top of page

The Social Significance of Behavior

Whether you’re a long time ABA practitioner, a parent of a child who has received ABA services, a person who received ABA services, or someone who literally has no idea what ABA is, I am here to tell you about the most important part of designing and implementing interventions. Social significance.

What is social significance? Let us start by breaking it down. Applied behavior analysis can (and should for these purposes) be broken down into each word in its name. Using the definitions from Baer, Wolf, & Risley, Applied means socially significant behaviors are chosen. The behavior must be objective (observable) and able to be measured and changed. Analysis refers to the experimental control over the behavior (Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968, p. 94)

That applied part is truly the most important factor to ensure ethical, appropriate, and safe treatment. To be considered applied, behaviors need to be meaningful to the client. But how do you know what is truly meaningful to them? The ethical question in determining a socially significant goal is not “will this intervention help make this child more similar to his typically developing peers?” but “will this intervention help this child be more comfortable around his typically developing peers?”

Comfort or meaningfulness are not behavioral, however; many neurodiverse people show their level of comfort differently from how others expect it. Recognizing the social significance of a behavior requires subjective decisions to be made, usually on behalf of an already vulnerable client. This is where the field seems to struggle with ethical and moral decisions, when the therapists or behavior analysts working with a person is given both the power and the choice of what a goal should be.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “I have never worked on a goal that was not socially significant, my clients or their parents always agree that the goals I work on are meaningful to them”, I want you to think about some of your younger clients, your less vocal clients, or your “more difficult” clients. How did you know their goals were meaningful to them and how did they improve their life?

One of the more controversial goals that many professionals continue to suggest is the goal of making eye contact. For many neurodiverse people, eye contact is painful, distracting, and uncomfortable. I have worked with many students who were able to both comprehend and answer a question better while they looked down at their desk or off to the side of the speaker’s face, rather than in their eyes.

The field of ABA could benefit from reform when it comes to the replacement of “odd” or “atypical” behaviors, which may be more useful to the autistic person and when “typical” social behaviors may induce be stress, pain, or an inability to focus are imposed. These types of goals are usually not individualized and may not be important to the client or their family.

What are some ways that you ensure you are working on ethical, socially significant goals?


Baer, D. M., Wolf, M. M., & Risley, T. R. (1968). Some current dimensions of applied behavior analysis1. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1(1), 91-97. doi:10.1901/jaba.1968.1-91


bottom of page