What Is Applied Behavioral Science and Why Is It Important?

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An ABA therapist hands crayons to a child.

Understanding the human psyche and its desires, needs, and other everyday feelings and attitudes has long been the goal of psychologists, sociologists, ethnologists, and other professionals studying human behavior. Among the methods of study is behavioral science, which relies on observing and analyzing human responses to stimuli to learn why humans act and react the way they do.

Students who are enrolled in a masters in Applied Behavior Analysis online have the opportunity to learn what applied behavioral science is. They also study treatments that cannot only improve human behavior, but ultimately the lives of the individuals with whom they work.

What Is Applied Behavioral Science?

The American Psychological Association defines behavioral science as a discipline that uses systematic observation and experimentation in the scientific study of human and nonhuman animal actions and reactions. Applied behavioral science is a constantly evolving field with numerous applications in such areas as education, sociology, and public health.

One method of practicing behavioral science is through the discipline of applied behavior analysis, or ABA, which involves applying behavioral principles in practical settings. For example, ABA can be used in a clinical setting for behavior modification or behavior therapy, or as a treatment for abnormal or problematic behaviors. Effective ABA methods focus closely on behaviors related to learning and motivation.

ABA involves identifying and improving specific behaviors, such as social interactions, academic performance, and job competencies. Behavior analysts may work in schools, community mental health clinics, private clinics, and many other settings. ABA can help both adults and children manage behaviors that affect many aspects of life, such as interactions with authority figures, peers, and family members. ABA is often used to replace problematic behaviors with alternative, appropriate behaviors, so clients may experience improved functioning within their environment.

ABA has also played a role in shaping public policy. In 2015, President Barack Obama signed an important executive order. It directed government agencies to utilize behavioral science research or employ behavioral experts in an effort to make public welfare programs more successful and cost-effective, according to the Harvard Business Review.

Benefits of ABA Therapy

Learning what applied behavioral analysis is and how it can be applied opens the door to a variety of beneficial outcomes. For example, ABA can improve an individual’s abilities in areas such as social skills, communication, reading, and academics. Through ABA, individuals also can develop better fine motor skills, hygiene, punctuality, and job competence. The improvements individuals can derive from ABA can even decrease their need for special services. Clearly, the benefits of behavioral science are broad and encompassing.

ABA-based approaches have been used to treat many mental health disorders and conditions. Most notably, ABA is used to evaluate and assist individuals diagnosed with autism and other intellectual disabilities.

Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas, a pioneer in ABA research, developed a highly structured approach to the discipline in the 1960s. One of the first ABA training methods was designed for children diagnosed with autism, and it involved one-on-one sessions between a child and therapist. In these sessions, also known as discrete trial training, therapists would reward children with pieces of candy for following basic instructions, such as picking up objects when asked. The therapists would repeat this process many times, reinforcing the behavior through a clearly defined reward system.

In the ensuing decades, therapists built upon Lovaas’ work by developing similar methods of using positive reinforcement to help people adopt constructive social behaviors.

ABA Career Paths

As ABA becomes a more popular method for treating children and adults, the demand for educated and well-qualified ABA therapists also grows. A 2019 study that examined per capita ABA therapists in each state found that only one state (Massachusetts) had the benchmark number of therapists necessary to provide ABA services to children with autism.

Aspiring ABA therapists typically earn a bachelor’s degree in a field such as psychology or education. Many students go on to pursue a master’s or doctoral degree in behavior analysis. In addition to completing the educational requirements, graduates must gain clinical experience. Experienced ABA professionals may earn more advanced credentials when they are ready to seek senior-level positions.

Learning what applied behavioral science is and receiving a quality education is instrumental in preparing students to enter the profession and seek advancement opportunities. By earning a master’s in applied behavior analysis, aspiring ABA practitioners can learn the principles and skills that can set them up for success.

The following examples illustrate some of the types of careers available to individuals with a Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis.

Clinical Director

Clinical directors oversee entire clinical departments and are responsible for functions such as hiring, scheduling, and training. According to the compensation website PayScale, the median annual salary for a clinical director is around $78,400 as of April 2021.

University or College Professor

University or college professors typically have classroom teaching responsibilities and also perform research in their field of study. According to April 2021 PayScale data, the median annual salary for a professor is around $88,200.

Clinical Supervisor

Clinical supervisors focus on a clinic’s operational activities, including functions such as human resources, equipment, clinical records, and quality of care. According to April 2021 PayScale data, the median annual salary for a clinical supervisor is around $59,500.

ABA Training Coordinator

Training coordinators develop and implement training programs and, in some cases, are also involved in conducting training sessions. According to April 2021 PayScale data, the median annual training coordinator salary is approximately $50,500.

The Pathway to a Rewarding Career in ABA

Studying what applied behavior analysis is can lead to rewarding career opportunities, where  professionals can make lasting differences in the lives of people they assist. Those who have an interest in pursuing ABA can explore the Regis College online Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis program, which blends research with hands-on experience.

Start a journey to a rewarding career in ABA today.

Recommended Readings

A Look at Child, Family, and School Social Workers

A Look at Substance Abuse Social Workers

Social Work or Human Services: Which Master’s Degree Is for You?


American Psychological Association, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

American Psychological Association, Behavioral Science

Behavior Analysis in Practice, “The Top 10 Reasons Children With Autism Deserve ABA”

Child Mind Institute, What Is Applied Behavior Analysis?

Harvard Business Review, “Why the U.S. Government Is Embracing Behavioral Science”

Obama White House Archives, “How Behavioral Science Is Serving the American People”

PayScale, Average Clinical Director Salary

PayScale, Average Clinical Supervisor Salary

PayScale, Average Professor, Postsecondary / Higher Education Salary

PayScale, Average Training Coordinator Salary

Psychiatric Services, “Supply of Certified Applied Behavior Analysts in the United States: Implications for Service Delivery for Children With Autism”

Psychology Today, Applied Behavior Analysis