Much ado about nothing? some comments on B. F. Skinner’s definition of verbal behavior

Abstract

Some have suggested that the definition of verbal behavior offered by B. F. Skinner (1957) fails to capture the essence of language insofar as it is too broad and not functional. In this paper, I argue that the ambiguities of Skinner’s definition are not an indictment of it, and that suggestions to the contrary are problematic because they suffer a critical error of scientific reasoning. Specifically, I argue that (a) no clear definition of verbal behavior is possible because there is no natural distinction between verbal and nonverbal behavior; (b) attempts at an immutable definition are essentialistic; and (c) Skinner’s functional taxonomy of language is in no way affected by the particulars of any definition of verbal behavior.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

References

  1. Buss, A. H. (1961). The psychology of aggression. New York: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Hayes, S. C., & Barnes-Holmes, D. (2004). Relational operants: Processes and implications: A response to Palmer’s review of Relational Frame Theory. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 82, 213–224.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  3. Hayes, S. C, Blackledge, J. T., & Barnes-Holmes, D. (2001). Language and cognition: Constructing an alternative approach within the behavioral tradition. In S. C. Hayes, D. Barnes-Holmes, & B. Roche (Eds.), Relational frame theory: A post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition (pp. 3–20). New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Leigland, S. (1997). Is a new definition of verbal behavior necessary in light of derived relational responding? The Behavior Analyst, 20, 3–9.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  5. Mayr, E. (1988). Toward a new philosophy of biology: Observations of an evolutionist. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Moore, J. (2008). Conceptual foundations of radical behaviorism. Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Palmer, D. C. (2004a). Data in search of a principle: A review of Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian Account of Human Language and Cognition. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 81, 189–204.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  8. Palmer, D. C. (2004b). Generic response classes and relational frame theory: Response to Hayes and Barnes-Holmes. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 82, 225–234.

    Article  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  9. Palmer, D. C (2008). On Skinner’s definition of verbal behavior. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 8, 295–307.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Palmer, D. C, & Donahoe, J. (1992). Essentialism and selectionism in cognitive science and behavior analysis. American Psychologist, 47, 1344–1358.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  11. Salzinger, K. (1970). Language behavior. In A. C. Catania & T. A. Brigham (Eds.), Handbook of applied behavior analysis (pp. 275–321). New York: Irvington.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Salzinger, K. (2003). On the verbal behavior of Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian Account of Human Language and Cognition. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 19, 7–9.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  13. Schlinger, H. D. (2008). Listening is behaving verbally. The Behavior Analyst, 31, 145–161.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  14. Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Sundberg, M. L. (2007). Verbal behavior. In J. O. Cooper, T. E. Heron, & W. L. Heward (Eds.), Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed., pp. 526–547). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Sundberg, M. L., & Michael, J. (2001). The value of Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior for teaching children with autism. Behavior Modification, 25, 698–724.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  17. Vollmer, T. R., Progar, P. R., Lalli, J. S., Van Camp, C. M., Sierp, B. J., Wright, C. S., et al. (1998). Fixed-time schedules attenuate extinction-induced phenomena in the treatment of severe aberrant behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 31, 529–542.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Matthew P. Normand.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Normand, M.P. Much ado about nothing? some comments on B. F. Skinner’s definition of verbal behavior. BEHAV ANALYST 32, 185–190 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03392182

Download citation

Key words

  • essentialism
  • functional analysis
  • language
  • verbal behavior