record and inte- grate with theoretically significant environ- mental events. By contrast, the applied re- searcher is likely to study eating because there are children who eat too little and adults who eat too much, and he will study eating in exactly those individuals rather than in more convenient ones. The applied researcher may also study bar-pressing if it is integrated with socially important stimuli. A program for a teaching machine may use bar-pressing be- havior to indicate mastery of an arithmetic skill. It is the arithmetic stimuli which are important. (However, some future applied study could show that bar-pressing is more practical in the process of education than a pencil-writing response.3)

In applied research, there is typically a close relationship between the behavior and stimuli under study and the subject in whom they are studied. Just as there seem to be few behaviors that are intrinsically the target of application, there are few subjects who auto- matically confer on their study the status of application. An investigation of visual signal detection in the retardate may have little im- mediate importance, but a similar study in radar-scope watchers has considerable. A study of language development in the re- tardate may be aimed directly at an immedi-

“Research may use the most convenient behaviors and stimuli available, and yet exemplify an ambition in the researcher eventually to achieve application to socially important settings. For example, a study may seek ways to give a light flash a durable conditioned reinforcing function, because the experimenter wishes to know how to enhance school children’s responsive- ness to approval. Nevertheless, durable bar-pressing for that light flash is no guarantee that the obvious classroom analogue will produce durable reading be- havior for teacher statements of “Good!” Until the analogue has been proven sound, application has not been achieved.



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