Verbal Behavior
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Verbal Behavior

B. F. Skinner

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Verbal Behavior

B. F. Skinner

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Verbal Behavior is a 1957 book by psychologist B. F. Skinner, in which he describes what he calls verbal behavior, or what was traditionally called linguistics. Skinner's work describes the controlling elements of verbal behavior with terminology invented for the analysis—echoics, mands, tacts, autoclitics and others—as well as carefully defined uses of ordinary terms such as audience.

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Verbal Behavior


Chapter 1 — A Functional Analysis of Verbal Behavior

MEN ACT upon the world, and change it, and are changed in turn by the consequences of their action. Certain processes, which the human organism shares with other species, alter behavior so that it achieves a safer and more useful interchange with a particular environment. When appropriate behavior has been established, its consequences work through similar processes to keep it in force. If by chance the environment changes, old forms of behavior disappear, while new consequences build new forms.
Behavior alters the environment through mechanical action, and its properties or dimensions are often related in a simple way to the effects produced. When a man walks toward an object, he usually finds himself closer to it; if he reaches for it, physical contact is likely to follow; and if he grasps and lifts it, or pushes or pulls it, the object frequently changes position in appropriate directions. All this follows from simple geometrical and mechanical principles.
Much of the time, however, a man acts only indirectly upon the environment from which the ultimate consequences of his behavior emerge. His first effect is upon other men. Instead of going to a drinking fountain, a thirsty man may simply “ask for a glass of water”—that is, may engage in behavior which produces a certain pattern of sounds which in turn induces someone to bring him a glass of water. The sounds themselves are easy to describe in physical terms; but the glass of water reaches the speaker only as the result of a complex series of events including the behavior of a listener. The ultimate consequence, the receipt of water, bears no useful geometrical or mechanical relation to the form of the behavior of “asking for water.” Indeed, it is characteristic of such behavior that it is impotent against the physical world. Rarely do we shout down the walls of a Jericho or successfully command the sun to stop or the waves to be still. Names do not break bones. The consequences of such behavior are mediated by a train of events no less physical or inevitable than direct mechanical action, but clearly more difficult to describe.
Behavior which is effective only through the mediation of other persons has so many distinguishing dynamic and topographical properties that a special treatment is justified and, indeed, demanded. Problems raised by this special mode of action are usually assigned to the field of speech or language. Unfortunately, the term “speech” emphasizes vocal behavior and is only awkwardly applied to instances in which the mediating person is affected visually, as in writing a note. “Language” is now satisfactorily remote from its original commitment to vocal behavior, but it has come to refer to the practices of a linguistic community rather than the behavior of any one member. The adjective “linguistic” suffers from the same disadvantage. The term “verbal behavior” has much to recommend it. Its etymological sanction is not too powerful, but it emphasizes the individual speaker and, whether recognized by the user or not, specifies behavior shaped and maintained by mediated consequences. It also has the advantage of being relatively unfamiliar in traditional modes of explanation.
A definition of verbal behavior as behavior reinforced through the mediation of other person’s needs, as we shall see, certain refinements. Moreover, it does not say much about the behavior of the listener, even though there would be little verbal behavior to consider if someone had not already acquired special responses to the patterns of energy generated by the speaker. This omission can be justified, for the behavior of the listener in mediating the consequences of the behavior of the speaker is not necessarily verbal in any special sense. It cannot, in fact, be distinguished from behavior in general, and an adequate account of the behavior need cover only as much of the behavior of the listener as is needed to explain the behavior of the speaker. The behaviors of speaker and listener taken together compose what may be called a total verbal episode. There is nothing in such an episode which is more than the combined behavior of two or more individuals. Nothing “emerges” in the social unit. The speaker can be studied while assuming a listener, and the listener while assuming a speaker. The separate accounts which result exhaust the episode in which both participate.
It would be foolish to underestimate the difficulty of this subject matter, but recent advances in the analysis of behavior permit us to approach it with a certain optimism. New experimental techniques and fresh formulations have revealed a new level of order and precision. The basic processes and relations which give verbal behavior its special characteristics are now fairly well understood. Much of the experimental work responsible for this advance has been carried out on other species, but the results have proved to be surprisingly free of species restrictions. Recent work has shown that the methods can be extended to human behavior without serious modification. Quite apart from the possibility of extrapolating specific experimental findings, the formulation provides a fruitful new approach to human behavior in general, and enables us to deal more effectively with that subdivision called verbal.
The “understanding” of verbal behavior is something more than the use of a consistent vocabulary with which specific instances may be described. It is not to be confused with the confirmation of any set of theoretical principles. The criteria are more demanding than that. The extent to which we understand verbal behavior in a “causal” analysis is to be assessed from the extent to which we can predict the occurrence of specific instances and, eventually, from the extent to which we can produce or control such behavior by altering the conditions under which it occurs. In representing such a goal it is helpful to keep certain specific engineering tasks in mind. How can the teacher establish the specific verbal repertoires which are the principal end-products of education? How can the therapist uncover latent verbal behavior in a therapeutic interview? How can the writer evoke his own verbal behavior in the act of composition? How can the scientist, mathematician, or logician manipulate his verbal behavior in productive thinking? Practical problems of this sort are, of course, endless. To solve them is not the immediate goal of a scientific analysis, but they underline the kinds of processes and relationships which such an analysis must consider.
A science of behavior does not arrive at this special field to find it unoccupied. Elaborate systems of terms describing verbal behavior have been developed. The lay vocabulary abounds in them. Classical rhetoric, grammar, logic, scientific methodology, linguistics, literary criticism, speech pathology, semantics, and many other disciplines have contributed technical terms and principles. In general, however, the subject here at issue has not been clearly identified, nor have appropriate methods for studying it been devised. Linguistics, for example, has recorded and analyzed speech sounds and semantic and syntactical practices, but comparisons of different languages and the tracing of historical changes have taken precedence over the study of the individual speaker. Logic, mathematics, and scientific methodology have recognized the limitations which linguistic practices impose on human thought, but have usually remained content with a formal analysis; in any case, they have not developed the techniques necessary for a causal analysis of the behavior of man thinking. Classical rhetoric was responsible for an elaborate system of terms describing the characteristics of literary works of art, applicable as well to everyday speech. It also gave some attention to effects upon the listener. But the early promise of a science of verbal behavior was never fulfilled. Modern literary criticism, except for some use of the technical vocabulary of psychoanalysis, seldom goes beyond the terms of the intelligent layman. An effective frontal attack, a formulation appropriate to all special fields, has never emerged under the auspices of any one of these disciplines.
Perhaps this fact is responsible for the rise of semantics as a general account of verbal behavior. The technical study of meaning was already under way as a peripheral field of linguistics when, in 1923, Ogden and Richards{1} demonstrated the need for a broader science of symbolism. This was to be a general analysis of linguistic processes applicable to any field and under the domination of no special interest. Attempts have been made to carry out the recommendation, but an adequate science of verbal behavior has not been achieved. There are several current brands of semantics, and they represent the same special interests and employ the same special techniques as heretofore. The original method of Ogden and Richards was philosophical, with psychological leanings. Some of the more rigorous systems are frankly logical. In linguistics, semantics continues to be a question of how meanings are expressed and how they change. Some semanticists deal mainly with the verbal machinery of society, particularly propaganda. Others are essentially therapists who hold that many of the troubles of the world are linguistic error. The currency of the term “semantics” shows the need for a science of verbal behavior which will be divorced from special interests and helpful wherever language is used, but the science itself has not emerged under this aegis.
The final responsibility must rest with the behaviorial sciences, and particularly with psychology. What happens when a man speaks or responds to speech is clearly a question about human behavior and hence a question to be answered with the concepts and techniques of psychology as an experimental science of behavior. At first blush, it may not seem to be a particularly difficult question. Except on the score of simplicity, verbal behavior has many favorable characteristics as an object of study. It is usually easily observed (if it were not, it would be ineffective as verbal behavior); there has never been any shortage of material (men talk and listen a great deal); the facts are substantial (careful observers will generally agree as to what is said in any given instance); and the development of the practical art of writing has provided a ready-made system of notation for reporting verbal behavior which is more convenient and precise than any available in the nonverbal field. What is lacking is a satisfactory causal or functional treatment. Together with other disciplines concerned with verbal behavior, psychology has collected facts and sometimes put them in convenient order, but in this welter of material it has failed to demonstrate the significant relations which are the heart of a scientific account. For reasons which, in retrospect, are not too difficult to discover, it has been led to neglect some of the events needed in a functional or causal analysis. It has done this because the place of such events has been occupied by certain fictional causes which psychology has been slow in disavowing. In examining some of these causes more closely, we may find an explanation of why a science of verbal behavior has been so long delayed.
It has generally been assumed that to explain behavior, or any aspect of it, one must attribute it to events taking place inside the organism. In the field of verbal behavior this practice was once represented by the doctrine of the expression of ideas. An utterance was felt to be explained by setting forth the ideas which it expressed. If the speaker had had a different idea, he would have uttered different words or words in a different arrangement. If his utterance was unusual, it was because of the novelty or originality of his ideas. If it seemed empty, he must have lacked ideas or have been unable to put them into words. If he could not keep silent, it was because of the force of his ideas. If he spoke haltingly, it was because his ideas came, slowly or were badly organized. And so on. All properties of verbal behavior seem to be thus accounted for.
Such a practice obviously has the same goal as a causal analysis, but it has by no means the same results. The difficulty is that the ideas for which sounds are said to stand as signs cannot be independently observed. If we ask for evidence of their existence, we are likely to be given a restatement in other words; but a restatement is no closer to the idea than the original utterance. Restatement merely shows that the idea is not identified with a single expression. It is, in fact, often defined as something common to two or more expressions. But we shall not arrive at this “something” even though we express an idea in every conceivable way.
Another common answer is to appeal to images. The idea is said to be what passes through the speaker’s mind, what the speaker sees and hears and feels when he is “having” the idea. Explorations of the thought processes underlying verbal behavior have been attempted by asking thinkers to describe experiences of this nature. But although selected examples are sometimes convincing, only a small part of the ideas said to be expressed in words can be identified with the kind of sensory event upon which the notion of image rests. A book on physics is much more than a description of the images in the minds of physicists.
There is obviously something suspicious in the ease with which we discover in a set of ideas precisely those properties needed to account for the behavior which expresses them. We evidently construct the ideas at will from the behavior to be explained. There is, of course, no real explanation. When we say that a remark is confusing because the idea is unclear, we seem to be talking about two levels of observation although there is, in fact, only one. It is the remark which is unclear. The practice may have been defensible when inquiries into verbal processes were philosophical rather than scientific, and when a science of ideas could be imagined which would some day put the matter in better order; but it stands in a different light today. It is the function of an explanatory fiction to allay curiosity and to bring inquiry to an end. The doctrine of ideas has had this effect by appearing to assign important problems of verbal behavior to a psychology of ideas. The problems have then seemed to pass beyond the range of the techniques of the student of language, or to have become too obscure to make further study profitable.
Perhaps no one today is deceived by an “idea” as an explanatory fiction. Idioms and expressions which seem to explain verbal behavior in term of ideas are so common in our language that it is impossible to avoid them, but they may be little more than moribund figures of speech. The basic formulation, however, has been preserved. The immediate successor to “idea” was “meaning,” and the place of the latter is in danger of being usurped by a newcomer, “information.” These terms all have the same effect of discouraging a functional analysis and of supporting, instead, some of the practices first associated with the doctrine of ideas.
One unfortunate consequence is the belief that speech has an independent existence apart from the behavior of the speaker. Words are regarded as tools or instruments, analogous to the tokens, counters, or signal flags sometimes employed for verbal purposes. It is true that verbal behavior usually produces objective entities. The sound-stream of vocal speech, the words on a page, the signals transmitted on a telephone or telegraph wire—these are records left by verbal behavior. As objective facts, they may all be studied, as they have been from time to time in linguistics, communication engineering, literary criticism, and so on. But although the formal properties of the records of utterances are interesting, we must preserve the distinction between an activity and its traces. In particular we must avoid the unnatural formulation of verbal behavior as the “use of words.” We have no more reason to say that a man “uses the word water” in asking for a drink than to say that he “uses a reach” in taking the offered glass. In the arts, crafts, and sports, especially where instruction is verbal, acts are sometimes named. We say that a tennis player uses a drop stroke, or a swimmer a crawl. No one is likely to be misled when drop strokes or crawls, are referred to as things, but words are a different matter. Misunderstanding has been common, and often disastrous.
A complementary practice has been to assign an independent existence to meanings. “Meaning,” like “idea,” is said to be something expressed or communicated by an utterance. A meaning explains the occurrence of a particular set of words in th...


  1. Title page
  4. Part I - A PROGRAM
  9. Two Personal Epilogues
  10. Appendix
Zitierstile fĂŒr Verbal Behavior

APA 6 Citation

Skinner, B. (2020). Verbal Behavior ([edition unavailable]). Barakaldo Books. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)

Chicago Citation

Skinner, B. (2020) 2020. Verbal Behavior. [Edition unavailable]. Barakaldo Books.

Harvard Citation

Skinner, B. (2020) Verbal Behavior. [edition unavailable]. Barakaldo Books. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Skinner, B. Verbal Behavior. [edition unavailable]. Barakaldo Books, 2020. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.