If you’re a newcomer to ABA or if you’ve been hanging around behavior analysts for a while, you’ve probably noticed that BCBAs love the ABCs!  Making sense of the alphabet soup can sometimes get quite confusing…so enter Interact Therapy Services’ primer on the ABCs of ABA.

Today we continue in the alphabet with the letter “B”.  B is for…BEHAVIOR!


Behavior is “the activity of living organisms; human behavior includes everything that people do” (Cooper, Heron, and Heward, 2007).  Any single thing that a person does or can do is BEHAVIOR.  Walking, talking, eating, breathing, sleeping, thinking, driving, touching, lifting, listening…all are examples of behavior.

Because the world of behavior is so vast and complex, behavior analysts have organized all behaviors into two main types: respondent behavior and operant behavior.  Respondent and operant behavior are similar because they both are responses to antecedents (see our past blog post for more information on antecedents).  However, respondent and operant behavior are different from one another because respondent behavior is automatic (elicited/induced) and operant behavior is carefully selected, maintained and brought under control (taught).


Respondent behavior is generic to all of humanity.  You don’t get much of a say when it comes to respondent behavior.  All neurotypical humans are born with the same internal hardwiring.  Activate these reflexes and almost everybody will respond in the same way.  Most of us will contract our pupils when exposed to bright light or salivate when smelling a delicious food. 

Behavioral scientists can successfully alter respondent behavior through a process called respondent conditioning.  However, the effects are very minimal and don’t really have much impact on the greater world. Eye blinks, salivation, sneezing and adrenal responses are all scientifically fascinating and make for some interesting journal reading; but they have a limited affect on the real world.


Enter operant behavior.  Operant behavior is unique to each individual and is the subject of endless study, research and experimentation.  Unlike respondent behavior, which is pretty much automatically set off by an antecedent, operant behavior is future-oriented.  The reactions that an operant behavior encounters will determine the likelihood that this behavior will occur in the future.  While this may seem somewhat esoteric, it can be understood rather simply. 

Consider these examples:

Baby Peter has an interesting looking toy in his crib with a big, round, grey button.  When Peter presses that button, the toy spins around and sings a charming tune.  On the other hand, there is a big machine in Peter’s house with a very similar looking button.  When Peter presses that big, round, grey, button, the vacuum cleaner roars to life with a ferocious bang.  Guess which button Peter is more likely to press?  You got it.  Given that pressing the baby mobile button is a pleasant experience, while pressing the vacuum cleaner button is frightening, Peter will most likely press the mobile button quite frequently, but avoid the vacuum cleaner button at all costs.

At lunchtime, 7-year old Samantha usually queues up on the left lane in the cafeteria.  If you ask her why, she’ll easily share the reason for her preference.  The food service worker who operates the left lane is much more generous with her portions.  After experiencing both the left and right lanes, Samantha’s behavior has been conditioned to actively choose the left lane.

Nicholas, a young adult living independently, has become somewhat paranoid about cleaning out his apartment’s refrigerator.  His roommates are somewhat mystified, because in other areas, Nicholas isn’t exactly the paradigm of cleanliness.  What they don’t know is that this behavior was conditioned by a particularly embarrassing experience.  Nicholas’s mom, a very particular housekeeper, visited several months ago.  When Nicholas opened the fridge to pour his mom a cold drink, the look of horror that crossed her face left Nicholas cringing.  He’s taking active steps to prevent a recurrence, even though his mom probably will never visit again.


A lifetime of learning experiences accumulates to shape our personalities and preferences.  The different reactions that our behavior will encounter will determine if we choose to engage in that behavior again in the future.  The science of behavior analysis is all about understanding those choices that people make and creating contingencies that encourage people to make the best choices possible for themselves.

When behavior analysts analyze operant behavior, we often discuss the “three term contingency”.  The three-term contingency is a unit of antecedent, behavior, and consequence that are all linked together.  By manipulating the different parts of this unit, we can achieve socially significant outcomes.  Last time we discussed how antecedent intervention can change behavior.  Today we discussed how behavior works.  And next time we’ll talk about how to manipulate consequences for the ultimate results!


Enrolling your child with a trusted ABA therapy agency such as Interact Therapy Services can help them maximize the strengths and minimize the challenges that are part of an ASD life.  ABA therapy is the gold-standard in helping individuals with ASD and their families live their best lives.  At Interact Therapy Services, we carefully select all staff for their professionalism, expertise, and understanding of families and children.

At Interact Therapy Services, we offer in-home ABA therapy services to children and their families.  Our caring and committed professionals will work together with you to teach your child the skills that they need to progress and succeed.

To find out more about Interact Therapy Services, call 732.806.0804 for a free no-obligation phone consultation.  We look forward to helping you and your child!


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2008). Applied Beha

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