How to talk ABA to the rest of the world.

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

Angela Cathey, M.A.

ENSO Group

As behavior analysts, we pride ourselves in our technical training and language.  Skinner described this as the language of the experimental analysis of behavior and contrasted it with everyday language.  That technical repertoire sets behavior analysis apart from other branches of psychology whose terms look a bit “fluffy” in comparison.  That same repertoire has also enabled precise behavioral measurement, data analysis, and experimental control procedures that have given us a science based on quantifiable and carefully operationalized behavioral principles.  In application, such precision has undoubtedly enabled great strides in behavior change, most notably in the fields of autism and organizational performance.

But we need to remember that our own behavior, like all behavior, is an act in context.  A technical repertoire, like any repertoire, only makes sense in context.

Function over Topography

As behavior analysts, we know that the function of a behavior is more important than its topography.  In basic research, we don’t care how the rat presses the lever, or how the pigeon pecks the disk – both could take a million different forms.  In applied work, it doesn’t really matter that our clients with severe learning deficits can clap their hands, touch their head, or request with specific words.  In all such cases, the topographies are simply a means to an end.  The lever press or the disk peck are ways to gain reinforcement.  Clapping hands and touching one’s head are means to teach the generalized operant of imitation – a purely functional class of behavior.  And the specific words used to request things, like all language, are purely arbitrary.  What matters is how the words function.

Technical language has limits.

A technical repertoire has a particular function as well.  Our scientific terminology (e.g., schedules of reinforcement, discriminative stimulus, transformation of stimulus function, etc…) functions to further the science of behavior.  And the primary audience for such a repertoire are other members of the scientific community.  The latter includes academics, researchers, and Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs).

But the technical repertoire has its limits – as it should as a class of contextually controlled language.  Any BCBA who has had the experience of explaining treatment plans to parents can immediately relate.  They hit the functional limits of our technical language.  Frankly, that’s how it should be, and our own science supports it.  Every behavior has functions, and language is only functional to the extent that listeners can respond to it in a meaningful way.  The interaction between speaker and listener forms the very core of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior and Relational Frame Theory.  If people don’t respond in a meaningful way to your language, then what you are saying isn’t functional.  You need to change your language.

Disseminating Behavior Analysis

Changing our language is exactly what needs to happen if we want to disseminate behavioral solutions to the larger world.  Behavior analysts are trained very well to speak and write academically – to write journal articles, and to talk to other behavior analysts.  We aren’t trained to talk to everyone else in the world.

Our company,, has built a very large following over the past several years as a non-academic media outlet for behavior analysis.  One of the guidelines we have for writers is that they loosen up their language and have fun with it.  We remind them that we are not targeting academics, we are targeting everyone else.  Our job is not to further the science, it is to spread the field.  Each function is important, but they are also importantly different functions.  Each requires a different way of speaking.

To help loosen up your repertoire a bit, we have included a few translations of behavioral terms into everyday language.  We will probably ruffle some feathers, and our site does that from time to time, but as Tyler Durden said in Fight Club, “if you’re gonna make an omelet you gotta break some eggs.”  Here we go…

    1. “Verbal behavior” translates to “mind”.
    2. “Mindfulness” in the ACT sense, translates to “describing your own behavior or sensations”.
    3. “Reinforcer” translates to “reward”.
    4. “Manding” translates to “asking”.
    5. “Tacting” translates to “labeling”.
    6. “Behavior analysis” translates to “behavioral science”, which tends not to elicit an aversive reaction from the public.
    7. “Discriminative stimulus” translates to “cue” or “trigger”.
    8. “Transformation of stimulus function” translates to “changing your mind”.
    9. “Rule Governed Behavior” translates to “following your mind instead of your experience”.
    10. “Relational framing” translates to “relating experiences”.

I’m sure you can think of many others, and have likely used them in your own clinical or organizational work.  We would love to hear them in the comments below! And if you are interested in having our team develop non-academic content to help promote your own company, check out our writing services and reach out with any questions.


Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which owns the top behavior analytic media outlet in the world,  bSci21Media aims to disseminate behavior analysis to the world and to support ABA companies around the globe through the Behavioral Science in the 21st Century blog and its subsidiaries, bSciEntrepreneurial, bSciWebDesign, bSciWriting, and the ABA Outside the Box CEU series.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  Dr. Ward has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward is passionate about disseminating behavior analysis to the world and growing the field through entrepreneurship. Todd can be reached at [email protected]

Angela Cathey, M.A. is a writer, consultant, entrepreneur, and Owner, Director, and Team/Leadership Development Consultant of Enso Group. Her background is in processes of change and intervention development. She has trained with experts in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Functional Analytic Psychotherapy (FAP), cognitive-behavioral exposure-based treatments, and Relational Frame Theory (RFT). Her interests are in process, innovation, and development of solutions for sustainable large-scale change. She has published in numerous academic journals on process, measurement, and intervention development. Enso-driven analytics systems are used to inform leadership and team building interventions, culture design, and research in the behavioral sciences. Angela can be reached at [email protected]. Stay up-to-date with Enso Group at and visit Angela’s personal website and LinkedIn.

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1 Comment on "How to talk ABA to the rest of the world."

  1. This is gold. Great work Bsci21! If there was a dissemination of the year award, I’d nominate you ??

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