Differences Between Behavior Analysis and Forensic Psychology [2024 Guide]

Behavior analysis and forensic psychology are two fast-growing careers in the mental health space. On the one hand, behavior analysis is an increasingly popular educational and career path for people interested in assisting clients with childhood disorders, developmental disabilities, and other behavioral issues. On the other hand, forensic psychology has grown in popularity for students wishing to combine an interest in psychology with criminal justice.

While these fields are loosely related under the umbrella of mental health-related professions, they have far more differences than similarities. The question is, which one is right for you? Use this guide to learn more about behavior analysis and forensic psychology so you can determine the path that best suits your needs.

Differences Between Behavior Analysis and Forensic Psychology

Behavior Analysis Vs. Forensic Psychology

Broadly speaking, the biggest difference between behavior analysis and forensic psychology is their focus. Behavior analysis seeks to change a person’s behavior by applying principles of conditioning. Meanwhile, forensic psychology is the practice of psychology in criminal justice settings.

Behavior analysis, grounded in the principles of behaviorism, emphasizes the study and modification of observable behaviors through reinforcement and other learning principles. It is widely applied in therapeutic settings, education, and behavior modification programs.

Forensic psychology merges psychological principles with the legal system, focusing on understanding criminal behavior, assessing mental competency, and providing expert testimony in court cases.

Differences in the Scope of Work

Let’s assume you are a behavior analyst working with a client who is on the autism spectrum. Let’s also assume your client experiences anxiety in social settings, the result of which is withdrawn social behavior. Your job would be to help your client change this behavior through conditioning.

So, you might practice social skills in the context of an individual session with the client. When the client does something positive, such as make eye contact with you as you are speaking, you might reinforce that behavior with positive verbal feedback like saying “Great job!.” You might also provide some sort of physical reinforcement, like a reward token that they can exchange for a prize.

This example highlights the purpose of behavior analysis and the relationship between you and your client – you are teaching, encouraging, and leading the client on a journey of self-improvement. You are maximizing the likelihood of positive behavior change via conditioning while helping minimize unwanted or maladaptive behaviors.

Contrast this example with a forensic psychology situation. Let’s assume you are a forensic psychologist working for a city’s police department. Part of your job might be to conduct forensic interviews with victims of crimes. Assuming the client in the previous example is the victim of an assault, your role would be to interview the client to learn about the details of the event – something that could be extremely difficult given that the client has autism and is a minor.

Nevertheless, you would be interested in details like what happened, when it happened, and any identifying information about the assailant. How you go about getting this information might vary. For example, you might meet one-on-one with the victim and conduct a direct forensic interview. Given the victim’s difficulties in social skills, their parents or guardians might need to be present to help them relay details of the event.

As you can see, this is a much different kind of interaction than the previous example. You aren’t trying to modify the victim’s behavior through behavior analysis. Instead, you are relying on a much different skillset to derive information from the victim as part of a criminal investigation.

Let’s explore some other differences between these fields to gain an even better understanding of what you might expect.

Another significant difference between traditional behavior analysis and forensic psychology is the clientele. More often than not, applied behavior analysis is used with children and adolescents. As discussed earlier, it’s most commonly used to treat kids with autism spectrum disorders but can be applied in other situations, such as with children who have a developmental disability.

In contrast, forensic psychology deals more with perpetrators and victims of crimes. In this regard, forensic psychology is a much broader field of work. As a forensic psychologist, you are far more likely to work with people of all ages and people with and without mental disorders.

As a result of these differences, traditional behavior analysts and forensic psychologists utilize many different tools to do their jobs. For example, a behavior analyst might first observe a client at home or in school to get a baseline understanding of the client’s behaviors. Then, they might develop a plan to address problematic or unwanted behaviors by using a combination of reinforcement, modeling, and extinction.

So, let’s say the problematic behavior is angry outbursts when the client doesn’t get their way. You can use modeling to show the client a more appropriate response to situations in which one doesn’t get what they want. Then, you might use positive reinforcement to reward instances in which the client keeps their calm when they do not get their way.

You can also use extinction practices to help diminish the angry outbursts. For example, let’s say that part of the reason why the client exhibits anger is because that behavior elicits a wanted response from their parents, such as verbal or proximal attention. By removing that pairing through extinction (e.g., parents simply ignore the angry outbursts and don’t react), eventually, the outbursts will cease, given the lack of reaction from the parents.

Conversely, forensic psychologists use different tools to accomplish what they want. For example, you might use forensic hypnosis as part of your interview with the victim of a crime to help them remember what happened to them. As another example, you might serve as an expert witness for the prosecution or defense in a criminal trial. On the one hand, you might provide your opinions about a defendant’s ability to stand trial. On the other hand, you might provide expertise on a defendant’s personality after conducting a personality assessment.

This brings us to perhaps the most important tool in a forensic psychologist’s toolkit – assessment. Assessing clients, be that for competency, IQ, personality factors, risk of recidivism, and so forth, is one of the most common tasks for forensic psychologists. As a forensic psychologist, you might rely on assessments like the following:

It should be noted that these differences in techniques and tools aren’t set in stone. In fact, some forensic psychologists use behavioral analysis techniques in their daily work. For example, forensic psychologists working for the FBI often use behavioral principles as part of their interviewing strategies. Likewise, they frequently use behaviorally-based recommendations to help increase the effectiveness of investigations.

So, using behavioral principles to achieve an end-goal isn’t the sole territory of an applied behavioral analyst. Likewise, behavior analysts might rely on tools like intelligence or personality assessments frequently used by forensic psychologists as part of their work with their clients.

Differences in Work Environment

Behavior analysts typically work in offices or clinical settings, like private practice, residential treatment centers, or mental health clinics. It’s also extremely common for behavior analysts to work in hospitals and schools.

Whatever the location, behavior analysts need space to conduct assessments and evaluations, model behaviors, and otherwise assess and engage with their clients. This is done in a one-on-one setting, usually in an office, but it could also be done in a conference room, hospital room, or classroom – any private area will usually do.

Forensic psychologists might also work in office or clinical settings. Many work in legal or law enforcement settings, too. For example, some forensic psychologists work in private practice and spend much of their time in an office setting. Conversely, others work for law firms, again in an office setting, but also spend a fair amount of time in court proceedings.

Other forensic psychology applications are less traditional. For example, as a criminal profiler, you might work in a law enforcement agency’s headquarters. Some forensic psychologists work as consultants and provide training for officers, and much of that work might be done in large-group settings rather than one-on-one interactions in an office.

Differences in Education

Behavior analysts need at least a master’s degree. It’s most common to complete a graduate program in applied behavior analysis (ABA). These programs are usually around 45 credits and take about two years to complete. Most ABA programs require at least 1,500 hours of internship as well.

Once the ABA program is completed, you must pass the BCBA exam – a four-hour, 185-question exam. After that, you will receive your credential, and you can practice as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.

The degree required to work as a forensic psychologist varies based on the setting. In some situations, a master’s degree in forensic psychology is all that’s needed – working as a consultant, for example. Master’s programs can be as short as 36 credits or be well over 45 credits, depending on the school.

A doctoral degree is required if you wish to practice clinical forensic psychology, such as seeing clients on an individual basis. Often, these programs are either clinically-based forensic psychology Ph.Ds or they are Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology with a forensic specialization. In either case, you can expect to take upwards of five years to complete a Ph.D. in this field.

Are Forensic Psychologists and Criminal Profilers the Same?

Some forensic psychologists are criminal profilers. However, this is not always the case. As noted earlier, forensic psychology is a very broad field with many different career paths and responsibilities. You can certainly use a forensic psychology education to pursue a career as a criminal profiler, but this is just one niche of this very broad field.

At the same time, you don’t necessarily need a forensic psychology education to become a profiler. For example, some criminal profilers are veteran police detectives with years of experience to rely on to develop profiles. These professionals might have had a formal education in criminal justice and have continuing education courses in profiling along with years of experience to qualify for a profiler position.

Are FBI Profilers Forensic Psychologists?

Some FBI profilers have a forensic psychology background, like a master’s degree or doctorate. However, this is not necessarily a requirement to be an FBI profiler. In fact, many profilers with the FBI have advanced education and experience in criminal justice, law enforcement, and law. Additionally, some profilers with the FBI have degrees in related fields, like criminology or sociology.

Can I Be a BCBA With a Psychology Degree?

It is possible to become a BCBA with a psychology degree. Commonly, prospective BCBAs get an undergraduate degree in psychology then complete a master’s degree in applied behavior analysis. Most ABA programs require you to have a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related area, which allows you to seamlessly transition from psychology to ABA studies.

Another common pathway from psychology to BCBA is to enroll in a master’s program in psychology with a BCBA specialization option. Some schools even offer a BCBA certificate program as part of a master’s degree in psychology or as a standalone program if you have already completed your master’s degree.

Should I Do Behavior Analysis or Forensic Psychology?

The choice between behavior analysis and forensic psychology is ultimately up to you. All things considered, neither field is better than the other – it’s just a matter of what your skills, interests, and talents are.

Behavior analysis is a good option if you are intrigued by working with children and adolescents and you enjoy studying and employing behavioral psychology principles in a one-on-one setting. It’s also a good option if you prefer to start your career sooner rather than later, considering it requires less education than some forensic psychology positions.

On the other hand, if criminal justice, criminology, and psychology are passions of yours, forensic psychology is a natural fit. You can use your passion to assess people accused of crimes, provide expert opinions in court, and train law enforcement in psychological principles, to name a few.

Ultimately, both options represent opportunities to perform interesting work. They both also afford you the chance to do work that can have a significant impact on other people. A meaningful job can be had either way!

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