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Verbal Behavior: All you need to know

Verbal behavior is defined as a behavior that is reinforced through the mediation of another individual who has been trained to provide reinforcement. A mediated reinforcement refers to a change in stimulus after emitting a response, which in turn raises the probability of the same behavior being repeated again the future and which is caused by the action of another person.

Verbal stimulus refers to change in energy which is physical and that which affects an organism’s sensory receptors. Verbal stimulus possesses specific patterns.

An environmental change that comes before a response is emitted and which raises the effectiveness of stimulus is called an establishing operation.

If a stimulus is caused by another individual’s actions, it is described as a response product.

The difference between formal control and formal similarity is that formal control refers to a controlling variable producing a response and with point-to-point correspondence between the response and the variable that is deemed as controlling. On the other hand, the formal similarity refers to the relationship between a stimulus that produces a response and the response-product produced of the response. If the controlling behavior produces a response but there is no point-to-point correspondence between the response and the variable, this is known as thematic control, rather than formal control.

An echoic behavior refers to the verbal behavior with point-to-point correspondence between a response and the variable whereby the response is considered vocal and is usually controlled by an auditory stimulus.

Taking dictation – The response of behavior is a form of writing and there is a point-to-point correspondence.

Textual behavior – The response of such behavior is vocal and the stimulus controlling it is usually a prior stimulus, and there is point-to-point correspondence.

Intraverbal – There is no point-to-point correspondence and the controlling variable is usually a verbal stimulus.

Tact – This is a verbal response in which the controlling variable is a non-verbal stimulus

Mand – Response controlled by establishing operation

Audience – A listener in the presence of whom verbal behavior is reinforced.

Difference between direct-acting and indirect-acting behavior

Direct-acting behavior changes the environment through mechanical action. The properties and dimensions are simply related to their effects.

An indirect-acting behavior is when a person acts indirectly based on the environment which is the source of behavior.

According to skinner, indirect-acting behavior requires social treatment. Skinner argues that sounds are easy to describe in themselves.

Skinner prefers the term verbal behavior to other familiar terms because the term emphasizes the individual speaker while specifying the behavior shaped and maintained by mediated consequences. The preliminary definition of verbal behavior by Skinner is a behavior that is reinforced through the mediation of other persons.

Skinner distinguishes casual from descriptive accounts of phenomena. Verbal behavior is used beyond the consistent vocabulary, which allows an easier description of specific instances. We understand verbal behavior in casual analysis, as assessed from the extent to which we are able to predict the occurrences of specific instances. Additionally, we understand verbal behavior from the extent to which we are able to control or produce such behavior by changing the conditions in which such behavior occurs.

Skinner objects traditional treatments of this subject matter because the issue has not been clearly identified and there isn’t an existing method for its study. There has been no achievement in these domains to analyze the behavior of individual speakers.

Skinner objects the doctrine of ideas meanings and information. If the speaker has different ideas, then we would expect them to produce different words or words in a different arrangement. It is difficult to understand the ideas from which sounds are said to stand for, independently. There is an argument that speech has an independent existence from the listener’s behavior and speaking is considered an activity rather than a thing.

To sanitize the environment means to prevent the access to items that the student wants to allow them mand for it. Motivation controls mand and by systematically fading the prompts, it is easier to transfer the control of the mand to the motivation operation. An example of sanitizing the environment is by putting toys a child wants out of reach, putting an item in containers that are hard to open or by leaving an essential item intentionally from an activity.

There are several benefits of teaching students to mand. Among them includes using functional communication to achieve their needs rather than problem behaviors.

Most professionals recommend to start teaching one how to mand by teaching the individual to mand because they benefit speakers; they say it, they get it. According to statistics, it is known that typical children mand hundreds of times per hour.

Other important benefits of manding include: Helping to condition the teachers as reinforcers, assisting to develop the value of social interaction, and lastly, training one to decrease the problem behavior.

By changing the environment so as to create motivation for something, this is described as capturing and contriving motivating operations.

According to professionals, it is important to avoid teaching generalized words like eat or “more”, mands of yes or no, and carrier phrases like “can I have”.

There are factors to consider when deciding what mands to teach:

  1. Always teach them to say “please” after every mand.
  2. Decide what mands you want them to learn first before others.
  3. Avoid the use of food items as they may distract others around.

You can easily identify whether there is a motivation when the individual is moving toward the item, the individual is reaching for an item, and when the individual is looking intently at the item.

 Skinner versus the traditional concept of verbal behavior. The traditional focus on language, speech, and developmental model while Skinner focuses on function rather than form.

There are six verbal operants: Echoic, tact, mand, autoclitic, intraverbal, and textual.

There are usually errors in verbal behavior, which may arise when one teaches the wrong controlling variable when one assumes repertoires will develop when the consequence is not a reinforcer, by looking at form rather than focusing on function, and when one teaches higher-level skills before focusing on developing the foundation.


Mand – a verbal operant that is under the antecedent control of a MO and is followed by specific reinforcement (directly benefits the speaker)

Tact – a verbal operant that is under the antecedent control of a non-verbal stimulus and is followed by generalized conditioned social reinforcement

Echoic – a verbal operant that is under the antecedent control of a prior vocal stimulus and is followed by GCSR (point-to-point correspondence & formal similarity)

Intraverbal – a verbal operant that is under the antecedent control of a prior vocal stimulus and is followed by GCSR (no point-to-point correspondence but may have formal similarity

Textual – a verbal operant under the antecedent control of a written response product and is followed by GCSR (HAS point-to-point similarity; NO formal similarity)

Taking Dictation

– a verbal operant under the antecedent control of the response product of someone’s prior vocal verbal behavior and if followed by GCSR (HAS point-to-point correspondence; NO formal similarity)

Copying Text

– a verbal operant under the antecedent control of the response product of previous writing behavior and is followed by GCSR (HAS point-to-point correspondence AND formal similarity)

Point-to-Point Correspondence

each part of the stimulus controls each part of the response

Formal Similarity

both the stimulus and response are in the same sense more and have the same topography

Unit of Analysis

the operant

Behavior v. Response Product

muscular movement v. effect on environment

Functional Independence

when a response form is taught in one operant is not automatically emitted in another operant; each operant must be acquired through its own unique history of reinforcement (tact does not equal mand)

Extended Tact

  • If a response is reinforced upon a given occasion or class of occasions, any feature of that occasion or common to that class appears to gain some measure of control
  • A novel stimulus possessing one such feature may evoke a response

Generic Tact Extension

  • response form must be previously learned, the stimulus must be novel, the novel stimulus must have ALL the relevant features of the stimulus that previously controlled the response
  • EX: calling a novel chair a chair

Metaphorical Tact Extension

  • the response form must be previously learned, the stimulus must be novel, the novel stimulus has SOME, BUT NOT ALL, of the relevant features of the stimulus that previously controlled response
  • EX:
    • drinking soda… “it takes like my foots asleep”
    • saying “dog” in the presence of a wolf (only has some of the relevant features)

Metonymical Tact Extension

  • the response form must be a previously learned, the stimulus must be novel, the novel stimulus has NONE of the relevant features of the stimulus that previously controlled the response (due to the association, one stimulus is typically associated to the other); cannot occur with symmetry
  • EX:
    • “the White House denied the rumor”
    • “Hollywood” to describe the industry not the place

Solecistic Tact Extensions

  • non-standard use of the term
  • only distantly related to the original stimulus
  • property which gains control of response is only distantly related to the defining properties upon which standard reinforcements are contingent or is similar to that property for relevant reasons


– misuse of similar sounding words

– EX: “It’s a moo point”


– grammatical mistake or absurdity

– EX:

* “You go first and I’ll precede you”

* “I could care less”


– misapplication of a word, especially in mixed metaphors

– EX: “Can’t you hear that? Are you blind?”


  • novel occasion for which standard tacts are lacking
  • EX: naming –> newborn child, newly developed machine

Proper Name (Nomination)

a name which is characteristically reinforced only in the presence of a particular person or thing

Verbal Process Responsible for Naming

– surviving set of tact

* EX: Betthoven’s Eighth Symphony, geographical tact

– extension of tact relation

* EX: naming of children – Emily’s Matthew example

– Naming due to cultural factors

* EX: naming after a saint, jewish naming


  • letting current stimuli control your response if a response is not available in your repertoire
  • can’t call it a tact if the current stimuli in no way control a response


  • a sharpening of stimulus control
  • conditional discrimination
  • works opposite of extensions

Magical Mand

  • wish based on a current state of deprivation, no hope that they will be reinforced
  • EX: “I wish I had a million dollars”

Superstitious Mand

  • a chance that reinforcement will occur incidentally
  • mathematical probability
  • EX: “Com on lucky #7!”

Interpretive Analysis

  • the application of the basic principles, derived from an experimental analysis, to topics that are currently not capable of being experimentally investigated
  • EX: newton and the tides

Verbal Behavior

behavior whose reinforcement is socially mediated by a listener

Experimental Analysis

systematic manipulation of variables to test for the controlling factors of the independent variables

Traditional Account of Language

  • defined expressively (vocal language) and receptively (understanding of language)
  • focuses on form
  • assumes that if form is present it will be evoked in every setting and condition
  • innate biological process
  • not due to environmental factors
  • controlled by internal cognitive mechanisms that accept, classify, code, encode and store information

Behavioral Account of Language

  • analyzed by antecedents and consequences
  • word is not defined by form but rather by its function or controlling variables
  • classified into functional categories (verbal operants)

Motivation Operations

  • environmental event, operation, or stimulus condition that affects an organism by momentarily altering:
    • (a) the reinforcing effectiveness of other events and
    • (b) the frequency of occurrence of that part of the organism’s repertoire relevant to those events

MO Effects

  • Value Altering: establishing and abolishing
  • Behavior Altering: evocative and abative
  • MOMENTARY EFFECTS (if thirsty, drinking water abolishes the reinforcing effectiveness of water decreasing (abative) the frequency of behavior that seeks water as reinforcement)

Value Altering

  • establishing: increases reinforcing effectiveness
  • abolishing: decreases reinforcing effectiveness

Behavior Altering

  • evocative: increases current frequency of behavior
  • abative: decreases current frequency of behavior

MO v. SD

  • is it more valuable or more available
  • BOTH: operant, antecedents, evocative/abative relations
  • MO: alters value of reinforcement
    • EX: (headache –> take asprin –> no headache) (headache is an MO b/c headache alters the reinforcing effectiveness of pain removal vs. pain removal more available) (won’t take asprin when we don’t have a headache)
  • SD: signal availability of reinforcement

Unconditioned Motivating Operation (UMO)

  • for all organisms there are events, operations, and stimulus conditions whose value altering effectiveness is unlearned
    • Deprivation & Satiation
    • Temperature Changes
    • Variables relevant to sexual reinforcement
    • Painful Stimulation

Conditioned Motivating Operation (CMO)

  • stimulus conditions and events whose value-altering effectiveness is learned
  • -Three kinds:
    • 1. Surrogate (CMO-S)
    • 2. Reflexive (CMO-R)
    • 3. Transitive (CMO-T)

Surrogate (CMO-S)

  • a neutral event is paired with or systematically precedes a UMO or another CMO
  • neutral event may acquire the motivational characteristics of the UMO it is paired with
  • the CMO-S would have the same reinforcing-establishing effect and same evocative effect as UMO

* EX: A stimulus paired with the UMO of being too cold might 1.) increase the effectiveness of warmth as a reinforcer and 2.) evoke behavior that had been so reinforced more than needed for the current temperature

Reflexive (CMO-R)

  • any stimulus that establishes its own termination as reinforcement
  • any stimulus whose presence or absence has been correlated with the presence or absence of a worsening condition
  • EX: Gas light comes on and signals a set of worsening conditions. Put gas in your car to terminate the warning stimulus (gas light). Establishes the value of gas as a reinforcer and evokes behaviors associated with getting gas.

Transitive (CMO-T)

  • MO + Context establishes the value of the conditional conditioned reinforcer and evokes a response that has been reinforced by the conditional conditioned reinforcer.
  • Ex: MO (deprivation of warmth) + Context (coat not in usual place) establishes the value of information about the location of the coat as a reinforcer (CCR), will evoke the response “where is my coat?” That response has previously produced information that directed me to my coat when it had reinforcing value.

CMO-T Diagramed

Automatic Reinforcement

  • Reinforcement is the natural result of the individuals’s behavior operating upon his or her own body; it is not mediated by another person and does not rely on any outside stimuli for reinforcement
  • Ex: Child alone in the crib may engage in vocal play producing sounds that have been associated with previously reinforcing events; that is automatically reinforcing to the child (making sounds that they have heard before) – (Vaughan & Michael, 1982).

Stimulus-Stimulus Pairing

  • the attempt to condition a sound as a reinforcer.
  • Research iffy
  • Child does not have to emit a response to receive reinforcement
  • Following SSP – post-pairing free operant session to observe if sound occurs
  • Goal: if the sound is a conditioned reinforcer and the child emits the sound it will be automatically reinforced
  • Role of pre-existing verbal repertoire – less effective for kids with a more extensive repertoire
  • Yoon & Felciano (2006); Esch et al. (2009)

Simple Discrimination

  • behavior comes under the control of the presence or absence of a stimulus (SD and Sdelta).
  • Intraverbal Ex: What do you eat?

Conditional Discrimination

  • one verbal stimulus alters the evocative effect of another verbal stimulus.
  • together, they evoke an intraverbal response
  • when behavior comes under the control of one stimulus only in the presence of another.
  • Intraverbal Ex: What do you eat for lunch? What time is lunch?


  • the failure to respond to multiple stimuli in a stimulus complex
  • Ex: What time is lunch? – “sandwich”

Radical Behaviorism

  • a complete account of human behavior must consider private events and the role such events play within a natural science
  • rejects mentalism

Private Event

  • covert behavior
  • behavior inside the skin of an organism
  • measured via correlates.

Challenges to Analyzing Private Events

  • access to private stimulation is inaccessible to individuals other than the person behaving, cannot point precisely to the controlling variables necessary for prediction and control
  • even without access to the controlling stimuli, individuals still learn verbal response to such stimulation

Private Events According to Skinner

  • environment includes “… any event in the universe capable of affecting the organism”
  • includes universe outside the organism and small part of the universe enclosed within the organism’s skin
  • environment includes:
    • public stimulation
    • “private” stimulation
  • Skinner (1945) offered interpretive analysis of how the verbal community generates responses to private events without direct acces to the controlling stimuli
  • he proposed 4 possible ways in which this may occur:

1. Public Accompaniment

2. Collateral Responses

3. Common Properties

4. Response Reduction

Public Accompaniment (1)

  • private events may be accompanied by some public event in the presence of which person is taught to tact a private event in agreement with the usage of the community
  • Ex: blood = public accompaniment; may exert control over an adult’s verbal response “That hurts” or something similar; both public and private stimuli are available to the child; private stimuli may be more salient (stronger source of control) and therefore become the controlling stimuli for the child’s tact “The hurts” she scraps her knee in the future

Collateral Response (2)

  • unconditioned, non-verbal responses from which the community infers private stimuli
  • Ex: Toothache = holding face/squinting and stomach ache = holding stomach
    • community may infer private event

Common Properties (3)

  • when private events occur with similar properties
  • a verbal response may take place as a result of stimulus generalization
  • Ex: Learned to call some public stimulus that oscillates in intensity “throbbing;” a headache that oscillates in intensity may also evoke the response “throbbing”

Response Reduction (4)

  • when the speaker is describing his or her own overt behavior, the verbal community supplies reinforcement based upon the observable properties of such behavior
  • verbal community sets up the reinforcing contingency based upon the external behavior but private stimulation also acquires control
  • covert responses may be operant responses which have receded in magnitude or intensity to a point that they are no longer publicly observable
  • Ex: Silent reading; kids squirm (public event) when they have to pee, reduce response to a private behavior (adults don’t squirm when they have to pee)

Significance & Limitations to Private Events According to Skinner

  • Significance: methods provide a means by which the verbal community avoids the problems presented by private stimulation
  • Limitations: precision of responding to private stimuli does not match responding to public stimuli; contingencies that establish verbal behavior under the control of private stimuli are defective

Convergent v. Divergent Control Diagram

Convergent Control

Stimulus Class dependent (many stimuli evoking a evoking response)

Divergent Control

Response Class dependent (1 stimulus evokes multiple responses)

Stimulus Control in Verbal Behavior

– can never be exact/perfect (there is always more than one stimulus controlling verbal behavior)

– Distortion & lies are a result of stimulus control not being perfect

Distorted Tact

  • Lie is type of distorted tact
    • Confession: a distorted tact under the control of the release from aversive stimulation (threat)
  • Result of weak stimulus control
  • Speaker/listener relationship: may be effected because the listener will not reinforce a distorted tact, or the listener will not behave accordingly.

Impure Tact

  • Results in a mixture of controlling relations – both mand and tact.
    • Ex: “dinner is ready” – both tact and mand – fucntioning as mand to request that her family comes to dinner.
    • Ex: child sees person with lollipop, “that looks tasty” – functions as tact and mand. responding to non-verbal stimulus (lollipop) but also manding for access to lollipop.
    • Ex: an announcement is part tact and part mand. The behavior that the listener is to engage in has already been determined


  • when the emotional reaction of the listener is the most important variable, the speaker’s behavior will be more distorted
    • Ex: romance novels use superfluous language, newspaper headlines use emotional language, etc
    • Skinner’s 3 Part Description: bodily movements, strength of a particular response, form of particular response.

Audience Control

  • Audience controls frequency of behavior in a verbal episode.
    • Ex: when cut off from the telephone, we stop talking. when audience is available, reinforcing contingencies are in place and verbal episode occurs.
  • Listener is an SD – controls the strength of the verbal behavior.
  • Audience control combine with different variables – controls type of responses (ex: talking to mom v. talking to boss)
  • Audience controls responses through history of reinforcement.
  • Physical dimensions of audiences that affect response strength:
    • Volume, understanding, attention.
  • Types of audience control:
    • 1.) Negative Audience
    • 2.) Non-reinforcing Audience

* 3.) Self-Audience

Negative Audience

punishing audience

Non-Reinforcing Audience

  • would reinforce in most settings, but is unable to for some reason (loud room, distracted, etc)


  • person becomes own listener by automatically reinforcing his own verbal behavior
    • EX: talking to yourself – “I’m too tired to work today”

– Suppress self-audience by preventing or reducing normal feedback of verbal behavior.


  • an effect of excessive or inconsistent punishment
  • if there is a change in audience control, speaker may emit previously punished behavior (forgotten bx) due to changes in environmental variables.

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