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Definition of Verbal Behavior

The Behavior Analyst 2009, 32, 185–190 No. 1 (Spring)

Much Ado About Nothing? Some Comments on B. F. Skinner’s Definition of Verbal Behavior

Matthew P. Normand University of the Pacific

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.

Key words: essentialism, functional analysis, language, verbal behavior

In his seminal treatise, Verbal Behavior, B. F. Skinner (1957) sug- gested that verbal behavior is distin- guishable from nonverbal behavior because ‘‘it is reinforced through the mediation of other persons’’ (p. 2). He further refined this definition by suggesting that ‘‘Verbal behavior is shaped and sustained by a verbal environment—by people who re- spond to behavior in certain ways because of the practices of the group of which they are members’’ (p. 226). That is, the verbal community must establish the meditating behavior in the context of verbal episodes.

Skinner actually struggled to arrive at what he considered a useful definition that captured the essential features of a class of behavior rea- sonably subsumed under the category of language (Palmer, 2008). Some think he missed the mark (cf. Leig- land, 1997; Palmer) and have argued that his definition fails to capture the essential features of language insofar as it is too broad and not functional in the standard behavior-analytic sense. The following scenario cleverly illustrates some key points of conten- tion:

Address correspondence to the author at the University of the Pacific Department of Psychology, 3601 Pacific Ave., Stockton, California 95211 (e-mail: mnormand@pacific. edu).

Imagine two rats, each in its own chamber with its own feeding apparatus. In the first chamber, the apparatus is set by an experi- menter to release a food pellet on a VR 5 schedule. In this case, the rat’s pressing of the bar is considered verbal, because the listener or experimenter has been conditioned by a social/verbal (scientific) community to mediate reinforcement of the bar press with the delivery of a food pellet. … In the second chamber, imagine that a feedbag is leaning against the manipulandum. The bag has a small hole in it and about every five bar presses a food pellet is jarred loose and is knocked into the chamber food dish. … We could switch the two rats from one chamber to another and it would be impossible for the rat to detect any difference whatsoever in the contingencies. If the behavior of both rats is identical and the contingencies contacted are identical, the functional category should be identical, yet in one case, the behavior is verbal according to Skinner’s definition and in another it is not. (Hayes, Blackledge, & Barnes-Holmes, 2001, p. 12)

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