Some Current Dimensions of Applied Behavior Analysis: 20 Years Later / 35 Years Later


Steven C. Hayes is a Nevada Foundation Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of Nevada and President of the Institute for Better Health, a 45-year-old charitable organization that promotes quality in mental and behavioral health services. An author of 48 books and over 700 scientific articles, he is especially known for his work on Contextual Behavioral Science (CBS), Relational Frame Theory (RFT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or Training (“ACT” in either case), and Process-Based Therapy. Dr. Hayes has received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapy (ABCT) and the Association for Psychological Science (APS), and the Impact of Science on Application award from the Society for the Advancement of Behavior Analysis.

His book Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life became the best-selling self-help book in the United States, and his highly successful recent book A Liberated Mind tells the personal and science story behind ACT, RFT, and CBS. His TEDx talks and blogs have been viewed or read by over 4 million people. Based on Google Scholar data, he is the most cited living behavior analyst and is ranked among the top 30 most cited psychologists in the world.

Introduction by Darnell Lattal

Dr. Steve Hayes reminds us of the power of our science to change the world while he remains keenly aware of the lack of cultural-societal, educational, or community-level impact of our work in producing lasting influence. We are rarely invited to be a valued member of policy and practice think tanks seeking solutions involving human behavior. I wanted Steve to write about this topic again to outline what he thinks might help create a seat at the table of change, an invited voice to help shape the future. Since he has obtained such a seat, he has something to say.  He outlines 10 points for us to consider in creating our own path. These are not a tips list or specific rules to follow, but rather a deep well full of treasure within each point in which to burrow. Steve is not asking us to lose our voice or accept things we know to be wrong. The answer to our inability to persuade the larger culture is not simply because we speak a certain way and protect, as it appears, our purity by the words we use, even as our practices demonstrate a broad and effective roadmap to human change. We can make that roadmap resonate much wider within a broader understanding of our own cultural frame. Steve suggests that persistent curiosity is key to understanding what resonates in producing important behavioral changes. Steve offers us the optimism we saw through the writings of those who came before and his own experience in building his 10-point bridge to broader effects.

Some Current Dimensions of Applied Behavior Analysis: 20 years Later / 35 Years Later

Guest author: Steven C. Hayes

Behavior analysis was never meant to be small. It was always meant to change the world.

In some ways, it undoubtedly has. But in many other ways – ways that were once in the dreams of early behavior analysts – it has not. For example,

  • When a state or national agency lists areas of behavioral science that deserve noticeable additional funding, behavior analysis is commonly not included.
  • When reporters in mainstream publications are thinking about professionals who can comment on a topic of the day, they often don’t have behavior analysts in mind.
  • When science organizations are seeking help with major worldwide challenges, behavior analysis is rarely mentioned.

What do we need to do to change this picture?

Ironically, it has already been changed, but the mainstream of behavior analysis hasn’t noticed. Of greater irony, it was altered in virtually every area, including those described above, by following the advice of the founders of applied behavior analysis.

Every student of applied behavior analysis (ABA) knows that in 1968 in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA), Don Baer, Mont Wolf, and Todd Risley laid out the dimensions of applied behavior analysis that were then known.

It is far less well known that these same founders wrote a powerful “20 years later” JABA article in 1987, wondering aloud why behavior analysis was not penetrating the mainstream. They noted that people liked the results of behavioral programs but not the behavioral accounts of them, and they worried about a possible narrowing of the field that might be occurring.

They offered a few alternatives.

  1. Learn to talk in multiple languages in addition to behavioralese that would more readily make contact with social concerns.
  1. See if the existing technical behavioral language is still needed as these broader concerns were addressed and to the extent that it was not, use the newer conceptual options.
  1. Convince the cultural mainstream to talk using technical behavioral language.
  1. Accept that behavior analysis will always be a tiny minority view.

In the 35 years since a natural experiment has been conducted, and the results are in.

The mainstream of behavior analysis attempted option 3, and when it failed, students of behavior were told to settle for a version of option 4. Although originally stated with a provocative air of equanimity, it is hard not to believe that Baer, Wolf, and Risley meant option 4 to be seen as a horrible solution that all behavior analysts would recoil from. That is not what occurred. It was not hard to create a socially self-reinforcing system in which students were assured that traditional behavioral accounts were good enough.

When combined with a severe narrowing of the field, contradictory evidence was avoided and if anomalies occurred, they could be eliminated. For example, when research on rule-governed behavior (RGB) seemed to suggest that RGB could interfere with direct contingency control, it was easy to increase the magnitude of reinforcers enough to make the anomaly disappear. Problem solved, the research on RGB collapsed. There was no anomaly and real change was avoided.

If it was noticed that the mainstream did not come along, a modification of option 4 sufficed. Instead of mere acceptance, vigorous complaints could be made about the minority status of behavior analysis to a receptive behavior analytic choir. For example, articles could be written, or symposia conducted, complaining about the foolishness and mentalism of the mainstream. Things would be different; students were taught to say if only people would listen.  Most mainstream behavior analysts nodded in agreement. Few noticed that no one else cared or that the wise behavioral dictum “the rat is always right” was now being changed to “the rat should be blamed for being wrong.”

This revision of option 4 would not have worked as well as it did, sociologically speaking, without the utility of traditional ABA for autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The power of direct contingency control could cover a myriad of issues. The enormous economic success of ABA served as clear evidence that option 3 should have worked. The accumulating anomalies inside behavioral ASD work, such as the fact that traditional Skinnerian verbal operants began to lose their power at about the mental age of 3, became a mere technological issue or were ignored altogether.

But not all behavior analysts made the same choice. People like David Barlow, an editor of JABA in the 1980’s, took option 1 and began to talk in ways that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) understood. Barlow’s methods would today meet all the challenges I began this blog with. Ditto Alan Kazdin or Nate Azrin or Marsha Linehan, or many others. Look them up.

And yes, me. 

I want to make a few suggestions about how behavior analysis can enter the mainstream, based on my experience and on what I see in the careers of other behavior analytically oriented scientists who took the road less traveled. To do so, I am writing a few things from my experience as evidence about the credibility of the advice I offer.

The 20-year start up program for “contextual behavioral science” (CBS) from 1981 to 1999 was based on a modified version of options 1 and 2, done largely inside behavior analysis and its main association, as well as in the main CBT association. Phenomena noted in a more expansive language system were unpacked by expansion of the technical language of behavior analysis through relational frame theory, and clarification of the philosophical assumptions inside radical behaviorism in the form of functional contextualism. As applied results of this approach began to take off (especially with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or Training – ACT in either case) it became clear that it could not progress rapidly inside ABA. In 2003 a new group, the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS) began to be formed. The CBS wing of behavior analysis is now larger that the main ABA and CBT associations.

And has CBS impacted and entered the mainstream?

By the examples I started with, yes.

  • When the Surgeon General, the CDC, or a major NIH institute write reports about areas that deserve more funding, ACT is regularly mentioned in those reports.
  • In 2006, Time Magazine wrote a five-page story about new forms of psychological intervention and chose ACT and my work as its topic. A couple of years ago, Bill Nye the Science Guy wanted to do a feature on gambling, so he tapped Mark Dixon, an ACT/RFT-oriented behavior analyst, on the shoulder.
  • The single most downloaded document in the World Health Organization website today is an ACT self-help book ( that is now actively being deployed by WHO in war zones around the world, including the Ukraine.

So, what can behavior analysts do to enter the mainstream, as was originally intended? Based on this experience, I’ve developed a 10-point plan for your consideration. I’ve followed it for most of my professional life.

  1. Learn the deep lesson of a behavioral approach to language, namely, that meaning is use. From that contextualistic stance, learn to talk in multiple language systems, including ways of speaking that people in the public and professionals in the mainstream can easily understand.
  1. Test the usefulness of second-language terms gradually, caring less about tight definitions at first (let those emerge over time) and more about the impact and rough understanding by others who are not behavior analysts.
  1. Take the responsibility to dig into the details of complex human behavior in behavioral science journals, systematically expanding our technical armamentarium if existing ways of speaking about a phenomenon are not fully adequate.
  2. In that context, gradually subject second language terms to tighter scrutiny, but do not make the mistake of forcing the mainstream to care about these tests of high precision / high scope terms anytime soon. Options 1 and 2 are not a sneaky new way of accomplishing Option 3.
  3. Avoid mentalism by avoiding treating behavior → behavior relations as causal, not by being a word policeman. No word is inherently mentalistic (see point A above).
  4. Deliberately challenge the scope of A through D above by pushing analyses and methods into new and more complex areas.
  5. As you acquire knowledge in new areas, seek out non-behavioral colleagues and develop mutually empowering relationships. Never demand that others adopt your ideas—instead, take their ideas seriously and be more interested than interesting. Allow these genuine conversations to impact option A above.
  6. As traction builds, gather a community of fellow travelers in particular areas and if attention comes to your work, make sure that light shines as much or more on others as on you, especially those who are young and energetic. Remember that major changes almost always come from groups.
  7. Care more about what is not known than what is known, so your horizons always expand. If you are tempted to rest on your laurels, snap out of it.
  8. Accept the finitude of life and do not cling to fame. You will die. You will be forgotten. Putting useful ideas into human culture for the betterment of others is important but grasping at immortality will interfere with your impact and ultimately make you miserable.

I hope this list is useful to you if you aspire to participate in long-term change of mainstream culture. Warning: These 10 points take time, so if you need quick “wins” to satisfy a boss, a Dean, a tenure and promotion committee, or a program officer, you may need a drum beat of normal science or application work to fall back on.

Increasing our impact is, in many ways, all about influencing the context in which we practice. Hold these rules lightly but consider their contextual impact seriously. Let’s work together as a field to create a scientific culture that supports and expands the social impact of the scientific work we do.


Baer, D. M., Wolf, M. M., & Risley, T. R. (1968). Some current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1(1), 91–97.

Baer, D. M., Wolf, M. M., & Risley, T. R. (1987). Some still-current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 20(4), 313–327.