Skinners verbal behaviour


An analysis of Skinner's account of the strength of a verbal operant is reviewed here. While Skinner attempts to provide a thorough and coherent account of verbal behavior lending it to a scientific analysis, his arguments often fall short of this intended and stated goal. These short comings can be explicitly seen in Skinner's analysis of the strength of the verbal operant. Skinner's analysis begins by addressing some concerns with the traditional approach to verbal behavior which has historically remained at the topographical level of analysis. Skinner contends that these descriptions do have value, yet much more is need when attempting to "understand" its occurrence, and specifically the environmental controlling contingencies must be accounted for. In this paper it will be argued that Skinner's analysis while it aims to criticize the traditional view, often finds itself in the same problematic topographical analysis in which function accounts over form.


Skinner's 1957 Verbal Behavior attempts to provide a functional account of verbal behavior. He starts the text by addressing several issues that have made functional analysis difficult and delayed. He then throughout the rest of the text attempts to address these issues pragmatically and functionally. He does so first by stating that a science of behavior's validity, or any science for that matter, rests upon the ability to predict and control the responding of an organism, and not merely describing the responses' formal properties (Skinner 1957 pg. 5, 6, 9).

Based on this logical assumption of "understanding" phenomena via prediction and control Skinner defines verbal behavior as a behavior that is reinforced though the mediation of another individual. This definition indicates that verbal behavior has the advantage of indirectly altering the environment. It is this component of verbal behavior that according to Skinner requires special treatment and analysis (Skinner, 1957, pg. 2).

Historically, the traditional account of verbal behavior has provided this special treatment and analysis with regards to identifying the controlling relations of responding. Instead thorough and elaborate depictions of topography have prevailed. This has thus, produced a lacking investigations of functional relations between the speaker's behaviors and the controlling environmental contingencies (Skinner 1957, pg. 6). This lacking component, can in part be attributed to a long history of explanations of behavior as coming from within the organism. This assumption may provide evidence as to why developments in functional accounts of psychological events have been delayed in comparison to other areas of scientific inquiry (i.e., biology, chemistry etc...) (Skinner 1957, pg. 5).

Skinner's account is thus to provided a much needed functional account of verbal behavior that can attribute its occurrence to events controlling variables outside of the individual. Using logical devises and assumptions that Skinner attempts to make the point that it is only at the level of outside controlling variables that prediction and control can be evaluated through independent observations of environmental contingences (Skinner 1957, pg. 5, 6).

Despite Skinner's attempt at providing a functional account of verbal behavior his description often falls short of providing a through and coherent analysis of verbal operants, and he often fails in providing this account from a functional standpoint. Some of these issues become blatantly apparent when Skinner discusses the basic datum of verbal behavior. This basic datum is probably of a given response class (operant) occurring, or as termed by Skinner, "strength" of the operant (Skinner 1957, pg. 22). Strength will first be summarized in terms of Skinners analysis and will be concluded with a critic of his argument primarily focusing on two points: the first will be Skinner's "indicators" of strength which unfortunately falls into the traditional view of form over function of responding. Along these same (assumptions) regarding the traditional perspective concern regarding a qualitative analysis rather than a quantitative one will be briefly discussed. Secondly Skinner's analysis often becomes problematic in that the Radical Behavioral perspective can not effectively account for a behavior that is not immediately consequated.



Skinner defines a unit of verbal behavior as any given behavior under the control of a single manipulated variable. Through the manipulation of this variable the probability of the response occurring changes, it is this probability or "strength" of response that Skinner defines as the dependent measure in the scientific analysis of verbal behavior.

"Our basic datum is not the occurrence of a given response as such, but the probability that it will occur at a given time. Every verbal operant may be conceived of as having under specified circumstances an assignable probability of emissionconveniently called its "strength." (Skinner, 1957, pg. 22).

The basic datum of strength, of the speaker's verbal repertoire can be seen in varying forms of responses occurring at various times in correspondence to the manipulated environmental conditions. These changes in responses indicate the strength of the operating contingencies. This environmental dynamic (change/manipulation) allows for the prediction and control of responding through a systematic manipulation of environmental events. This thus, allows for a scientific analysis not merely a descriptive account of behavior (Skinner, 1957, pg. 21).

In discussing this dynamic character of controlling relations that impact responding according to Skinner indicates the strength of responding. Skinner then provides a description of five areas where evidence for strength can be indicated (Skinner 1957, pg. 22).

Emission of response:

Skinner contents that if a response is purely emitted its occurrence is in all likelihood strong. Additionally, he indicates further evidence for the strength of an emitted response when it occurs in circumstances that are unusual, such as discussing academic related material at a family reunion (Skinner, 1957, pg. 22).

Skinner states that the emission of a response in an unusual circumstance also indicates the strength of the speaker's repertoire with regards to the verbal stimuli that evoke the given response. He does so by providing the example of hearing ones name called at a noisy social event when in fact no one is calling the name. This according to Skinner serves as an indication of the strength of the individual's name in his own verbal repertoire (Skinner, 1957, pg. 22).

Energy Level:

Like the emission of a response, Skinner argues that the energy level by which the response is made also serves as an indicator of the strength of the response. However, unlike an analysis at the level of occurrence an analysis of energy level provides an index of strength on a continuum form "zero to a very high value" (Skinner, 1957, pg., 23). Skinner argues that the energy level of a response serves to not only indicate its strength but also indicate that the operant would not easily be overcome by other competing contingencies for differing responses. For example, a forceful immediate response indicates the strength response in comparison to other equally effective operants in the organism's repertoire that are emitted less forcefully. Secondly, a quite (i.e., whispered) timid delayed response indicates a weak response that could easily be overcome by competing contingencies for other forms or types of operants.

The energy level of a response may also be indicated according to Skinner in the properties of a response. His example includes the pitch of a vocal response. Typically the higher the pitch it accompanies a louder response, and thus provides further indications of strength. Skinner also indicates that forms of verbal behavior other than vocal may display differing levels of energy as well. They are, however, limited in their ability to display such indicators of strength. For example with in written behavior one may see larger letters, underlining or creative depictions of words to indicate their energy. Simply, the variably capable in vocal verbal behavior is less restricted than verbal behavior in the form of written behavior.


Skinner further articulates that the speed at which verbal operants follow one another, as the occasion for responding is established (one verbal operant can become verbal stimuli for another response), also this indicates strength over a response which is delayed or slowed. These responses that occur at a high rate show more strength than those that occur at lower rate. Such weakness according to Skinner may be attributed to poor conditioning, such as a child learning to read or speak competing contingences for other responses or other pathological disorders-such as Skinner's example of aphasia. Again according to Skinner the evidence of strength in the speed of the response provides a continuum based on the dynamic of analysis.


The repetition of a verbal response immediately after having been emitted according to Skinner is also another indicator of strength. Unlike other indicators Skinner makes specific note that repetition of a response may also frequently co-occur with changing levels of energy of the repeated verbal responses. Additionally, this repetition may be not only be used to indicate an increase in energy but also a decrease (i.e., NO, No, no). It is this dynamic that makes the use of repetition unique in emphasizing the probability of the operant.

Overall Frequency:

While the overall frequency of response, or response class may indicate the strength of that operant within the repertoire of the individual Skinner notes that this overall frequency does not provide a moment to moment analysis of an individual in a given setting, but would require a more molar analysis of the individual in relation to the behavior shaped by the verbal community. However, Skinner still maintains the argument that such a measure would provide relevant data with regards to the strength of a given operant in an individuals repertoire.

Skinner's Noted Limitations of Evidence for Strength:

Skinner notes several limitations of the above indications of strength of any operant, however these are not the only limitations which will be discussed. Some of these limitations, noted by Skinner include the following three concerns. The first one, that he states that these areas need further and special investigations which will be discussed later on, the primary issue revolving around these areas are that they do not indicate strength or probability, but instead involve an analysis of the form of the responses, and not the function of the response (Skinner 1957, pg. 25).

First skinner expresses that when properties of behavior are indicative of the same probability (strength) they should vary together however this is not always the case. More specifically, energy, speed, and repetitiveness do not always vary at the same time. For example, when speaking to a hard hearing individual a speaker may exhibit slow speech but increases the energy of their responses may be observed concurrently in order for a hard of hearing individual the individual to effectively mediate reinforcement for the speaker (Skinner 1957, pg. 25)

A second limitation noted by skinner again involves the energy level, the speed of responding and additionally the repetition of responding. These limitations include the form of the response made by the speaker, distortions in form of may not indicate the strength but may instead be controlled by some other that controlling variable is inconsequential to indicating probability of responding. For example, one may whisper because of laryngitis and not because of the response is poorly conditioned (Skinner 1957, pg. 25).

Lastly, these limitations of indicators of strength include conditions of reinforcement and punishment and the effective mediation reinforcement via the listener for the verbal behavior of the speaker. Responses that are emitted in extreme forms of repetition, energy, and speed of responding, may be punished by the verbal community and or they may interfere with the listener's ability to respond effectively to the speaker. Conversely on verbal community may reinforce give properties of verbal behavior while another does not. Speaking in repetitive energetic, or at differing speeds may be reinforced by one verbal community or by a given listener who can only behave effectively to the speaker when the speaker utilizes such properties of verbal behavior, where as other verbal communities may reinforce different properties of the speakers verbal behavior (Skinner 1957, pg. 25).

Probability and the Single Instance of Responding:

Skinner makes the argument that the goal of a science of behavior, and all physical sciences for that matter need to move to the predictions of single events which may involve moving beyond pure frequency measures or responding. Skinner makes the case that historically under controlled laboratory conditions frequency measures have provided specific and accurate information regarding the functional relation between behavior and environment contingencies. However when applied outside of a laboratory setting the utility of frequency counts, while helpful, cannot account for or identify all of the variables needed to effectively provide information for the probability of a single instance of responding. Simply, more information is needed than frequency can provide it. Skinner argues the frequency counts of multiple controlling variables must be used to gather information for the contribution of multiple controlling variables involved in the event to be predicted. He also suggests that other measures may need to be utilized when collecting information regarding these controlling relations of variables.


Within Skinners analysis of verbal behavior his attempt to provide a functional account the phenomena often falls short of coherent. Several inconstancies and problematic accounts occur throughout his text. One of the most flagrant examples of these problematic analyses is Skinner's account of strength in the verbal operant. The following critic will aim to discuss these inconsistencies and contradictions with regards to the use of "strength" of responding. Specifically, it will make the point Skinners conceptualization of strength serves as a relatively poor indicator of the probability of responding from a functional perspective.

First, Skinners descriptions of energy level, speed, and repetition are at best qualitative analysis within this dynamic as a quantitative description of strength would be difficult (i.e., how strong is strong, what are the qualifications of fast). This can become problematic when evaluating verbal behavior from a causal perspective in that the data become subjective in natural settings. Prediction and control of phenomena become difficult when an objective definition is unattainable for a qualitative stand point; there is no definite reference to compare strength of responding to. Where a distinct quantifiable definition lends towards scientific analysis in terms and a functional relation is easer to conclude.

Skinners qualifications for indicating response strength lend themselves to an analysis of response topography or form, rather than the function of the controlling variables as a measure of strength. Prediction and control of a response based on topography becomes difficult in such an analysis in that the controlling variables of the response are left unaccounted for. Additionally, it is the properties of the response that are described and not the effect they have upon the listener. Incidentally Skinner unintentionally falls prey to the traditional view of verbal behavior the very view he is attempting to criticize and provide an alternative analysis for (Skinner 1957, pg.16). Rather than providing descriptions of the response itself indicating strength had Skinner focused on the probability of responding occurring again with regards to the organism's history, and the preceding consequences of the response his articulation of a functional account of verbal behavior would have better provided for future scientific inquiry (Skinner 1957, pg. 19).

With regards to the probability of single response Skinner's explanation cannot take into account responses that are not immediately consequated. Skinners analysis primarily focuses on the response consequence dynamic, with little emphasis on the individual history of the speaker that impacts the responding. By limiting his perspective of the total psychological event to behavior and its immediate consequences Skinner is unable to account for responses that lack immediate consequences. This makes his analysis of verbal behavior problematic in that a verbal episode often subject to delayed consequences. A more elaborate account of the organism's history impacting behavior may provide a better explanation and functional account of verbal behavior rather than a forward emphasis on behavior and consequence with little attention paid to history.


To conclude Skinner's analysis of verbal behavior is an attempt to provide a functional account of verbal behavior, specifically in terms of prediction and control of verbal operants attributed to environmental contingencies. Skinner thus attempts to provide an account of verbal behavior that just like any other behavior can be accounted for via environmental contingencies. Unfortunately, however Skinner fails to provide an adequate analysis of verbal behavior. Skinner's Radical Behavioral view fails to maintain its validity as described by Skinner when discussing the complex responding of verbal behavior.

Skinner's approach to verbal behavior does supply some pragmatism, not typically offered in the field of verbal behavior, however his inconstancies, and theoretical limitations found in the Radical Behavioral view (form over functional accounts) limits the fidelity and application of his analysis. However, the argument for providing a functional, environmental account of verbal behavior is poignant and important when analyzing verbal operants. An analysis emphasizing the history in relation to the behavior and consequences of verbal behavior may provide more coherent and satisfactory account.


  • Skinner, B.F. (1992). Verbal Behavior. Action MA: Copley. (Original work published in 1957).

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