What Is the Study of Human Behavior?

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The study of human behavior has played an important role in improving the lives of people who have mental health and behavioral disorders. It has also facilitated advancements in areas such as early childhood education, organizational behavior management, and public health. Professionals who are interested in how to study human behavior are driven to know why people make decisions, with the goal of better understanding the decision-making process.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a behavioral science discipline focused on the principles of behavior, learning, motivation, and methods of promoting behavior change. Applied behavior analysts can work in settings such as schools, private clinics, and community mental health centers. Their work involves using observation and data analysis to design and implement behavior change plans. Some applied behavior analysts also have specialties in counseling, psychology, or special education.

A study commissioned by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board determined that demand for applied behavior analysts increased each year from 2010 to 2020, with a 17% increase in demand from 2019 to 2020 alone. Anyone interested in this in-demand field, and thinking about pursuing a online masters in Applied Behavior Analysis, can benefit from learning about the study of human behavior.

What Is the Study of Human Behavior?

The study of human behavior is quite extensive, and encompasses many branches of science and social science. The American Psychological Association defines behavioral science broadly as any discipline (for example, psychology, sociology, or anthropology) that relies on experimentation and observation to study human and nonhuman actions and reactions in a scientific way.
An applied behavior analyst smiles while working with children playing with blocks at a table.

Perhaps two of the best-known early researchers of human behavior are John Watson, who launched the behaviorist school of psychology in 1913, and B.F. Skinner, who is well known for his 20th century study of how external sources affect human behavior. Today, the study of human behavior extends into a wide variety of fields as researchers continue to study and learn more about human actions and reactions. According to the Behavioral Science and Policy Association, behavioral science is informing areas of study in disciplines such as:

  • Behavioral economics
  • Cognitive and brain science
  • Decision marketing and management science
  • Organizational science
  • Political science
  • Social psychology
  • Sociology

Why Study Human Behavior?

The study of human behavior has been tremendously beneficial, both to individuals and to society as a whole. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board notes that behavior analysis, which is based on the study of human behavior, has been instrumental in advancing many areas in which society operates, including:

  • Treating people with autism spectrum disorder
  • Designing instruction methods based on analysis of teacher-student interaction
  • Developing interventions for individuals with substance abuse disorder
  • Strengthening work environments to improve employee performance
  • Developing programs to treat brain injuries

Behavioral science also can bring benefits at a worldwide level.

  • The United Nations Behavioral Sciences Group uses behavioral science to achieve sustainable development goals aimed at ending hunger, reducing poverty and promoting savings, promoting water purification, and promoting affordable and clean energy.
  • The World Health Organization formed a behavioral insights unit to promote health through the use of insights into human behavior. For example, the behavioral insights unit has studied factors that affect human behavior related to COVID-19 vaccine acceptance.

On a professional level, individuals who study human behavior have a number of career options. For example, they can work as applied behavior analysts and therapists, professors, clinical directors, and clinical supervisors. These professions enable students of human behavior to embrace rewarding careers that help improve the lives of others.

Ways Behavior Analysts Study Human Behavior

One way to look at how applied behavior analysts study human behavior is to examine the branches of the study of human behavior. The New Mexico Association for Behavior Analysis notes that:

  • Some behavior analysts study the conceptual branch of the field, which entails studying the theoretical foundations of behavior analysis.
  • Other behavior analysts focus on the experimental branch of the field, in which behavior analysts conduct research about what influences behavior.
  • Still other behavior analysts focus on the applied branch of the field, concentrating on applying principles of behavior to promote behavior change in an individual and improve the individual’s quality of life.

The Association for Behavior Analysts International explains that behavior analysts study the influence of such factors as biology, pharmacology, and life experience as they relate to human behavior. In studying these factors, they can identify adaptive behaviors and ways to improve behavior that is problematic.

The National Institutes of Health offers several examples of the ways in which researchers study human behavior. For example, researchers can:

  • Study data collected in real time during a research participant’s day
  • Study animal models to learn about behavior
  • Perform genome scans to learn about links between genetics and lifestyle
  • Build computer models to simulate behaviors
  • Conduct brain imaging to research behavior and brain activity

Steps to Pursue a Career Studying Human Behavior

The following steps outline how a professional might pursue employment as an applied behavior analyst.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

Many students begin studying human behavior by earning a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science or psychology. Through coursework, students examine different perspectives of biological, societal, and economic influences on human behavior.

Students can begin working after graduation in fields such as substance abuse, behavioral disorders, or mental health counseling, depending on the state and employer. Professionals who hold a bachelor’s degree can also work toward the Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA)® credential, gaining on-the-job experience under a certified analyst.

Step 2: Earn a Master’s Degree in Applied Behavior Analysis

After earning a bachelor’s degree, professionals who are interested in becoming a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA)® must obtain a master’s degree in applied behavior analysis, psychology, or education. Coursework in a two-year ABA master’s program covers topics such as behavior assessment, treatment evaluation, and ethics. Students are taught how to apply behavioral theories to help individuals with psychological or medical disorders, autism spectrum disorders, or intellectual and/or developmental disabilities.

As part of the master’s program, students are exposed to on-the-job experience in an applied behavior analysis clinical setting. For example, students may work on-site with providers of services for children who have autism. In this environment, students may complete patient assessments, design behavior analytic programs, and collaborate on projects with other professionals. The type of clinical placement, minimum work hours, and supervisory requirements vary. In a standard clinical experience, ABA program faculty oversee student placement and supervision.

Step 3: Work as an Applied Behavior Analyst

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselor jobs will grow 25% by 2029. With indications that the job market will continue to grow in the coming years, this is an excellent employment climate for professionals who focus on the study of human behavior.

Upon completing a master’s in ABA program, some professionals seek certifications such as the BCBA credential. To qualify, candidates must pass an exam and meet various educational and clinical experience requirements which are set by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB)®.

While compensation varies by state, employer, and work setting, the median annual salary for a board certified behavior analyst was about $64,400 as of August 2021, according to the compensation website PayScale. Professionals who are just beginning their careers may earn about $58,000 per year, while analysts who have more than 10 years of experience may earn about $70,000 per year.

To remain at the top of their profession, certified behavior analysts are required to maintain their certification by completing continuing education credits every 2-3 years. These credits can be earned in several ways: by completing additional post-secondary coursework, attending presentations at conferences, instructing classes, or writing for journal publications. Additionally, BCBAs who have completed a doctoral degree may apply for the BCBA-D certification. While a BCBA-D does not exceed the BCBA credential, doctorate-level analysts may assume greater responsibilities such as overseeing the work of master’s-level analysts.

The Path for Aspiring Applied Behavior Analysts

Studying human behavior can lead to fulfilling work in a fascinating field. If working in behavior analysis sounds interesting to you, a sound strategy would be to explore the Regis College online Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis program.

Preparing graduates for success in a variety of possible career fields, the program blends research with hands-on experience and offers coursework in behavior assessment, treatment evaluation, ethical practices, and other related areas.

Start on your journey toward a gratifying career today.


Recommended Readings

ABA Therapy Examples, Definition, and Techniques

Benefits of Earning an ABA for Special Education Teachers

The Benefits of Telehealth for Behavior Therapy



American Psychological Association, Behavioral Science

Association for Behavior Analysts International, What Is Behavior Analysis?

Behavior Analyst Certification Board, About Behavior Analysis

Behavior Analyst Certification Board, Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst

Behavior Analyst Certification Board, Board Certified Behavior Analyst Handbook

Behavior Analyst Certification Board, US Employment Demand for Behavior Analysts: 2010-2020

Behavioral Science and Policy Association, Areas of Focus

National Institutes of Health, About Behavioral and Social Sciences Research

New Mexico Association for Behavior Analysis, What Is Behavior Analysis?

PayScale, Average Board Certified Behavior Analyst Salary

PBS, Human Behavior

UN Innovation Network, United Nations Behavioural Sciences Report

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

World Health Organization, Behavioural Considerations for Acceptance and Uptake of COVID-19 Vaccines