Functional analysis in behavioural psychology is the application of the laws of operant and respondent conditioning to establish the relationships between stimuli and responses.
To establish the function of operant behaviour, one typically examines the “four-term contingency”: first by identifying the motivating operations (EO or AO), then identifying the antecedent or trigger of the behaviour, identifying the behaviour itself as it has been operationalised, and identifying the consequence of the behaviour which continues to maintain it.
Functional assessment in behaviour analysis employs principles derived from the natural science of behaviour analysis to determine the “reason”, purpose, or motivation for a behaviour. The most robust form of functional assessment is functional analysis, which involves the direct manipulation, using some experimental design (e.g. a multielement design or a reversal design) of various antecedent and consequent events and measurement of their effects on the behaviour of interest; this is the only method of functional assessment that allows for demonstration of clear cause of behaviour.
Applications in Clinical Psychology
Functional analysis and consequence analysis are commonly used in certain types of psychotherapy to better understand, and in some cases change, behaviour. It is particularly common in behavioural therapies such as behavioural activation, although it is also part of Aaron Beck’s cognitive therapy. In addition, functional analysis modified into a behaviour chain analysis is often used in dialectical behaviour therapy.
There are several advantages to using functional analysis over traditional assessment methods. Firstly, behavioural observation is more reliable than traditional self-report methods. This is because observing the individual from an objective stand point in their regular environment allows the observer to observe both the antecedent and the consequence of the problem behaviour. Secondly, functional analysis is advantageous as it allows for the development of behavioural interventions, either antecedent control or consequence control, specifically designed to reduce a problem behaviour. Thirdly, functional analysis is advantageous for interventions for young children or developmentally delayed children with problem behaviours, who may not be able to answer self-report questions about the reasons for their actions.
Despite these benefits, functional analysis also has some disadvantages. The first that no standard methods for determining function have been determined and meta-analysis shows that different methodologies appear to bias results toward particular functions as well as not effective in improving outcomes. Second, Gresham and colleagues (2004) in a meta-analytic review of JABA articles found that functional assessment did not produce greater effect sizes compared to simple contingency management programmes. However, Gresham et al. combined the three types of functional assessment, of which descriptive assessment and indirect assessment have been reliably found to produce results with limited validity Third, although functional assessment has been conducted with a variety host of populations much of the current functional assessment research has been limited to children with developmental disabilities.
The Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) also has an interest group in behaviour analysis, which focuses on the use of behaviour analysis in the school setting including functional analysis.
Doctoral level behaviour analysts who are psychologists belong to the American Psychological Association’s division 25 – Behaviour analysis. APA offers a diplomate in behavioural psychology and school psychology both of which focus on the use of functional analysis in the school setting.
The World Association for Behaviour Analysis offers a certification for clinical behaviour therapy and behavioural consultation, which covers functional analysis.
The UK Society for Behaviour Analysis also provides a forum for behaviour analysts for accreditation, professional development, continuing education and networking, and serves as an advocate body in public debate on issues relating to behaviour analysis. The UK-SBA promotes the ethical and effective application of the principles of behaviour and learning to a wide range of areas including education, rehabilitation and health care, business and the community and is committed to maintaining the availability of high-quality evidence-based professional behaviour analysis practice in the UK. The society also promotes and supports the academic field of behaviour analysis with in the UK both in terms of university-based training and research, and theoretical develop.