Archive for January, 2010

B.F.Skinner’s Breakthrough Approach to Verbal Behavior

January 10, 2010


In the view of most people, each human has inside him the following:

  • An inner non-physical agent of action
  • A non-physical universe of thoughts, feelings, desires, emotions, and the like

From time to time, a speaker’s inner agent may choose to express one of the non-physical entities using words. This triggers events in the non-physical universes of listeners, causing understanding, actions, and perhaps expression of ideas from them. The non-physical inner agents and entities are considered to be sine qua non. This seems to have been the view from the dawn of human thought.

A Brief History of The Skinnerian View of Language

Skinner published an alternate view of language in 1957, in his famous book Verbal Behavior. (I have no doubt that this book will be hailed as one of the most important books of all time. As a supportive reviewer of the book put it, “Like it or not, the camel’s nose is in the tent”.) The book was not a hasty effort. It was under construction for about 30 years. Earlier versions of the approach was presented in lectures in 1948. Chomsky published a “mean and uncomprehending” review of the book in 1959, without appearing to have read most of the book.

The Skinnerian View of Language

The following are the important points:

  • No inner agent of action nor a non-physical inner universe is assumed to exist in humans. References to the above are considered to be explanatory fictions (say, similar to “the vital force” once popular in biology).

Utterances are learned behavior produced by variables in the environment. No inner agent of action is invoked — such inner agents of action are considered to be explanatory fictions. Several variables act upon a speaker causing him to emit a verbal response at a particular instant in time. This acts on a listener causing him to act. Utterances are operants. All we know about operants can be readily applied to verbal behavior also.

This is a huge step forward, in the history of human thought.

Cut Stuff

When the effects of current setting etc on what is spoken is pointed out, this scarcely generates any excitement, since the contribution from these variables is considered to be trivial when compared to the major role played by the inner agent of action.  An example may help. When a man picks up a telephone and calls, the role played by the telephone is considered to be minimal, compared to the role played by variables inside him which causes him to make the call.

Why Skinner’s Analysis of Verbal Behavior Is Right

January 3, 2010

Anecdotal Evidence


My wife and I eat in the living room watching TV, as usual. As usual again, she is done first, loads the dishwasher, leaves it open, and yells  “Can you rinse and load your plate and start the dishwasher?” (She cannot bear to see a single plate sitting in the sink, when she has just loaded the rest of the dishes.)

The response of interest is the verbal response

“Can you rinse and load your plate and start the dishwasher?”

uttered under the above mentioned conditions (Sunday noon, lunchtime, she has finished eating, I am still eating, she has loaded the dishwasher, etc.)

It is a verbal response – the disturbances in the air caused by the utterance “Can you rinse and load your plate and start the dishwasher?” cannot cause much physical effect in themselves — they may at most extinguish a burning candle nearby. However, if there is a trained human within hearing distance, they may cause a considerable effect — such as my plate being rinsed and placed in the dishwasher, the dishwasher being closed, and the Start button being pushed. It is Skinner’s breakthrough insight that utterances can be analyzed as behavior that produce effect via the meditation of humans, in a strictly deterministic  framework. (This is a huge step forward.  )

Deterministic Framework:

What is beautiful and brilliant about this explanation is that none of the following is necessary:


Skinner’s Definition of Verbal Behavior

January 3, 2010

B.F.Skinner defined verbal behavior as behavior reinforced by the mediation of other persons. (I am writing this from memory. I don’t have a copy of Verbal Behavior with me at the moment. I live in one dwelling during the workweek and another during weekends. I am too cheap to buy multiple copies of even behaviorist books.)

Some people have questioned this definition as being unable to cover all possible cases. (I am not taking the time to explain this well here. Reserve the right to update this part in particular, in the future. Of course, I also reserve the right to update the entire site at any time.) This seems to me to be intentionally focusing on the unimportant — this has also been pointed out (by Dave Palmer, for instance.)

It seems to me that if we add the qualification “if the behavior has an effect without the mediation of others, it is not verbal behavior”, this should take care of most of the extreme cases. (Again, taking care of the extreme cases is hardly any priority.)

Steve Hayes is one of the critics of Skinner’s definition of VB. As Dave Palmer has pointed out, criticizing Skinner definition is neither necessary nor sufficient for advancing Hayes’ molar approach to verbal behavior.

(Add quote here about Hayes two chamber example.)

1. The situation of a Skinner box accidentally dispensing pellets at VR 5 is quite unlikely.

2. If the feeder gets accidentally stuck, the VR5 goes out the window. We can tell the two chambers apart quite easily. Dave Palmer points out a similar thing: when the feed runs out, the two chambers don’t have identical situations. [Dave always steals my best ideas, by thinking of them two or three years before I do :-)]

3. The two chambers are different in other ways too. If there is an announcement “Impending tornado strike. Please take shelter ASAP”, the manual feeder scurries and takes shelter, leaving the poor pigeon unattended. The “stuck feeder” keeps on delivering at VR5.

4. If we use my definition, then the responding in the “stuck feeder” chamber is not verbal behavior at all. (If mechanical/geometrical connections produce the effect, it is not verbal behavior.)

My Very First Blog

January 3, 2010

Even though I have posted in other websites, this is my very first post on my own blog. I am excited. Too bad that I am doing this on the very last day of my vacation, having to go back to work tomorrow, but better late than never.

In the order of importance, the following topics are what I hope to blog on:

  • Behaviorism/verbal behavior
  • Indian cooking
  • Indian immigrant experience in the US
  • Evils of job off shoring
  • Attempts at fiction

Of course, I reserve the right to change anything and everything, at any time.