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Human behavior is a complex and unique thing to study. Think of all the types of emotional responses, all the complexities of human interaction, and try to boil it all down into a science. Sounds tough, doesn't it? Well, this is the task of ABA (applied behavior analysis) and behavioral analysis in general. And just how does this relate to mentalism?

Mentalism is a school of thought that believes human responses are not caused by outside factors and are instead due to factors inside the mind. Mentalism ABA and behavior analysis look at outside causes to explain human responses and actions. Mentalism relies on belief, while behaviorism is rooted in empirical evidence and observation. 

There is a lot to understand regarding mentalism and how it affects the study of behavior analysis, and both fields of study are relevant to the general practice of psychology. This article will dig deep into what exactly mentalism is, whether it plays a role in ABA and behavioral analysis, and how these fields of study overlap and diverge. 

What Does Mentalism Say About Human Behavior?

The human mind is incredibly expansive and quite hard to categorize. Thoughts, emotions, and consciousness are abstract things with no perfect definition, even though every person experiences them in some form. 

Humans are uniquely capable of using the power of the mind to invent, imagine, and create, but the power of the mind can create problems as well. Mentalism prioritizes the study of the human mind. 

Mentalists believe that the discipline of psychology should focus on an individual's thoughts, perceptions, and mental processes. The idea of cognition is central to mentalism, where the mind is the key driver of a person's identity and behavior. 

Questions About the Existence of the Mind

The problem with mentalism's reliance on the mind as the central driver of human behavior is that, until recently, there have been very few ways to effectively quantify “the mind.” 

  • What is it?
  • Where is it?
  • How does it work?
  • What does it look like? 

Locating and describing the mind in a physiological way has been a sticking point for psychologists since the existence of the mind was first theorized. 

What Does Behaviorism Say About Human Behavior?

The fact that it is hard to prove foundational aspects of mentalism by using the scientific method gave rise to a different form of psychology called behaviorism, or behavioral analysis. 

Behaviorism seeks to use finite data to better understand human behavior. ABA and behavioral analysis place a large value on evidence-based data to ground their conclusions and guide their work.  

Behaviorism is built on the idea of cause and effect, a crucial tenet of the scientific method. Researchers study the relationship between a stimulus and its conditioned response within a person so that they can trace specific behaviors back to specific sources and hopefully change them. 

Remember Pavlov? That is Behaviorism

The most notable example of this was Pavlov and his experiments on dogs, where he conditioned dogs to salivate every time they heard a bell ring because he continually fed them meat after ringing a bell.

In this instance, the dogs were taught a specific response (salivating) to a certain stimulus (the bell) through conditioning (feeding them meat). Pavlov was one of the quintessential behaviorists and was a key figure in the development of neuroscience and psychology. 

Mentalism Vs. Behaviorism 

A good model for thinking about these two schools of thought within psychology is to see mentalism as being concerned with subjectivity while behaviorism is concerned with objectivity. 

  • Subjectivity is defined as something that doesn't have a finite basis in reality and instead only exists in the mind.
  • Objectivity is everything that exists in the physical world that is quantifiable, observable, and measurable. 

Practitioners of mentalism see the value of psychology as being rooted in the subjective parts of our existence, in things like dreams, memories, and recurring thoughts

While most people can relate to having dreams while asleep or having a memory of a deceased loved one, the physical process of locating these things in the brain has mystified researchers. 

If you dissect a human arm, it is easy to objectively see certain tendons or ligaments and understand their role in making an arm move. But you can't dissect a brain and point to a dream or a memory. 

What Came First – Behaviorism or Mentalism?

The history of psychology can be viewed as a pendulum that has swung back and forth between mentalism and behaviorism.

19th Century

The study of psychology began in earnest in the 19th Century with thinkers like Edward Titchener and William James, who both believed that consciousness was the principal concern of psychology. 

They were both within the school of mentalism because of their belief that the functions of the mind were the premier concern of psychology. 

20th Century

As science developed and technology improved into the 20th Century, a shift was made toward explaining behavior in a more objective way that was less reliant on introspective models and more predicated on measurable data. 

The groundbreaking work of psychologists like John Watson and B.F Skinner vaulted behavioral analysis to the forefront of psychology and created longstanding therapeutic models like ABA that are still in use to this day. 

21st Century

It wasn't until very recently that mentalism made a significant comeback, thanks largely to advancements in brain mapping and other scientific tools that enabled a better understanding of how the mind operates within the brain. 

The progress made in collecting objective data on the otherwise subjective entity of the mind has revolutionized psychology and brought mentalism back in vogue. 

Which Side of Psychology Is Right?

The short answer is both and neither. 

Both mentalism and behaviorism have been critical to our general understanding of the field of psychology, and neither side has to date offered a conclusive, holistic approach that doesn't somehow include aspects of the other

Mentalism and behaviorism are not mutually exclusive, and often, one side will help inform the other. 

Psychology: Study vs. Practice

The study of psychology is a bit different from the practice of psychology. It seems like a small difference, but it is crucial. 

  • Researchers seek to understand and advance a general understanding of human behavior.
  • Therapists and analysts take these understandings and apply them to real-life subjects with the intent of bettering their lives. 

The world of psychology is a fascinating science that has practical value in everyday life, with new studies and developments that enhance our understanding of the human mind, as well as therapeutic models and psychiatric medication improving the quality of life for many individuals.

Next, we're on to discuss one of those therapeutic models: Applied Behavior Analysis. 

What Is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)? There are several therapy types and modalities, many of which share similar features and approaches.  

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a framework created to better understand how an individual's behavior changes based on its environment by applying a set of principles through conditioning.

Characteristics of ABA

ABA was conceptualized in a groundbreaking paper written by Baer, Wolf, and Risley in 1968, in which they outlined seven general characteristics of the new psychological framework: 

  1. Applied 
  2. Behavioral 
  3. Analytic 
  4. Technological 
  5. Conceptually Systematic 
  6. Effective 
  7. Generality

These principles were meant to legitimize ABA as a pragmatic course of treatment that could effectively and humanely change any individual who presented potentially harmful behavior. Practitioners of ABA build their treatment plans around these seven principles and are committed to improving and modifying the science of ABA as more research is done. 

Focus and Practice of ABA

There are numerous facets of ABA that are built from these principles. Here is a general overview of what ABA focuses on and how it works in practice. ABA is:

  • Closely tied to learning and socializing. Once referred to as “behavior modification” or “behavioral engineering,” ABA seeks to help individuals become better equipped to learn things and better engage in socially important behaviors with the help of a teacher or therapist.
  • Most commonly practiced with children and individuals on the Autism spectrum. The real benefits of ABA are perfect for individuals who otherwise have trouble acclimating to the necessary behaviors of academic and social life or who can't communicate in traditional ways. 
  • Oriented toward objective and evidence based. Unlike other forms of analysis like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy which centers on conversational therapy built around subjective topics, ABA uses principles grounded in objective science that seek to produce specific responses. 
  • Focused on altering specific behaviors. There is no attempt in ABA to promote a change in the individual's general emotional state but instead focus on changing very specific actions through measurement, treatment, and evaluation. 
  • Centered on conditioning to achieve its goals. Recipients of ABA are told to perform a task and either immediately punished or rewarded based on how they perform. This is meant to encourage a change in the individual that is then reinforced through repetition. 
  •  Practiced by changing aspects of an individual's environment. The surrounding environment that produces certain behavior (antecedent) in an individual must be changed to produce new behavior. This is summed up in the ABA protocol: antecedent > behavior > consequence.  

Behavior analysis is a more general term to describe types of therapy that are focused on modifying specific behaviors and not the more amorphous concern of mental health. 

ABA is a type of therapy that is effective for treating very specific behaviors.

But that does not mean ABA won't improve the general mental health of the recipient. Remember how behaviorism and mentalism are not mutually exclusive? This is a perfect example. 

Mentalism in ABA

At this point, you know that mentalism and ABA come from two conflicting viewpoints within psychology and have two distinct explanations of, and approaches to, human behavior. 

Historically, mentalism and ABA have been two schools of thought at odds with one another, but in practice, it is hard to totally separate one from the other. This is because the mind and behavior are intimately tied. 

ABA is staunch in its reliance on measurable data to ground its conclusions in reality, but there are certain aspects of human behavior that simply cannot be totally quantified through research. 

Say you ask a child, “Why did you draw a house and color it blue?” and they respond, “Because I felt like it.” Would it be possible to explain their behavior via behavioral analysis? 

How Mentalism May Work with ABA and Behavioral Analysis

ABA and behavioral analysis are great for understanding direct actions, but what if the action or reasoning behind the action is abstract? This is where a more mentalistic approach may be necessary to understand the child's behavior. 

The choice to use a mentalistic approach or a behavioral analysis approach depends on many things within the situation: 

  • Is the individual on the Autism spectrum or have general difficulties learning or communicating? 
  • Is the individual suffering from chronic depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or substance abuse issues? 
  • Does the individual need help understanding basic social behavior?  
  • Are there specific behavioral patterns and habits that may be harmful to an individual's safety? 
  • Does the individual respond to tactile sensations or visual stimuli but not verbal cues? 
  • Is the issue confined to the emotional state of an individual? 

It is up to the discretion of a professional to develop a treatment plan for an individual, and it will most likely include a blend of behavioral and mentalistic treatment. But there are certain signs which may point to the efficacy of one treatment more than the other. 

Does Mentalism Negatively Impact Behavioral Analysis? 

While it is true that mentalism is routinely and effectively used as a therapeutic model, it should be noted that mentalism can be detrimental in some cases. 

In cases of individuals on the Autism spectrum, there is a push to minimize the use of mentalism within treatment plans for several reasons: 

  • The reliance on verbal explanations in mentalism can be less developed in neurodivergent people. 
  • Mentalism can be seen as being exclusionary to individuals who are not comfortable in conversation, have trouble remembering basic things, or miss certain social cues.
  • Behavioral analysis requires clear, simple directions. Mentalism tends to complicate directions with open-ended questions and abstract ideas. 
  • Mentalism usually lacks tactile or visual components in their therapy. These are common tools in ABA that help non-verbal individuals communicate effectively. 

Mentalism is prone to creating feedback loops or circular thinking within situations

This is because a problem behavior that is being targeted is often mistaken as the cause of the behavior itself, or as is stated in this paper on charting the effects of mentalism in the treatment of autistic children. 

In short, the result of the analysis was this:

The use of mentalism can create confusing situations for children with Autism because they cannot discern their actions from the reasoning behind their actions

This is harmful to the treatment process because it prevents both the recipients and the instructors from productively identifying a specific behavior, which is usually the first step to a behavior treatment. 

Why ABA Works Better in Some Situations

ABA is a much more practical and intuitive treatment process for some people, especially those on the Autism spectrum

This is because ABA uses reinforcement techniques like reward and punishment and is presented in a more understandable and meaningful way. ABA is almost synonymous with treatment plans for neurodivergent and autistic individuals. 

A Note About ABA and Autism 

While ABA is common in treating individuals on the Autism spectrum, there has been a push recently to redefine the use of this particular psychological method. 

ABA does tend to center on “correcting” behavior or isolating “problem habits,” which causes many to see the natural behavior of those on the Autism spectrum in a negative light. Many see this as unfair and unproductive to the treatment of these individuals. 

This problem with the lack of inclusivity in the methodology of ABA is important to the study and is an ongoing development within the field. While it doesn't diminish the efficacy of the practice, it is an important note to keep in mind.  


Behaviorism and mentalism are two schools of thought that coexist within psychology that, on the surface, seem theoretically conflicting. Behaviorism is concerned with the practical treatment of objective problems shown in people, while mentalism is more concerned with problems of the mind that do not exist finitely. Despite their differences, both mentalism and behaviorism are used in tandem to diagnose and treat a host of psychological disorders. 

ABA is a treatment model born out of behavioral analysis that is especially effective in treating issues with socializing and learning functions. Mentalism can often be detrimental to some treatments that use ABA, as it can create confusion and misunderstanding in the treatment process. However, both ABA and mentalism are crucial and historically important tenets of the practice of psychology.