Skinner’s Verbal Behavior as an Operant Paradigm

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Skinner’s book Verbal behavior explains the acquisition of language by a person from the perspective of the operant learning paradigm. Skinner tried to prove that the child begins to pronounce their first syllables and then the words only because they receive the parents’ praise. When the syllable “ma” is accidentally formed from incoherent childish babble, the happy mother takes it personally and praises the child. The repetition of this syllable twice gives even more reasons for praise. Gradually, syllable by syllable, the mechanisms of phonation and articulation are fixed, helping toddlers to learn first words. Having arisen by chance, they are saved in case of reinforcement, or they are not saved if they mean nothing and adults do not react to them (Cooper et al., 2019). Agreeing with Skinner’s arguments forces a reader to admit that language is the product of selective reinforcement of correct speech sounds in accordance with the general rules for the formation of operant conditioned reflexes.

Explaining his verbal behavior paradigm, Skinner described five basic types of verbal operant. There are further listed according to the classification based on their properties such as response control, nonverbal stimulus, verbal stimulus, point-to-point correspondence, and formal similarity. An explanation of these characteristics is given in the discussion of each separate operand. It is important to note that some types of verbal relationships have several properties at once.

Motivation Operation Control

Mand is a type of verbal behavior that occurs due to the influence of motivational variables. Deprivation by any stimulus or aversive stimulation is the stimulating condition for the onset of the mand-reaction. Prolonged lack of access to food can induce a person to ask, “Give me something to eat!”. Mand responses, which perform the function of making a request, occur due to the appearance of stimulating conditions and are enhanced by the receipt of a significant desired stimulus (Cooper et al., 2019). Appeal “I’m thirsty!” will arise due to thirst and will be fixed due to the receipt of water.

Nonverbal Stimulus

The tact relation is influenced by non-verbal stimuli in the environment. Both overt events occurring and latent stimuli can elicit tact responses. When a mother appears in a child’s field of vision, they can react by saying, “Mom has come!”. The comments about the events taking place, which are tact-reactions, are formed through nonspecific social consequences. When a child claims, “Mom, get the plane!” about a plane flying in the sky, their mother reacts, “Right! This is an airplane!” (Cooper et al., 2019). However, this response is not intended to give the child the airplane itself (in contrast to the mand-reaction, which is intensified by receiving a specific desired stimulus).

Verbal Stimulus. Point-to-point correspondence. Formal Similarity.

Duplic is broken down into three types of relations: echoic, copying text, and motor imitation. The echoic type of verbal behavior exactly repeats the verbal stimulus of another person. When a mother says the word “dog,” the child repeats “dog.” When a teacher says “Ra, re, ri” in speech therapy classes, a child repeats “Ra, re, ri!”. The echo reaction must fully correspond to the form and type of the verbal stimulus. If a verbal stimulus is a spoken word, then the echo-reaction; if it is a written text – its copying, and if it is a gesture – it’s a motor imitation (Cooper et al., 2019). The formal similarity occurs here when the verbal stimulus and the response affect the same sensory system and when there is a physical sense of resemblance. Point-to-point correspondence is provided by the similarity between verbal stimulus and response product.

Verbal Stimulus. Point-to-point correspondence.

Codic operant has two types of relations: taking dictations and textual. The former type implies interpreting verbal stimuli by converting them into text. Importantly, there is no need for a recipient to know or understand the meaning of the words. For example, having read the word “pillow,” a person probably does not know that this word in English means “pillow.” Moreover, a person can type the heard information in any form they want, for example, “DOG” or “dog.” This principle of point-to-point correspondence means that verbal stimulus corresponds to the response and vice versa (Cooper et al., 2019). This means that when a person sees a written word “dog,” they say “dog.”

Verbal Stimulus

Intraverbal. This type of verbal reaction also occurs due to verbal stimuli but strictly does not correspond to them. When a child is asked the question, “Who is barking?” This type of verbal action is the basis of dialogue, as well as the translation of words from another language (Cooper et al., 2019). Hearing the word “mother” and saying “mother” in response is also an intraverbal action.

Unlike conventional perception, in which receptive and expressive speech is part of one continuum, in verbal behavior analysis, all speech reactions are independent functional units. Acquiring the skill to call water with the word “water” (tact-reaction) does not at all guarantee that one will get the skill to ask for water when one feels thirsty (mand-reaction). Furthermore, this will not mean that one will bring a glass of water according to the instructions “Bring a glass of water!” (listener behavior). The acquisition of all types of verbal skills must occur in parallel so that the entire repertoire of various functional units is combined into “speech.”


Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2020). Applied behavior analysis (3rd ed.). Pearson UK.

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PsychologyWriting. 2023. "Skinner's Verbal Behavior as an Operant Paradigm." March 1, 2023.

1. PsychologyWriting. "Skinner's Verbal Behavior as an Operant Paradigm." March 1, 2023.


PsychologyWriting. "Skinner's Verbal Behavior as an Operant Paradigm." March 1, 2023.