Due to so many similarities in their focus, objectives and techniques, it makes sense that the fields of behavior analysis and psychology often appeal to the same potential workers. Both roles involve the study of behavior, but, while psychology is broader, behavior analysis is specialized, examining the different variables that can affect behavior. The differences between the two fields include not only this perspective and level of specialization but also how candidates must prepare for the career path and what life in this occupation is like for workers.

The Relationship Between Behavior Analysis and Psychology

There is certainly some overlap between the fields of behavior analysis and psychology, although there are different interpretations as to how closely these fields are related. Behavior analysis and psychology share some common traits, including the focus on both research and clinical applications. Psychology has qualities of both a natural and social science, with the broad goal of studying thinking and behavior. Behavior analysis is a scientific discipline that emphasizes the impact factors in an environment have on an individual’s behavior and how to use that knowledge to instigate behavior change, which makes the field at once similar to and different from psychology.

Most degree programs in behavior analysis are offered out of psychology departments, often as specializations or concentrations within a broader psychology degree program, but some sources identify behavior analysis as a distinct discipline of study and practice.

What Is the Difference Between Careers in Behavior Analysis and Psychology?

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Preparation for Careers in Behavior Analysis and Psychology

Besides the differences in what these two fields of study emphasize, a main distinction is how students should prepare to work in these roles. For psychologists in almost every field of practice, a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree is non-negotiable, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). You need a doctoral degree to become licensed as a psychologist and to call yourself by this job title legally. State licensing requirements typically include a doctorate degree, a passing score on the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology and experience in the form of an internship as well as one or two years of supervised experience, the BLS reported.

Aspiring behavior analysts take a different path into the profession. A doctorate is not required, although those who choose to earn the credential carry a special doctoral designation and may command a higher salary. A master’s degree with the appropriate coursework is sufficient to acquire the credential of Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). Although there isn’t always a clear career path for graduates of general psychology programs with a bachelor’s degree, an undergraduate education is enough to attain the designation of Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA). Some states require behavior analysts to be licensed as such, while others have no licensing requirements or may apply the same requirements needed to become a psychologist.

A bachelor’s degree in any subject satisfies degree requirements to become a BCaBA, but you still need specialized coursework that meets the Behavior Analyst Certification Board’s standards. Many students get this education through a certificate program.

Working in the Field of Behavior Analysis or Psychology

What can you expect as a professional working in these fields? Both behavior analysis and psychology have a broad range of possible applications, which means the roles and job settings you work in and the populations you work can vary a lot.

As a recognized occupation that accounts for 166,600 American jobs, psychologist is one of the professions on which the BLS keeps detailed data. More than 88 percent of American psychologists work in the field of clinical, counseling and school psychologists. Just 1,700 work as industrial-organizational psychologists, and 17,400 fit into the category of “all other” psychologists, the BLS reported. Even within this area of clinical, counseling and school psychologist careers, there are a lot of diverse areas of specialization. A psychologist may be experienced in treating patients with severe mental health disorders or in aiding patients who struggle to cope with problems in their lives.

The BLS does not collect data for the smaller and more specialized occupation of behavior analyst. However, as of 2016 data, there were 22,274, 2,439 BCaBAs and 26,429 Registered Behavior Technicians (RBTs) across the globe. Behavior analysis professionals and paraprofessionals work to promote behavior change in many different fields and populations, from employee behavior in business organizations to the functioning of older adults with dementia and patients with substance use disorder. Applied behavior analysis has long been used in early interventions for children with autism spectrum disorder.

Earning potential is higher for psychologists, for whom the BLS reports a median wage of $79,010, than for behavior analysts, for whom PayScale reports an average salary of $59,248, but keep in mind that most psychologists need a doctorate, while BCBAs may not.

Additional Resources

What Does a Behavior Analyst Do?

What Is Applied Behavior Analysis?

What Kind of Fields Can Use a Behavior Analyst?