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.





ate social problem, while a similar study in the MIT sophomore may not. Enhancement of the reinforcing value of praise for the re- tardate alleviates an immediate deficit in his current environment, but enhancement of the reinforcing value of 400 Hz (cps) tone for the same subject probably does not. Thus, a pri- mary question in the evaluation of applied research is: how immediately important is this behavior or these stimuli to this subject?

Behavioral Behaviorism and pragmatism seem often to

go hand in hand. Applied research is emi- nently pragmatic; it asks how it is possible to get an individual to do something effec- tively. Thus it usually studies what subjects can be brought to do rather than what they can be brought to say; unless, of course, a verbal response is the behavior of interest. Accordingly a subject’s verbal description of his own non-verbal behavior usually would not be accepted as a measure of his actual be- havior unless it were independently substan- tiated. Hence there is little applied value in the demonstration that an impotent man can be made to say that he no longer is impotent. The relevant question is not what he can say, but what he can do. Application has not been achieved until this question has been an- swered satisfactorily. (This assumes, of course, that the total goal of the applied researcher is not simply to get his patient-subjects to stop complaining to him. Unless society agrees that this researcher should not be bothered, it will be difficult to defend that goal as socially important.)

Since the behavior of an individual is com- posed of physical events, its scientific study requires their precise measurement. As a re- sult, the problem of reliable quantification arises immediately. The problem is the same for applied research as it is for non-applied research. However, non-applied research typi- cally will choose a response easily quantified in a reliable manner, whereas applied re- search rarely will have that option. As a re- sult, the applied researcher must try harder, rather than ignore this criterion of all trust- worthy research. Current applied research often shows that thoroughly reliable quantifi- cation of behavior can be achieved, even in thoroughly difficult settings. However, it also suggests that instrumented recording with its

typical reliability will not always be possible. The reliable use of human beings to quantify the behavior of other human beings is an area of psychological technology long since well developed, thoroughly relevant, and very often necessary to applied behavior analysis. A useful tactic in evaluating the behavioral

attributes of a study is to ask not merely, was behavior changed? but also, whose behavior? Ordinarily it would be assumed that it was the subject’s behavior which was altered; yet careful reflection may suggest that this was not necessarily the case. If humans are ob- serving and recording the behavior under study, then any change may represent a change only in their observing and record- ing responses, rather than in the subject’s be- havior. Explicit measurement of the reliabil- ity of human observers thus becomes not merely good technique, but a prime criterion of whether the study was appropriately be- havioral. (A study merely of the behavior of observers is behavioral, of course, but prob- ably irrelevant to the researcher’s goal.) Alter- natively, it may be that only the experimen- ter’s behavior has changed. It may be reported, for example, that a certain patient rarely dressed himself upon awakening, and conse- quently would be dressed by his attendant. The experimental technique to be applied might consist of some penalty imposed unless the patient were dressed within half an hour after awakening. Recording of an increased probability of self-dressing under these condi- tions might testify to the effectiveness of the penalty in changing the behavior; however, it might also testify to the fact that the patient would in fact probably dress himself within half an hour of arising, but previously was rarely left that long undressed before being clothed by his efficient attendant. (The at- tendant now is the penalty-imposing experi- menter and therefore always gives the patient his full half-hour, in the interests of precise experimental technique, of course.) This error is an elementary one, perhaps. But it suggests that in general, when an experiment proceeds from its baseline to its first experimental phase, changes in what is measured need not always reflect the behavior of the subject.

Analytic The analysis of a behavior, as the term is

used here, requires a believable demonstra-





tion of the events that can be responsible for the occurrence or non-occurrence of that be- havior. An experimenter has achieved an analysis of a behavior when he can exercise control over it. By common laboratory stan- dards, that has meant an ability of the ex- perimenter to turn the behavior on and off, or up and down, at will. Laboratory standards have usually made this control clear by dem- onstrating it repeatedly, even redundantly, over time. Applied research, as noted before, cannot often approach this arrogantly fre- quent clarity of being in control of important behaviors. Consequently, application, to be analytic, demonstrates control when it can, and thereby presents its audience with a prob- lem of judgment. The problem, of course, is whether the experimenter has shown enough control, and often enough, for believability. Laboratory demonstrations, either by over- replication or an acceptable probability level derived from statistical tests of grouped data, make this judgment more implicit than ex- plicit. As Sidman points out (1960), there is still a problem of judgment in any event, and it is probably better when explicit. There are at least two designs commonly

used to demonstrate reliable control of an important behavioral change. The first can be referred to as the “reversal” technique. Here a behavior is measured, and the measure is examined over time until its stability is clear. Then, the experimental variable is ap- plied. The behavior continues to be mea- sured, to see if the variable will produce a behavioral change. If it does, the experimen- tal variable is discontinued or altered, to see if the behavioral change just brought about depends on it. If so, the behavioral change should be lost or diminished (thus the term “reversal”). The experimental variable then is applied again, to see if the behavioral change can be recovered. If it can, it is pur- sued further, since this is applied research and the behavioral change sought is an im- portant one. It may be reversed briefly again, and yet again, if the setting in which the be- havior takes place allows further reversals. But that setting may be a school system or a family, and continued reversals may not be allowed. They may appear in themselves to be detrimental to the subject if pursued too often. (Whether they are in fact detrimental is likely to remain an unexamined question

so long as the social setting in which the be- havior is studied dictates against using them repeatedly. Indeed, it may be that repeated reversals in some applications have a positive effect on the subject, possibly contributing to the discrimination of relevant stimuli in- volved in the problem.)

In using the reversal technique, the experi- menter is attempting to show that an analysis of the behavior is at hand: that whenever he applies a certain variable, the behavior is pro- duced, and whenever he removes this vari- able, the behavior is lost. Yet applied behav- ior analysis is exactly the kind of research which can make this technique self-defeating in time. Application typically means produc- ing valuable behavior; valuable behavior usually meets extra-experimental reinforce- ment in a social setting; thus, valuable be- havior, once set up, may no longer be depen- dent upon the experimental technique which created it. Consequently, the number of re- versals possible in applied studies may be lim- ited by the nature of the social setting in which the behavior takes place, in more ways than one. An alternative to the reversal technique

may be called the “multiple baseline” tech- nique. This alternative may be of particular value when a behavior appears to be irre- versible or when reversing the behavior is un- desirable. In the multiple-baseline technique, a number of responses are identified and mea- sured over time to provide baselines against which changes can be evaluated. With these baselines established, the experimenter then applies an experimental variable to one of the behaviors, produces a change in it, and perhaps notes little or no change in the other baselines. If so, rather than reversing the just- produced change, he instead applies the ex- perimental variable to one of the other, as yet unchanged, responses. If it changes at that point, evidence is accruing that the experi- mental variable is indeed effective, and that the prior change was not simply a matter of coincidence. The variable then may be ap- plied to still another response, and so on. The experimenter is attempting to show that he has a reliable experimental variable, in that each behavior changes maximally only when the experimental variable is applied to it. How many reversals, or how many base-

lines, make for believability is a problem for





the audience. If statistical analysis is applied, the audience must then judge the suitability of the inferential statistic chosen and the pro- priety of these data for that test. Alternatively, the audience may inspect the data directly and relate them to past experience with simi- lar data and similar procedures. In either case, the judgments required are highly quali- tative, and rules cannot always be stated prof- itably. However, either of the foregoing de- signs gathers data in ways that exemplify the concept of replication, and replication is the essence of believability. At the least, it would seem that an approach to replication is better than no approach at all. This should be es- pecially true for so embryonic a field as be- havioral application, the very possibility of which is still occasionally denied. The preceding discussion has been aimed