The controlling stimulus made me say it! Not.


Everyone understands what a greeting is. There are any number of appropriate things someone may say within the activity, in this greetings game. We see this every day. Instead of "hello" someone might respond, "Where've you been?", "I'm glad you're feeling better","How's your Mother?", "I'm so happy to see you again", "Sorry I'm late", "I love your skirt", "You won't believe what just happened to me on my way here!"or say nothing at all and just greet by kissing, hugging, shaking hands, smiling warmly, snarling, etc.  Any such moves would be appropriate within a greeting activity, within our culture, as a part of our linguistic practice. No further explanation is required. No circuitous, tautological and impenetrable 'analysis' required. 

But, in a Verbal Behavior paradigm, any response emitted in the presence of "Hi" is understood to have been 'learned' so that that when someone hears "Hi", they are to emit, "Hello", or"I love your new hair style", or "I'm glad you're feeling better" or "You won't believe what just happened to me on my way here!"etc. It is axiomatic that all of these 'responses' are controlled by "Hi" (taught to be emitted in the presence of "Hi"). Such responses would be called 'intraverbals'. VB is a taxonomic system. As such, we need ask what this taxonomy adds to our understanding of what occurs in language. How does this taxonomy help us understand a words place in language? What are the rules for its use? What is a word's meaning and how can the same word have different meanings? How can one stimulus evoke so many disparate responses. A Verbal Behavior accounting is falls well short when considering these questions.


In a Verbal Behavior scheme, there are only controlling events; what is 'to be' emitted in their presence. It can't be any other way within a VB calculus. Verbal responses, the things that are to be emitted  are a function of operant learning! What are the implications of such a worldview? 

Everything ever said has been learned/ and is under stimulus control 

Every utterance in every interview, debate, argument...all learned...and maintained by 'histories reinforcement'. Every utterance in every discussion or conversation you've ever had...all learned and 'controlled'.  Any wish wished, every plea pleaded, every promise made. Learned. Reinforced. Every word uttered in every game ever played. All learned. All utterances persons 'emit' are evoked by the presence of controlling stimuli.  It is on this proposition that 'verbal behavior' (and necessarily, AVB) stands.


To say that this is the foundation of a science called to account for all of what we say is a hard sell. I wonder about the feasibility of performing an analysis of the verbal behavior of the utterances on this page. Is what is written before you an "intraverbal"', "tact", or "mand"? Is there joint control? What are the controlling stimuli?  Are these even useful questions?


Adopting this world view requires that one accept that the words on this page are things I 'learned' to emit in presence of some controlling stimulus and maintained by histories of reinforcement. Do readers believe it is possible to trace events leading up to these words "emitted" in relation to some specific antecedent evoking them? or more pointedly, to identify the controlling variables! It seems unlikely. It seems unverifiable. Yet verify-ability is the bedrock of science. What does this mean concerning Skinner's theory of 'why we say what we say'... his analysis of verbal behavior?


What I say, what we all say, is part of a linguistic practice. Investigating a linguistic practice is an anthropological endeavor and does not lend itself to scientific investigation. Language is not reducible to science and invoking unverifiable histories of learning and questionable "stimulus control" is not a compelling scientific argument.  (Readers are encouraged to read Chomsky's critique of Skinner's VB. One doesn't have to subscribe to Chomskian linguistics in order to recognize the merits of his critique.)

"The 'verbal behavior' of the person producing the 'verbal antecedent'? Is there a more sensible and parsimonious account?

Let's revisit greetings. In the case cited earlier, the topic under discussion was a speaker's response to the verbal antecedent, "Hi". But efforts to chase down the 'controlling stimuli' related to the utterance of the person initiating "Hi",  is left open. What exactly produces the initiating greeter's "Hi". Why doesn't the initiating greeter emit 'tacts' when they see the other person approaching so that, rather than saying "Hi",  the greeter says something like, "Red hat", "Woman standing in front of me"or "smiling" in response to the person in front of them? Why "Hi"? I'm sure the experts in the academy will be able to offer some lengthy verbal behavior analysis for what controls someone saying, "Hi" e.g., It's a mand... which is to say the initiating person is "manding" for "hello"which reflects a state of deprivation of "hellos"... assuming that there is equivalence between "Hi" and "Hello". This is all rather silly but not an unlikely 'analysis'.  A more parsimonious explanation is that the initiating statement, "Hi" is part of a practice... a social / linguistic practice. It's simply something we may do (say) in our culture, under these circumstances. It's anthropology.

Implications for Intervention

The implications are clear. If we are to teach children a language, we need to indoctrinate children into a 'linguistic practice'. Knowledge of our practice is obtained through observation and description. Language instruction for children with autism is best achieved using behavioral tools, procedures and platforms as demonstrated in several studies that employed an ordinary language approach. These studies did not employ VB nor did any 'theory' of language inform intervention. It was not intervention designed to test a theory of language, but to teach language. In fact, there are no studies which compare the outcomes of a VB informed approach with an ordinary language approach. And most important, verbal behavior is not language although it is conflated with language.

Language is not behavior.  Language is a social technique used to communicate. We don't have theories for the use of technique; there are no theories of hammer use or knife use. Technique use does not require a theory, but instruction in technique. Our job as interventionist is to teach technique. Our job is to clarify the ways terms are used and ways to teach them.

Additionally, simply because something is "behavioral" does not make it better even though this "VB" movement was advanced for that very reason (Sundberg and Partington, 1998). Moreover, proponents of VB disregard one significant fact, VB is not about language although they conflate it with language (Sundberg el al.)


Skinner, on the other hand, was clear that VB was not about language (Skinner, 1957, 1972)  Skinner distances his efforts from language when he says, "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." His interest is in the behavior of individual speakers, not about community practices.  And since AVB is not about language, mastery of a language necessarily occurs outside the constraints of such popular conceptual approaches which insist on the accumulation of tacts, mands, intraverbals, etc.  


We can either teach verbal operants or language. In language we teach children appropriate moves in the language games within our practices. We teach children to do things with words and the rules of use for words in our practices. No inscrutable, incoherent theory is needed.