ABA Research: Applicable to All?

Does ABA research reflect cultural diversity?

I’ve been a student, practitioner and teacher in this field for over 25 years, and I don’t honestly have an answer. As a field, we don’t have an answer.

So, let’s embark on a quick literature review, shall we?

Skim the “Subjects” section for each article of issue of The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA), The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, or… well, any journal that publishes ABA research.

After perusing a few ABA articles, what can you tell me about the individuals who participated? My quick research revealed the following as typical:

Chances are you did not encounter any articles that reported any aspect of cultural or diversity factors.

Okay, now, do the same for an issue of The Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behavior (JEAB). Skim a few articles. Tell me about the subjects. My results included:


In a recent presentation about empirically-validated practices (District ABA, 2 June 2018), Dr. Hanna Rue pointed out that it is common in the experimental analysis of behavior (EAB) research to provide a reader with very detailed descriptions of the subjects. That reminder has led me to question what was lost in translation, from EAB to ABA.

During the time that I was publishing mainly in EAB and behavioral pharmacology journals, it was expected of me to report detailed information about my subjects. Without such, manuscripts would have been immediately rejected and returned to my desk. I never questioned whether the information was necessary or important (of course it was important!).

Many of the things controlled for and reported in EAB research were considered to be potential setting events or motivating operations for the behaviors under study. For example, how well food pellets functioned as a reinforcer in a session could be affected by whether access to water was controlled or not controlled, when the rat was post-fed, and so forth. Specific strains of mice are known to consume more alcohol than other strains. The list of examples could go on, but enough about rats. In EAB, researchers are sensitive to the fact that subject characteristics can affect the internal validity of a study. In EAB, we control those variables as much as possible to control the confounds.

Why the difference in the case of applied studies? What was lost in translation from experimental to applied?

Granted, we can’t necessarily control things like when the subject last ate or whether the air conditioning was working at home. However, why is it not common practice to report that the primary language spoken at home is Spanish, or that the participant is Native American? Does living in a multi-generational home and being a first-generation citizen influence research outcomes? Maybe reporting demographic details to this extent are not important. However, at least one article would suggest it is (Padilla, Dalamau et al, 2011).

If we are trusting in our peer-reviewed journals to provide research that is applicable to our practice, can we to replicate outcomes that do not acknowledge how culture and history influence behavior? It can be uncomfortable to suggest that we equally apply our behavior analytic practices regardless of our clients’ culture. It can be uncomfortable to consider that a particular social skill intervention may only work for a Caucasian male child from the United States of America (and really, there’s a big difference between the social skills of persons living in the Northwest and the Northeast states).

Does what we report in our research suggest that we, as a field, minimize the importance of cultural variables on behavior (Hayes & Toarmino, 1995)? In order to rule that out, I believe it is time to start collecting baseline on whether or not culture and more detailed demographic reporting on subjects within ABA literature matters.

Barriers to consumer progress may be due to naive assumptions that interventions can be generalized with the same outcomes across all living beings, regardless of culture.

It’s time for a change. Let us start the conversation about what participant information should be included, collect and analyze data, and revisit our own professional standards. Will you join me?