The Behavior Analyst

, Volume 6, Issue 2, pp 133–143 | Cite as

A Verbal Behavior Analysis of Auditory Hallucinations

  • Caleb E. S. Burns
  • Elaine M. Heiby
  • Roland G. Tharp


A review of recent research on the non-medical control of auditory hallucinations is presented. It is suggested that the decreases in hallucinatory behavior obtained in studies using aversive contingencies may be attributable to the disruption of the chains of behavior involved. The results of several additional studies are interpreted as indicating that methods of stimulus control and the use of incompatible behaviors may be effective in reducing the rate of auditory hallucinations. Research relating auditory hallucinations to subvocalizations is presented in support of the view that hallucinatory phenomena are sometimes related to the subject’s own vocal productions. Skinner’s views (1934, 1936, 1953, 1957, 1980) are then presented as possible explanations of some hallucinatory behavior. It is suggested that some auditory hallucinations consit of the mishearing of environmental and physiological stimuli as voices in a fashion similar to that which Skinner observed in his work with the verbal summator. The maintenance of long chains of such responses may be largely attributable to self-intraverbal influences (such as are present during automatic writing). With some auditory hallucinations, this progression involves first mishearing ambiguous stimuli as voices and then attributing the voices to some cause (e.g., insanity, the television, radio, or God). Later, the frequent and ongoing chains of such behavior may contaminate other verbal responses. Such verbal behavior may be parasitic on “normal verbal behavior” (and hence, not directly dependent on consquences for maintenance), may be cued by various stimuli (including respiration), and may interfere with other covert and overt behavior. Several studies to investigate this view are presented. It is hoped that such research will lead to a better understanding of the major issues involved in the etiology and treatment of auditory hallucinations in particular and perhaps of psychosis in general.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Reference Notes

  1. Personal communication, Eugene Lee, University of Hawaii.Google Scholar


  1. Alford, G., & Turner, S. Stimulus interference and conditioned inhibition of auditory hallucinations. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 1976, 7, 155–160.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-III). Third edition, Washington, D.C., APA, 1980.Google Scholar
  3. Bucher, B., & Fabricatore, J. Use of patient-administered shock to suppress hallucinations. Behavior Therapy, 1970, 1, 382–385.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Erickson, G., & Gustafson, G. Controlling auditory hallucinations. Hospital and Community Psychiatry, 1968, 19, 327–329.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Falloon, I., & Talbot, R. Persistent auditory hallucinations: Coping mechanisms and implications for management. Psychological Medicine, 1981, 11, 329–339.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Fisher, E., & Winkler, R. Self-control over intrusive experiences. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1975, 43, 911–916.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Garrity, L. Electromyography: A review of the current status of subvocal speech research. Memory & Cognition, 1977, 5, 615–622.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Gomes-Schwartz, B. The modification of schizophrenic behavior. Behavior Modification, 1979, 3, 439–468.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Gould, L. Verbal hallucinations as automatic speech: The reactivation of dormant speech habit. American Journal of Psychiatry, 1950, 107, 110–119.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Haynes, S., & Geddy, P. Suppression of psychotic hallucinations through time-out. Behavior Therapy, 1973, 4, 123–127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Heppner, P. The clinical alteration of covert thoughts: A critical review. Behavior Therapy, 1978, 9, 717–734.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Inouye, T., & Shimizu, A. The electromyographic study of verbal hallucination. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 1970, 151, 415–422.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Lindsley, O. Direct measurement and functional definition of vocal hallucinatory symptoms. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 1963, 136, 293–297.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Malott, R., Tillema, M., & Glenn, S. Behavior analysis and behavior modification: An introduction. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Behaviordelia, 1978.Google Scholar
  15. McGuigan, F. Covert oral behavior and auditory hallucinations. Psychophysiology, 1966, 3, 73–80.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Moser, A. Covert punishment of hallucinatory behavior in a psychotic male. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 1974, 5, 297–299.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Nydegger, R. The elimination of hallucinatory and delusional behavior by verbal conditioning and assertive training: A case study. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 1972, 3, 225–227.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Paul, G. Chronic mental patient: Current status— future directions. Psychological Bulletin, 1969, 71, 81–94.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Skinner, B. F. Has Gertrude Stein a secret? Atlantic, 1934, 153, 50–57.Google Scholar
  20. Skinner, B. F. The verbal summator and a method for the study of latent speech. Journal of Psychology, 1936, 2, 71–107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Skinner, B. F. Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan, 1953.Google Scholar
  22. Skinner, B. F. Verbal behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1957.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Skinner, B. F. Notebooks. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980.Google Scholar
  24. Slade, P. The effects of systematic desensitization on auditory hallucinations. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 1972, 10, 85–91.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Turner, S., Hersen, M., & Bellack, A. Effects of social disruption, stimulus interference, and aversive conditioning on auditory hallucinations. Behavior Modification, 1977, 1, 249–258.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Weingaertner, A. Self-administered aversive stimulation with hallucinating hospitalized schizophrenics. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1971, 36, 422–429.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Winokur, Stephen. A primer of verbal behavior: An operant view. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Association for Behavior Analysis International 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • Caleb E. S. Burns
    • 1
  • Elaine M. Heiby
    • 1
  • Roland G. Tharp
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of HawaiiHonoluluUSA

Personalised recommendations