Applied Behavior Analysis: Guidelines


Baer et. al (1987) define social problems as "those behaviors of the subject or client that result in counteraction, sometimes by the client, but more often by nonclients, sufficient to generate something called a solution, or at least a program" (p. 314). Research addressing a social problem warrants an applied label. Applied researchers must make obvious the importance of the problem to society in order to generate its interest and support for attempts at a solution.

In applied research, specific procedural and theoretical concerns do not determine the choice of behaviors, stimulus materials, or subjects. The determining factor should be the immediate relevance of the behavior and stimulus materials to the troubled client's well-being.

Illustrative Example/Nonexample Pair


A researcher was studying wheel running and drinking behavior because he had a hypothesis about the way in which a low probable behavior is affected when followed by the opportunity to engage in a high probable behavior. He selected wheel running and drinking from a tube as the two responses because he had apparatus handy that could conveniently and reliably record their rate of occurrence. He used rats as subjects because they were readily available at his university, easily cared for, and their relevant behavioral histories were known from birth. His experiment entailed first depriving his subjects of all liquids; later, he provided them with brief opportunities to drink from the tube, but only after running in the wheel for a period of time.


Reports by classroom teachers, therapists, and teachers indicated that autistic children attending biweekly therapy sessions were unmotivated and engaged in frequent self-stimulatory behavior (e.g., rocking back and forth). It was agreed that a reasonable goal was to increase correct task responding from each child's academic curriculum (e.g., "touch your nose" versus "touch my nose"). Previous research suggested that identifying reinforcers for autistic children can be difficult, in that these children often do not respond to stimuli that interest other children (e.g., toys) or to social reinforcers (e.g., praise). The researchers were aware of the Premack Principle, which states that the opportunity to engage in a behavior that occurs frequently can be used to reinforce a behavior that occurs less often. With this in mind, the intervention included prompting the children to engage in 3-5 seconds of self-stimulation following correct task responding.


The first item is not an example of applied research for a number of reasons. First, the purpose of the experiment is not readily apparent, other than the fact that the researcher is trying to prove his hypothesis. The social significance of a positive or negative finding is not obvious. Also, the researcher's choices of responses and subjects were based on ease of operation.

The second item is an example of applied research. The researchers identified a problem that most members of our society would argue is an important one in need of solution, i.e., improving the academic skills of autistic children. They worked directly with the target population, and the behaviors, stimulus materials, and context were selected because of their practical importance to that population.

Related Source: Charlop, Kurtz, &bCasey (1990)