How Do Applied Behavior Analysis and Cognitive Behavior Therapy Differ?

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) are both broad terms that describe strategies for dealing with mental health concerns or cognitive dysfunction in an individual. These two schools of thought share many characteristics and objectives, but there are also several key features that set them apart due to a difference in focus. Students pursuing advanced psychology degrees, particularly those geared towards therapy, are likely to receive some education in both ABA and CBT during their academic career.

CBT Basics

Cognitive behavior therapy is a patient-oriented intervention designed to help individuals develop coping strategies and change cognitive patterns to improve mental health and happiness. It diverges from some classical psychological principles by focusing on present solutions rather than past traumas. Therapy strategies are centered around creating positive and forward change in the patient’s mind as opposed to exploring and resolving previous experiences.

In a typical CBT treatment model, thoughts and emotions are seen as forces that directly shape habit and behavior. This perspective casts many types of mental health problems as consequences of faults in information processing skills or inability to adjust to external pressures.

Key Characteristics of ABA

The field of applied behavior analysis is related to CBT, but places a stronger emphasis on immediate and practical conditioning to create positive change, as explained by Autism Speaks. Rather than modifying unproductive or antisocial behaviors by addressing thought patterns, an ABA practitioner would focus on simple conditioning to encourage positive development. For example, therapists may conduct sessions where they provide a small reward each time the patient is able to perform a certain activity.

ABA or CBT Therapy Based on Diagnosis

CBT therapies can be used alone or in conjunction with other strategies, like medication, to treat a variety of mental health disorders. It has shown particular promise for providing relief from symptoms associated with anxiety disorders, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Individuals suffering from compulsive addictions, including gambling and substance abuse, may also pursue this kind of therapy as part of their treatment.

While there is some overlap between the two therapy strategies, the ABA discipline is much more focused on managing autism spectrum disorders. The direct behavior modification techniques used are often ideal for managing issues with social implications, especially in younger children. It is also useful for developing essential awareness and safety skills, like wearing a seat belt and avoiding obviously dangerous scenarios.

Differences for Practitioners

Many behavior analysts and therapists apply both ABA and CBT skills throughout their professional life, while some choose a more specialized career path. CBT is a foundational principle of modern psychology, so it is considered a core element for many studying the profession. The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards discusses how individuals may further specialize their professional and academic activities by training in ABA and becoming a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA).

Despite the massive amount of academic and practical effort dedicated to solving mental health issues, there are still many questions and disagreements about treatment and diagnosis. The concepts and practices in modern therapies will continue to evolve as the scientific community develops a deeper understanding of common mental health concerns. The differences between applied behavior analysis and cognitive behavior therapy may change over time, but both fields follow a similar outlook and goal for positive change in the lives of patients.

Related resource:

10 Best Online ABA Degree Programs (Bachelor’s)