Functional behavior analysis: what is it and what is it for

In therapy, it is necessary to address the behavior of the patient in the broad sense. Whether it is his feelings, experiences, thoughts or beliefs, the psychologist must look for what influences the behavior of the person who comes to him.

Functional behavior analysis is a very useful tool which allows the patient’s behaviors to be identified, but without neglecting the context in which they occur or what is behind their occurrence. It is a fundamental analysis when planning and directing therapy or psychoeducation processes.

Let’s see what this technique consists of, what it is used for and its characteristics.

    What is functional behavior analysis?

    People undergoing therapy can exhibit a variety of behaviors caused by multiple causes.

    Functional behavior analysis helps organize the most important patient information. It takes into account the person’s social relationships, problematic behaviors and events that have become important in causing and sustaining the problem. Once this information has been collected, the goal is to seek explanations for the problematic behaviors with the intention of finding a solution.

    To better understand this tool we must explain a little above what is meant by behavior. This concept includes both observable and secret patient behaviors. Not only the physical actions of the person are taken into account, such as excessive smoking or drug use; their beliefs and thoughts on the issue also become important.

    The psychologist is not only responsible for detecting what is not adaptive in the patient. He has to find an explanation behind why the person is behaving this way, relating it to events that have happened to him before, i.e. the background. Thus, when analyzing functional behavior, it is necessary find the relationships between what the person has experienced and their current behavior.

    To illustrate this, imagine two people who have the same behavior: not eating at dinner time. While the two behave basically the same, in such an analysis we would not only detect this particular behavior, but also try to find out why they are doing it.

    One of them may not eat just because there are a lot of snack foods and they are not hungry, while the other may appear fat and decide to eat less.

    Schematically, the aspects that respond to functional analyzes of behavior are as follows:

    • Identify the antecedents and consequences of the behavior.
    • Identify the variables that influence the person.
    • Make assumptions about the problematic behavior.
    • Describe the behaviors.

    When performing such an analysis, two types of assumptions can be made: original hypothesis and maintenance hypothesis. The first attempts to clarify the origin of the problematic behavior, taking into account the contextual elements present at the time of the appearance of the problem. The interview hypotheses try to explain why the behavior is still practiced today, what elements have reinforced it or why it is not yet extinguished.

    As this type of analysis works with assumptions, it is very important that the psychologist be rigorous and objective. Outraged, As therapy evolves, new information will come to the surfaceIt will therefore be necessary to rethink the problem for which the patient initially came and to reformulate the explanations which were based on the development of an intervention plan.


    Functional behavior analysis is a very useful tool because differs from a simple descriptive analysis by meeting the following characteristics:

    1. It is functional

    While the first thing that is usually done is to identify and describe the behaviors, it is done with functional intent. In other words, that is to say it is intended to collect information to explain the problem and develop a therapeutic or educational action plan, And does not study the static elements, but the events and actions that can be localized in time.

    2. Focus on the present

    Taking into account personal history is an important aspect; however, we need to focus on how the patient behaves now.

    3. Study the relationships

    Functional behavior analysis is based on the study of the relationships between behavioral events (emitted by the subject) and environmental events (occurring around them).

    For that, he does not focus solely on the individual, but sees him as a part of reality interconnected with his environmentUnlike what happens with psychological research proposals based on introspection.

    Behaviors that significantly interfere with a person’s well-being are particularly important, so it will be necessary to focus therapy on resolving these behaviors.

    4. It’s dynamic

    Human behavior is an unstable thing. The patient may change as the psychotherapy develops. In addition, the patient himself may not initially have given all the information necessary to understand his psychological distress.

    This is why the psychologist he must be aware that the assumptions raised at the outset can be refuted, And reworked them based on the new information.

    5. It’s ideographic

    Each person is different when it comes to their personality, behavior and experiences.

    Hypotheses raised after analysis of behavior they can only go so far as to explain the reason for the behavior of the person analyzed, Since this is linked to a chain of unique and irreplaceable events, which leave a mark on their learning history.

    In other words, the discovery in one person is difficult to generalize to the rest of the population.

      6. It’s heuristic

      essentially this type of analysis is a diagram that describes the behavior of the person, Through which we have organized the information obtained about him. It does not aim to describe the human reality, only that of the patient coming for consultation.

      7. It’s hypothetical

      If the ideal would be to be able to explain precisely why the person behaves in this way, the functional analysis of the behavior remains a tool which raises hypothetical explanations.

      In other words, what we think is the source of the problem and what causes it to persist can be changed, it is not the information which implies a clear and immutable causality.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Fonts-Ortega, J. and Quiroga-Romero, I. (2004). The two indispensable principles of the functional analysis of behavior and radical behaviorism. Psicothema, 6 (4), 555-562.
      • Zanón, I., Matías, T., Luque, A., Moreno-Agostino, D., Aranda, E., Morales, C., … and Márquez-González, M. (2014) Guide for the preparation of a functional analysis of human behavior: Faculty of Psychology. Autonomous University of Madrid. Retrieved from:

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