BF Skinner

BF Skinner, Behavioralism, & Language Behavior


Burrhus 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 conditioning.

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 & Language Learning

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.

Skinner, and 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 previously.  Behaviorist 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. 

These associations 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 learning.  

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.

Skinner 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. 

Echoic behavior is the primary form of verbal behavior of language learners.  These verbalizations include repeated utterances, as in (1)

(1)    PARENT: [pointing to cookie] That’s a cookie. Can you say ‘cookie’?
CHILD: Cooookie

Mands (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))

(2)   Cookie.

Directives such as “Stop,” “Go,” and “Wait” also count as mands.

However, in (3), the child may be simply naming the object or stating what she likes.

            (3) Cookie!

Utterances 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.

The 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 interverbal.

            (4) SPEAKER A: Who’s your favorite graduate student?
                 SPEAKER B: You

            (5) WORD: CAT
                 RESPONSE: Dog

With 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 thought. 

Though 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.

References & Resources

Fodor, JA; Bever, TG; & Garrett, MF. (1975) The Psychology of Language: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics and Generative Grammar. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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 

Behaviorism Page (Part of the History of Psychology web site)