Skip to content

The scientific concepts behind applied behavior analysis

What concepts are the foundation of applied behavior analysis? We’ve provided an overview of the scientific theories that form the bedrock of ABA.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a natural science discipline closely related to psychology that applies learning theories and interventions to improve behavior.

In practice, applied behavior analysis has many real-world functions. From using stimulus training for athletes to activity scheduling in addiction therapy to record keeping in weight loss programs, ABA techniques have a variety of daily applications.

But what are the foundational concepts that go into applied behavior analysis? We’ve provided an overview of the scientific theories that form the bedrock of ABA.


Classical conditioning

Ever heard of Pavlov’s dog? That’s an example of classical conditioning, which is sometimes called Pavlovian conditioning. Ivan Pavlov performed his research with dogs and he studied how dogs would salivate when hearing a bell.

In this experiment, Pavlov began by giving food to the dogs, which would cause them to salivate. Next, he began to ring a bell and give the dogs food. Then, he started ringing the bell but not providing food. Still, dogs would salivate at the sound of the bell. The bell, a conditioned stimulus, began to elicit a conditioned response, the salivation.

Classical conditioning served as a precursor to operant conditioning, which is perhaps the most important concept in applied behavior analysis.


Operant conditioning

If you’ve taken any Psych 101 courses, you might already be familiar with operant conditioning and B.F. Skinner, the behavior analyst known as the father of this concept.

Operant conditioning uses the consequences of positive or negative reinforcement to help change how often a behavior occurs. Skinner’s work with the operant conditioning chamber—also known as a Skinner box—demonstrated how this concept worked. The chamber used animals, such as rats and pigeons, and gave positive reinforcement, such as food, as a consequence for certain behaviors and mild electric shocks as consequences for other behaviors. Actions followed by food occurred more frequently in the future while those behaviors followed by a shock happened less often in the future.

B.F. Skinner’s pioneering work with animals in the operant conditioning chamber has since been expanded to making socially significant improvements in the lives of others. In the applied behavior analysis field, operant conditioning arranges consequences for a person’s behavior. For example, some weight loss programs give out tokens for reaching a weight loss goal. These tokens can be used for obtaining prizes or recognition. This consequence positively reinforces the desired behavior of losing weight.


Three-term contingency

Also discovered by B.F. Skinner, the three-term contingency is the foundation of operant conditioning. It is the process of how behavior is changed by environmental factors and is also known as the ABC’s:

  • Antecedent: A condition or stimulus that occurs before a behavior
  • Behavior: The action
  • Consequence: A stimulus or event after the behavior occurs

So what does three-term contingency look like within the context of ABA? Here’s an example:

  • Antecedent: A therapist creates a daily schedule for a recovering alcoholic to encourage positive activities.
  • Behavior: The patient follows the daily schedule.
  • Consequence: The patient does not relapse.
  • Antecedent: A boss creates a daily schedule for an employee to increase productivity.
  • Behavior: The employee follows the daily schedule.
  • Consequence: The boss sends an email to the employee acknowledging their improved performance.

In this example, if the employee continues to follow the new schedule after receiving the boss’ email acknowledgement, then the email from the boss functioned as reinforcement.

Interested in studying applied behavior analysis?

Applied behavior analysis is a dynamic and growing field. Learn more about the applied behavior analysis programs at The Chicago School by visiting our program page, or request more information by filling out the form below.


The Chicago School


Looking for updates, press releases, and general news from The Chicago School?



For questions or comments on our news stories or releases, or if you are a reporter who would like to speak with an expert, please contact:

Victor Abalos, Director of Communications
(213)615-7270 (office)
(818)321-5371 (mobile)
[email protected]
Lisa Riley, Communications Manager, Chicago
(312) 410-8963 (office)
(312) 646-9130 (mobile)
[email protected]