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Verbal Behavior is a 1957 book by psychologist B. F. Skinner, in which he analyzes human behavior, encompassing what is traditionally called language, linguistics, or speech.[1][2] For Skinner, verbal behavior is simply behavior subject to the same controlling variables as any other operant behavior. The book Verbal Behavior is almost entirely theoretical, involving little experimental research in the work itself.[3][4][5] The book Verbal Behavior was an outgrowth of a series of lectures first presented at the University of Minnesota in the early 1940s and developed further in his summer lectures at Columbia and William James lectures at Harvard in the decade before the book's publication.[6] A growing body of research in verbal behavior has occurred since its original publication, particularly in the past decade.[7][8][9][10][11][12]

Functional analysis[edit | edit source]

The context of speaker utterances is central to Skinner's perspective on language. With this as a background, Skinner developed the premise that Verbal Behavior - behavior under the control of consequences mediated by other people (who can interchangeably function as speaker and listener) - was best understood in a functional analysis.[13] This theoretical extension was a direct product of his basic research using what he referred to as the "three term contingency model" with the basic behavioral unit being the response and its consequence in a specified situation (antecedent-behavior-consequence). This is now sometimes called the four-term contingency model with setting conditions added as a fourth term.[14][15] This consists of a motivating operation (MO), discriminative stimulus (SD), response (R), and reinforcement (Srein).[16] Skinner's Verbal Behavior also introduced the autoclitic and six elementary operants: mand, tact, audience relation, echoic, textual, and intraverbal.[17] Skinner argued that verbal behavior is a function of the speaker's current environment and his past behavioral and genetic history. For Skinner, the proper object of study is behavior itself, analyzed without reference to hypothetical (mental) structures, but rather with reference to the functional relationships of the behavior in the environment in which it occurs. This analysis extends Ernst Mach's pragmatic inductive position in physics, and extends even further a disinclination towards hypothesis making and testing.[18] Verbal Behavior is divided into 5 parts with 19 chapters and a brief overview of each chapter will be presented here.[19][20] The first chapter sets the stage for this work, a functional analysis of verbal behavior. Skinner presents verbal behavior as a function of controlling consequences and stimuli, not as the product of a special inherent capacity. Neither does he ask us to be satisfied with simply describing the structure, or patterns, of behavior. Skinner deals with some alternative, traditional formulations, and moves on to his own functional position.

General problems[edit | edit source]

Skinner notes the problems of verbal behavior as a dependent variable. Skinner's general position favors rate of response as a dependent measure which, in Verbal Behavior is problematic since all verbal behavior does not have the same unitary quality as a lever press. In the ascertaining of the strength of a response Skinner suggests some criteria for strength(probability):emission, energy-level, speed, repetition, but notes that these are all very limited means for inferring the strength of a response as they do not always vary together as they may come under the control of other factors. Emission is a yes/no measure, however the other three -energy-level, speed, repetition - comprise possible indications of relative strength.[21]

  • Emission - If a response is emitted it may tend to be interpreted as having some strength. Unusual or difficult conditions would tend to lend evidence to the inference of strength. Under typical conditions it becomes a less compelling basis for inferring strength. This is an inference that is either there or not, and has no gradation of value.
  • Energy-level - Unlike emission as a basis for inference, energy-level (response magnitude) provides a basis for inferring the response has a strength with a high range of varying strength. Energy level is a basis from which we can infer a high tendency to respond. An energetic and strong "Chomsky!" forms the basis for inferring the strength of the response as opposed to a weak, brief "Chomsky".[21]
  • Speed - Speed is the speed of the response itself, or the latency from the time in which it could have occurred to the time in which it occurs. A response given quickly when prompted forms the basis for inferring a high strength.[21]
  • Repetition - "Chomsky! Chomsky! Chomsky!" may be emitted and used as an indication of relative strength compared to the speedy and/or energetic emission of "Chomsky!". In this way repetition can be used as a way to infer strength
  • Limitations - Skinner notes that these are "easy to overestimate" especially in single instances. Other, extraneous variables, such a noise, special listeners, or those at a distance may induce variation in these relative indicators unrelated to their proper strength.[21]
  • Overall frequency - The overall frequency of a response in a large body of responses may be used as another indicator of strength. Skinner's analysis of alliteration might be seen as one form of this analysis (Skinner, 1939).[21]

Mands[edit | edit source]

Main article: Mand (psychology)

Chapter Three of Skinner's work Verbal Behavior discusses a functional relationship called the "mand." A mand is a form of verbal behavior that is controlled by deprivation, satiation, or what is now called motivating operations (MO) as well as a controlling history. An example of this would be asking for water when one is water deprived ("thirsty"). It is tempting to say that a mand 'describes its reinforcer' which it sometimes does, but mands may have no correspondence to the reinforcer, for example a loud knock may be a mand "open the door" and a servant may be called by a hand clap as much as a child might "ask for milk".

The Lamarre & Holland (1985) study on mands would be one example of a research study in this area.[22]

Behavior under the control of verbal stimuli[edit | edit source]

Textual[edit | edit source]

In Chapter 4 Skinner notes forms of control by verbal stimuli. One form is textual behavior which refers to the type of behavior we might typically call reading or writing. A vocal response is controlled by a verbal stimulus that is not heard. There are two different modalities involved ("reading"). If they are the same they become "copying text" (see Jack Michael on copying text), if they are heard, then written, it becomes "taking dictation", and so on.

Echoic[edit | edit source]

Skinner was one of the first to seriously consider the role of imitation in language learning. He introduced this concept into his book verbal behavior with the concept of the echoic. A behavior under the functional control of a verbal stimulus. The verbal response and the verbal stimulus share what is called point to point correspondence (a formal similarity.) The speaker repeats what is said. In echoic behavior, the stimulus is auditory and response is vocal. Often seen in early shaping behavior. For example, in learning a new language, a teacher might say "parsimonious" and then say "can you say it?" to induce an echoic response.

Winokur (1978) is one example of research about echoic relations.[23]

Tacts[edit | edit source]

Main article: Tact(psychology)

Chapter Five of Verbal Behavior discusses the tact in depth. A tact is said to "make contact with" the world, and refers to behavior that is under the control of generalized reinforcement. The controlling stimuli is nonverbal, "the whole of the physical environment". It can undergo many extensions: generic, metaphoric, metonymical, solecistic, nomination, and 'guessing'. It can also be involved in abstraction. Lowe, Horne, Harris & Randle (2002) would be one example of recent work in tacts.[24]

Audiences[edit | edit source]

The listener, as an audience, acts as a special, powerful and important discriminative stimulus.[25]

Since the audience is typically an occasion for the reinforcement of (verbal) behavior, it tends to take on reinforcing properties. Skinner uses examples of mands for audiences to appear as examples (the appearance of a listener or audience would not be necessarily the person doing the listening but what might be called "paying attention" to the speaker). However, the physical dimensions of an audience are hard to identify, Skinner notes (p. 176). Skinner speaks of an audience character which seems to denote some controlling quality of appropriate behavior (something as simple as a uniform or badge for example) which can be emitted with regards to the audience. There is also a negative audience which might be a person or situation that approximates other audience situations in some ways, but unlike them is not an occasion for reinforcement. This would conform to the relationship described with an S which is an occasion that presents a non-reinforcement with the discriminative stimulus. A speaker may function as his own audience.

Physical dimensions of the audience[edit | edit source]

The physical dimensions of an effective audience "are hard to identify".[26] Skinner refers to the property of the history of audience control over the speaker's behavior as audience character. Audience character may be represented in clothing indicating that special responses will be reinforced, as in the clothing of store employees who may be approached with questions about the location of merchandise. A distant audience, for example in letter writing, is typically weak.

Negative audiences[edit | edit source]

In the absence of an audience verbal behavior may decrease, but it is often not absent. An audience which punishes certain kinds of verbal behavior may be called a 'negative audience'. Special audiences, including those who are relatively powerful, for example adults in relation to children, theatrical audiences and others may punish verbal behavior in the sense of demanding silence under many or most conditions.

Verbal operants as a unit of analysis[edit | edit source]

Skinner notes his categories of verbal behavior: mand, echoic, textual, intraverbal, tact, audience relations, and notes how behavior might be classified. He notes that form alone is not sufficient (he uses the example of "fire!" having multiple possible relationships depending on the circumstances). Classification depends on knowing the circumstances under which the behavior is emitted. Skinner then notes that the "same response" may be emitted under different operant conditions.[27] Skinner states:

"Classification is not an end in itself. Even though any instance of verbal behavior can be shown to be a function of variables in one of more of these classes, there are other aspects to be treated. Such a formulation permits us to apply to verbal behavior concepts and laws which emerge from a more general analysis (p. 187)".[28]

That is, classification alone does little to further the analysis - the functional relations controlling the operants outlined must be analyzed consistent with the general approach of a scientific analysis of behavior.

Several behavior analysts since Skinner have suggested that the elementary verbal relations be re-categorized to deal with difficulty in incorporating many responses into the classification system of the original analysis. Michael, for example, has proposed replacing textual and echoic categories with the more general codic and duplic relations, respectively.[29] Ernest Vargas has suggested categorizing sources of control as intraverbal, autoverbal, and extraverbal, while replacing Skinner's intraverbal with sequelic, and adding the mimetic relation to refer to imitation of sign language.[30]

Multiple causation[edit | edit source]

Skinner notes in this chapter how any given response is likely to be the result of multiple variables. Secondly, that any given variable usually affects multiple responses.[31] The issue of multiple audiences is also addressed, as each audience is, as already noted, an occasion for strong and successful responding. Combing audiences produces differing tendencies to respond.

Supplementary stimulation[edit | edit source]

Supplementary stimulation is a discussion to practical matters of controlling verbal behavior given the context of material which has been presented thus far. Issues of multiple control, and involving many of the elementary operants stated in previous chapters are discussed.

New combinations of fragmentary responses[edit | edit source]

A special case of where multiple causation comes into play creating new verbal forms is in what Skinner describes as fragmentary responses. Such combinations are typically vocal, although this may be due to different conditions of self-editing rather than any special property. Such mutations may be 'nonsense' and may not further the verbal interchange in which it occurs. Freudian slips may be one special case of fragmentary responses which tend to be given reinforcement and may discourage self-editing. This phenomena appears to be more common in children, and in adults learning a second language. Fatigue, illness and insobriety may tend to produce fragmentary responding.

Autoclitics[edit | edit source]

Main article: Autoclitics(psychology)

An autoclitic is a form of verbal behavior which modifies the functions of other forms of verbal behavior. For example, "I think it is raining" possesses the autoclitic "I think" which moderates the strength of the statement "it is raining". An example of research that involved autoclitics would be Lodhi & Greer (1989).[32]

Self-strengthening[edit | edit source]

Here Skinner draws a parallel to his position on self-control and notes: "A person controls his own behavior, verbal or otherwise, as he controls the behavior of others."[33] Appropriate verbal behavior may be weak, as in forgetting a name, and in need of strengthening. It may have been inadequately learned, as in a foreign language. Repeating a formula, reciting a poem, and so on. The techniques are manipulating stimuli, changing the level of editing, the mechanical production of verbal behavior, changing motivational and emotional variables, incubation, and so on. Skinner gives an example of the use of some of these techniques provided by an author.

Logical and scientific[edit | edit source]

The special audience in this case is one concerned with "successful action". Special methods of stimulus control are encouraged that will allow for maximum effectiveness. Skinner notes that 'graphs, models, tables' are forms of texts that allow for this kind of development. The logical and scientific community also sharpens responses to assure accuracy and avoiding distortion.

Criticism and other reactions[edit | edit source]

Chomsky's review[edit | edit source]

Main article: Noam_Chomsky#Contributions_to_psychology

In 1959, Noam Chomsky published an influential critique of Verbal Behavior.[34] "Verbal behavior" he[clarify]

defined as learned behavior which has its characteristic consequences being delivered through the learned behavior of others; this makes for a view of communicative behaviors much larger than that usually addressed by linguists. Skinner's approach focused on the circumstances in which language was used; for example, asking for water was functionally a different response than labeling something as water, responding to someone asking for water, etc. These functionally different kinds of responses, which required in turn separate explanations, sharply contrasted both with traditional notions of language and Chomsky's psycholinguistic approach. Chomsky thought that a functionalist explanation restricting itself to questions of communicative performance ignored important questions. (Chomsky-Language and Mind, 1968).

Chomsky's 1959 review, amongst his other work of the period, is generally thought to have been influential in the decline of behaviorism's influence within linguistics, philosophy and cognitive science.[35][36] However, it has drawn fire from a number of critics, the most famous criticism being that of Kenneth MacCorquodale's 1970 paper On Chomsky’s Review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior.[37] MacCorquodale argued that Chomsky did not possess an adequate understanding of either behavioral psychology in general, or the differences between Skinner's behaviorism and other varieties. As a consequence, he argued, Chomsky made several serious modus tollens, non-sequitur, and denying the antecedent errors of logic. On account of these problems, he maintains that the review failed to demonstrate what it has often been cited as doing, implying that those most influenced by Chomsky's paper probably already substantially agreed with him. Chomsky has maintained that the review was directed at the way Skinner's variant of behavioral psychology "was being used in Quinean empiricism and naturalization of philosophy".[38]

Chomsky's influence was a point that Skinner himself conceded.[39] Sam Leigland suggests that interest in Skinner's work is growing with the next focus on a variety of complex verbal phenomena.[40]

Alternatives to Skinner's behavior analysis[edit | edit source]

There is also now an alternative to Skinner's account within behavior analysis, Relational Frame Theory, and authors in that area have developed a number of behavior analytic objections to Skinner's specific approach. There is some controversy regarding RFT's status in regard to Behavior Analysis. Its founder Steven Hayes regards it as an extension of operant conditioning principles that is consistent with Skinner's analysis but goes beyond it (personal communication[clarify]


Others feel that it is consistent with Behavior Analysis but involves emergent principles not found in conventional operant conditioning. Finally, there are those who feel that it is simply another form of Cognitive Behaviorism, rather than Radical Behaviorism.

Research and theory[edit | edit source]

Functional Analytic Psychotherapy is one application of Skinner's model of Verbal Behavior to typically developing adult human populations in non-laboratory (clinical) settings.[41] As such this approach represents an attempt to empirically validate Applied behavior analysis and Verbal Behavior for problems such as depression and other common clinical problems.

Current research in Verbal Behavior is published in The Analysis of Verbal Behavior[42] (TAVB), and other Behavior Analytic journals such as The Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior]] (JEAB) and the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA). Also research is presented at poster sessions and conferences, such as at regional Behavior Analysis conventions[43] or Association for Behavior Analysis (ABA)[44] conventions nationally or internationally. There is also a Verbal Behavior Special Interest Group (SIG)[45] of the Association for Behavior Analysis (ABA) which has a mailing list.[46]

Journal of Early and Intensive Behavior Intervention[47] and the Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis[48] both publish clinical articles on interventions based on verbal behavior.

Skinner has argued that his account of verbal behavior might have a strong evolutionary parallel.[49] In Skinner's essay, Selection by Consequences he argued that operant conditioning was a part of a three level process involving genetic evolution, cultural evolution and operant conditioning. All three processes, he argued, were examples of parallel processes of selection by consequences. David L. Hull, Rodney E. Langman and Sigrid S. Glenn have developed this parallel in detail.[50] This topic continues to be a focus for behavior analysts.[51]

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Chiesa, Mecca (2004), Radical Behaviorism: The philosophy and the science, Sarasota, Florida: Authors Cooperative, ISBN 0-9623311-4-7 
  2. Skinner, Burrhus Frederick (1957), Verbal Behavior, Acton, Massachusetts: Copley Publishing Group, ISBN 1-58390-021-7 Chapter 1 "A Functional Analysis of Verbal Behavior".
  3. Michael J (November 1984). Verbal behavior. J Exp Anal Behav 42 (3): 363–76.
  4. Skinner, Burrhus Frederick (1957), Verbal Behavior, Acton, Massachusetts: Copley Publishing Group, pp. 11, ISBN 1-58390-021-7 
  5. It is notable that Skinner did do Verbal Behavior related research, for example the statistical analysis of alliteration in Shakespeare, as well as his work with the 'Verbal Summator' prior to the publication of Verbal Behavior. However, he opted to remove most of the research, he says, because it made the book 'unbalanced'. This research was also primarily structural in nature, and owed more to Skinner's history as a college English major than it did to his later functional analysis of behavior.
  6. Skinner,B. F. (1983) A Matter of Consequences. New York: Knopf.
  7. Wallace MD, Iwata BA, Hanley GP (2006). Establishment of mands following tact training as a function of reinforcer strength. J Appl Behav Anal 39 (1): 17–24.
  8. Bourret J, Vollmer TR, Rapp JT (2004). Evaluation of a vocal mand assessment and vocal mand training procedures. J Appl Behav Anal 37 (2): 129–43; quiz 143–4.
  9. Williams G, Carnerero JJ, Pérez-González LA (2006). Generalization of tacting actions in children with autism. J Appl Behav Anal 39 (2): 233–7.
  10. Nordquist VM (1971). A method for recording verbal behavior in free-play settings. J Appl Behav Anal 4 (4): 327–31.
  11. Savage-Rumbaugh ES (March 1984). Verbal behavior at a procedural level in the chimpanzee. J Exp Anal Behav 41 (2): 223–50.
  12. Chase PN, Johnson KR, Sulzer-Azaroff B (May 1985). Verbal relations within instruction: Are there subclasses of the intraverbal?. J Exp Anal Behav 43 (3): 301–13.
  13. Skinner, Burrhus Frederick (1957), Verbal Behavior, Acton, Massachusetts: Copley Publishing Group, p. p. 14, ISBN 1-58390-021-7 
  14. Bijou; Baer (1978), The behavior analysis of child development, Englewood-cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hill, ISBN 1-87897-803-9 
  15. Morris, E. K. (1992), "The aim, progress, and evolution of behavior analysis", The Behavior Analyst 15,: 3–29 
  16. However, the four-term model post-dates Skinner's work - having arisen most notably in the writings of Dr. Jack Michael, and Skinner refers exclusively to the three-term model without the MO as such. Although Skinner does refer to states of deprivation and satiation which are essentially the same thing which the MO term encompasses and extends upon.
  17. Skinner, Burrhus Frederick (1957), Verbal Behavior, Acton, Massachusetts: Copley Publishing Group, ISBN 1-58390-021-7  from the forward by Jack Michael, p. ix
  18. Skinner, B.F. (1950), Are Theories of Learning Necessary?, 
  19. Chiesa, Mecca (2004), Radical Behaviorism: The philosophy and the science, Sarasota, Florida: Authors Cooperative, ISBN 0-9623311-4-7 
  20. Baum, William (2004), Understanding Behaviorism: Behavior, Culture, and Evolution, Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 978-1405112628 
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 Skinner, Burrhus Frederick (1991 (original publication 1938)), Behavior of Organisms, Acton, Massachusetts: Copley Publishing Group, p. 58, ISBN : 978-0874114874 
  22. Lamarre J, Holland JG (January 1985). The functional independence of mands and tacts. J Exp Anal Behav 43 (1): 5–19.
  23. Boe R, Winokur S (September 1978). A procedure for studying echoic control in verbal behavior. J Exp Anal Behav 30 (2): 213–7.
  24. Fergus Lowe C, Horne PJ, Harris FD, Randle VR (November 2002). Naming and categorization in young children: vocal tact training. J Exp Anal Behav 78 (3): 527–49.
  25. Skinner, Burrhus Frederick (1957), Verbal Behavior, Acton, Massachusetts: Copley Publishing Group, p. p. 172, ISBN 1-58390-021-7 
  26. Verbal Behavior p. 176
  27. It is interesting to note that Skinner's analysis of verbal behavior is not specifically a matter of "teaching children how to talk", however he does speculate on this on p.189 in terms of mands and tacts acquisition by children. I note this because Skinner's Verbal Behavior is widely cited as a template for teaching children language skills although it does not appear to specifically be designed for this task.
  28. Skinner, Burrhus Frederick (1957), Verbal Behavior, Acton, Massachusetts: Copley Publishing Group, ISBN 1-58390-021-7 p. 187
  29. Michael, J. (1982). Skinner's elementary verbal relations: some new categories. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 1, 1-3.
  30. Vargas, E. A. (1982). Intraverbal behavior: The codic, duplic, and sequelic subtypes. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 1, 5-7.
  31. Skinner, Burrhus Frederick (1957), Verbal Behavior, Acton, Massachusetts: Copley Publishing Group, p. p.227, ISBN 1-58390-021-7 
  32. Lodhi S, Greer RD (May 1989). The speaker as listener. J Exp Anal Behav 51 (3): 353–9.
  33. Skinner, Burrhus Frederick (1953), Science and human behavior, Mcmillon, ISBN 0-02929-040-6 
  34. Chomsky, N. A. (1959), A Review of Skinner's Verbal Behavior, 
  35. The Cognitive Science Millennium Project. URL accessed on 2008-07-09.
  36. Miller GA (March 2003). The cognitive revolution: a historical perspective. Trends Cogn. Sci. (Regul. Ed.) 7 (3): 141–4.
  37. MacQuorcodale, Kenneth (1970), "A reply to Chomsky's Review of Skinner's Verbal Behavior", Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 13: 83–99, doi:10.1901/jeab.1970.13-83 
  38. Barsky (1997), Chapter 3. URL accessed on 2007-09-04.
  39. Skinner, Burrhus Frederick (1971) ([dead link]Scholar search), On 'Having' A Poem (RealAudio), 
  40. Leigland, S. (2007). Fifty Years Later: Comments on the Further Development of a Science of Verbal Behavior. The Behavior Analyst TodayTM Volume 8, No. 3, 336-346.
  41. Kohlenberg & Tsai 1991 Functional Analytic Psychotherapy
  42. Journals of the Association for Behavior Analysis
  43. see the California Association for Behavior Analysis (CalABA) for example
  44. Association for Behavior Analysis International
  45. Verbal Behavior-Special Interest Group
  46. See Verbalbeh-l
  47. See Journal of Early and Intensive Behavior Intervention [1]
  48. See Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis [2]
  49. Skinner BF (January 1986). The Evolution of Verbal Behavior. J Exp Anal Behav 45 (1): 115–22.
  50. Hull, David (2001), "A general account of selection: Biology, immunology, and behavior", Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24: 511–528., doi:10.1017/S0140525X0156416X, 
  51. Greer, R. D. (2006), "The Evolution of Verbal Behavior in Children", SLP- ABA 1: 111–150., 

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