Friday, 23 March 2012

Verbal behaviour

B F Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior probably isn’t on the mainstream reading list, yet I think it is the most important non-fiction book I’ve ever read.

It’s an odd book too, because although Skinner was a major psychological researcher and theorist, his book is not highly technical - reading more like philosophy than science. Skinner deliberately wrote the book in this way. His aim was to describe common modes of verbal behaviour in terms of his behavioural psychology, but framed within everyday observations.

He classifies verbal behaviour into six basic forms, using some made-up names to avoid being lumbered with cultural baggage from the beginning.

Tact – responding verbally to the physical environment (see that tree).
Echoic – imitating the verbal behaviour of another person.
Textual – reading and writing.
Intraverbal – responding to the verbal behaviour of another person, often via association.
Mand – motivating another person (as in a command such as come here.).
Autoclitic - verbal behaviour which modifies other forms of verbal behaviour

The autoclitic is complex, but one interesting aspect of it is where we influence ourselves by being our own audience. It’s how we analyse and adjust our own ideas, acting as our own critic, revising our own blog posts or comments, talking or thinking ourselves through them before that final mouse click.

To my mind, the autoclitic is where we respond to our own thoughts, acting as our own audience is a kind of free-will within a deterministic psychology. A piecing together of a personal philosophy using material from the outside world yet shaped and moulded to our own uniqueness. Yet nobody has to use the autoclitic in private. Nobody has to examine their own ideas away from the noise of the outside world, free from external stimulus, let alone modify them. It’s optional.

Skinner’s book was immediately attacked by Chomsky, probably because it blows Chomsky's notion of innate grammar out of the water. For me, that’s reason enough to value the book anyway, because I see Chomsky’s linguistic theories as untenable, or if I’m being more honest – absurd.

The other thing worth mentioning about the book is that it’s quite difficult. The concepts Skinner introduces and makes use of are not the problem, so much as the unfamiliar way one has to look at verbal behaviour. We are immersed in our own social and personal constructs to such a degree, that even though we may be able to see them for what they are, it isn’t a habit.

So I’m not recommending the book without reservation. It requires a solid grounding in behaviourism and isn’t an easy book to wade through even with such a grounding. It won’t chime with many personal philosophies either, but for those it does speak to, then I think it may be something of a revelation.

Skinner himself saw this book as the most important he'd ever written. I value the book for a number of reasons, not least of which is the way it provides a viable scientific view of how we manage to exert free-will in a deterministic universe, how we may come to conclusions which are in a sense our own conclusions.

However, this isn't by any means Skinner's main theme. His theme is that language is learned behaviour. Stimulus, response and reinforcement. 


Sam Vega said...

The autoclitic sounds interesting, and I am wondering how much of it is "verbal" in the sense of using words and recognisable symbols, and how much is intuitive. As a writer, you sift thoughts and say them over to yourself in your head. But in other contexts, we reject paterns of thought for reasons that are beyond rational analysis.

You are right about this process being optional, at any rate. Some people appear to do very little of it.

Anyway, (sigh!) that's another one for the "retirement reading list"!

Anonymous said...

Not my field and not familiar with Skinner's work, but reading the Wiki I come away thinking - 'is this a statement of the obvious dressed up with fancy words?', or am I an insensitive munter unable to see the glory within. I read Chomsky way back and didn't like his grammar story much but he did well out of the computer language types. That said the robotics people got a long way following the behaviour model and I am not surprised at that. At some higher level I suspect the two approaches converge.

I detect a familiar analysis of word forms in I A Richards Principles of Literary Criticism and he wrote that in 1930. As for 'autoclit', well really.

Anonymous said...

More behaviourism, control systems (chemical plants etc) are a model of the process they control and are often used (offline one hopes) to verify the effect of proposed changes. This amounts to a conversation between the plant operatives and the plant, so perhaps looking at our inner conversations we are seeing something similar. Just a thought, now where did I leave my ID hammer?

A K Haart said...

Sam - some of our thoughts and feelings aren't verbal and Skinner classes them as private and beyond language.

I'm not sure if he read Richards Principles of Literary Criticism, but he rated the literary world for its insights into human life.

Roger - in some ways Skinner's work is a statement of the obvious dressed up in academic language. What is uncommon about him is the way he sticks rigidly to cause and effect as a mode of explanation.