BF Skinner, Behavioralism, & Language
Frederic Skinner was born and raised in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. He
earned his BA in English and hoped to be a writer. However, this
profession did not work out, and at the age of 24, he applied and was
excepted to the psychology graduate program at Harvard. Here he
happened to meet William Crozier in the physiology
department. Young Skinner was taken by Crozier, an ardent advocate
for animal studies and behavioral measures, and began to tailor his
studies according to Crozier's highly functional, behaviorist
framework. Working across disciplines, he integrated methods and
theories from psychology and physiology and developed new ways of
recording and analyzing data.
As he experimented with rats,
Skinner noticed that the responses he was recording were influenced not
only by what preceded them but also by what followed them. The
common behavioral approach at the time was influenced by the work of
Pavlov and Watson, both of whom focused on the stimulus-response
paradigm. Their form of classical conditioning focused on what occurred
prior to a response and how these stimuli affected learning.
Skinner, however, focused on what occurred after a behavior, noting that
the effects or repercussions of an action could influence an organism's
learning. By 1931, he had his PhD in psychology and was well on
his way to developing operant conditioning, the behaviorist paradigm
that ruled for the second part of the 20th century.
He continued to do research at
Harvard until 1936, when he moved to Minneapolis with his new
wife. In 1945, he and his family moved to Bloomington, Indiana,
where he served as the chair of the psychology department until 1948,
when he was offered a position at Harvard. He remained at Harvard
for the rest of his intellectual career. During the 1950s and 60s,
Skinner published and experimented extensively. Working with
numerous graduate student who themselves became eminent psychologists,
he formalized his theory or schedules of reinforcement and operant
In 1957, Skinner published his
book Verbal Behavior, in which he attempted to account for
language development in humans. During his later years, Skinner
turned his attention to the social implications of his theory until he
of leukemia in 1990.
Behaviorist Theory &
Core to all of
behaviorism is the assumption that
human and animal behaviors are determined by learning and
reinforcement. Whether by classical conditioning or operatant
conditioning, species acquire new skills, deepening on the effects these
skills have on the specie's environment. If an action proves to have
a positive outcome (e.g., if by pressing a button, a rat receives food),
the organism is more likely to continue to repeat this behavior. However,
if the outcome is negative (e.g., if by pressing a button, a rat rat receives
a shock), the organism is less likely to repeat the behavior.
Stimulus-Response (S-R) adherents, believed that behaviorist theory
could be used to infer a learning history.
They held that one could take an animal or person, observe
its/his/her behavior, and figure out what had been reinforced
reduced all responses to associations, to a pattern of positive and
negative reinforcement that establishes links between stimuli and their
environmental antecedents and consequences.
Responses that were reinforced would be repeated, and those that
were punished would not. Thus,
if a dog brought its human a ball and the human pet it, the dog’s
behavior would be reinforced, and it would be more apt to getting the
ball in the future. Likewise,
if the dog brought its human a ball and the human kicked it, the dog’s
behavior would be punished, and it would be less likely to do it.
between stimuli, actions, and responses could explain virtually every
aspect of human and animal behavior and interaction, but one seemed
particularly problematic for the behaviorist theory: language.
In 1957, Skinner published his book, Verbal Behavior, in
which he attempted to apply his form of operant conditioning to language
A basic assumption of his
was that all language, including private, internal discourse, was a
behavior that developed in the same manner as other skills.
He believed that a sentence is merely part of “a behavior
chain, each element of which provides a conditional stimulus for the
production of the succeeding element” (Fodor, Bever, & Garrett,
p25). The probability of a
verbal response was contingent on four things: reinforcement, stimulus
control, deprivation, and aversive stimulation.
The interaction of these things in a child’s environment would
lead to particular associations, the basis of all language.
proposed that language could be categorized by the way it was
reinforced. He claimed that
there were four general types of speech: echoic behavior, mand,
tact, interverbals and autoclitic.
behavior is the primary form of verbal behavior of language learners. These verbalizations include repeated utterances, as in (1)
[pointing to cookie] That’s a cookie. Can you say ‘cookie’?
(short for deMANDS) are defined as utterances that are reinforced by the
elevation of deprivation. So
for instance, if a child were hungry or cold, her requests (as in (2))
such as “Stop,” “Go,” and “Wait” also count as mands.
in (3), the child may be simply naming the object or stating what she
that are produced when the speaker is not deprived are called tact
(short for conTACT). Tacts
are verbalizations that the speaker produces to provide information
instead of attending to states of deprivation.
While on the surface, tacts and mands may seem similar, their
underlying motivations (stimuli) and their reinforcements
are different. When
a mand is reinforced, the need is sated.
When a tact is reinforced, there is no need to sate.
fourth type of utterance is the interverbals.
These include such things as “Please” and “Thank you.” These utterances are not necessary to provide information.
Rather, they are used in discourse situation and pertain to the
interactive nature of dialog. So for example, in (4), the second
utterance, the response to the question, is an interverbal.
Likewise, the associative response in number (5) is also an
(4) SPEAKER A: Who’s your
favorite graduate student?
SPEAKER B: You
(5) WORD: CAT
the final category, autoclitics, Skinner attempted to deal with internal
speech, or thought. Autoclitics,
by his account, are subject to the same effects of reinforcement as
verbalized speech and that previously reinforced internal, or thought
behaviors, will influence not only current and future thought but also
current and future verbal behavior.
Whether the speech was internal or
dialogic, reinforced positively or negatively, all language can be
considered behavior that is conditioned and learned.
When Skinner wrote Verbal Behavior he attempted to explain
the most complex human behavior: communication.
This included all forms of language comprehension, from dialog to
a tribute to the behaviorist paradigm, Skinner’s book generated more
questions and concerns than it explained.
After his book was published and critiqued by Noam Chomsky,
Skinner failed to respond immediately to the issues and problems raised.
His slow response coupled with both a growing disdain for the
behaviorist paradigm and the influence of technology, computers, and
information processing led to the strengthening of the cognitive
movement in psychology and other social sciences.
JA; Bever, TG; & Garrett, MF. (1975) The Psychology of Language:
An Introduction to Psycholinguistics and Generative Grammar. New
Lana, Robert E. The cognitive approach to language and thought.
Journal of Mind & Behavior. Vol 23(1-2) Win-Spr 2002, 51-67. Inst of Mind & Behavior, US
Page (Part of the History of Psychology web site)