Verbal Governance: Should the Presentation Start with Bad News to Make Its Point? (We Are

Verbal Governance: Should the Presentation Start with Bad News to Make Its Point? (We Are

Verbal Governance1

Chapter in: K. A. Lattal & P. N. Chase (Eds.) (2003). Behavior Theory and Philosophy. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum. Pp. 301-321.

Verbal Governance, Verbal Shaping, and Attention to Verbal Stimuli

A. Charles Catania

University of Maryland Baltimore County

Running Head: Verbal Behavior: Governance, Shaping. Attention


Verbal Governance, Verbal Shaping, and Attention to Verbal Stimuli

Whence comes the power of words? Citizens of purportedly civilized nations have come under the sway of the rhetoric of demagogues. Soldiers have killed and been killed following the orders of military superiors. Leaders of some religious sects have put people to death for utterances labelled blasphemous or heretical. Leaders of others have taken their own and their followers’ lives with words of salvation on their lips. Yet were my next words to promise you immortality in good health and prosperity in a world of intellectual challenge, amusement, and good fellowship, asking nothing more in return than a portion of your current worldly goods, I doubt you would take up my offer. Some in our culture, however, do give things over to or do things for those who say they guarantee eternal bliss in exchange. Why are so many so susceptible to such verbal behavior?

In 1919, Hitler became an education officer for squads about to be discharged from the German army after the end of the First World War: “For the first time in his life, he had found something at which he was an unqualified success. Almost by chance, he had stumbled on his greatest talent. As he himself put it, he could ‘speak’” (Kershaw, 1998, p. 124). Appealing to charisma will not do. Many political and cultural contingencies contributed to Hitler’s rise to power (Kershaw, 1998, 2000), but he could not have brought Germany to Nazism, the Holocaust, and the Second World War without words (though sometimes what was not said also made a difference: Cornwell, 1999).

The power of words, of course, is not all bad. Students have been inspired by the words of wise teachers, and the speeches of visionary leaders have sometimes drawn their

Verbal Governance1

followers to nonviolent protest rather than violent revolution, to creation rather than desecration. In the service of social and political organizations, much of human moral and ethical behavior is codified in a web of maxims and laws and other verbal traditions. But what makes words work as they do?

We are only beginning to learn about their functions. It is difficult even to think consistently about words as behavior. This chapter first reviews the nature of verbal behavior and what we can say about its origins. Plausible accounts of those origins are severely constrained by what we know about how behavior is selected in phylogeny, ontogeny, and cultural transmission. Having considered those issues as prerequisites for further analysis, the chapter then moves on to the contemporary functions of verbal behavior, examining how the variables that determine it can combine to produce potent effects on subsequent behavior, both verbal and nonverbal. The focus is on three major topics: (1) verbal governance, in the contingencies, mainly social, that lead not only to instruction-following but also to correspondences between what we do and what we say about what we do; (2) verbal shaping, in the natural and artificial contingencies that arrange consequences for verbal behavior and thereby raise or lower the probabilities of different verbal classes; and (3) attention to verbal stimuli, in which reinforcing and aversive properties of these stimuli affect not only whether they will be noted but also whether they will become incorporated into one’s own verbal behavior. An essential feature of the analysis is the combination of these processes in the multiple causation of verbal and nonverbal behavior.

The Nature and Origins of Verbal Behavior

Verbal behavior is any behavior involving words, without regard to whether the words are spoken, written or gestural. It involves both speaker behavior shaped by its effects on the behavior of listeners and listener behavior shaped by its effects on the behavior of speakers. The functional units of verbal behavior (such as words) are maintained by the practices of verbal communities. Spellings and pronunciations in dictionaries and rules in grammar books summarize those practices by describing standard structures of verbal units. The distinction between functional and structural concerns is to a large extent captured by the distinction between the terms verbal behavior and language (sentences with similar structures may have different functions and sentences with different structures may have similar functions).

The most basic consequence of verbal behavior is that through it speakers change the behavior of listeners. Verbal behavior is a way to get people to do things; it is “effective only through the mediation of other persons” (Skinner, 1957, p. 2; see also pp. 224-226). Sometimes its effects are nonverbal, as when we ask someone to do something; sometimes its effects are verbal, as when we change what someone has to say about something. This function is primary because other functions gain their significance only through it. What more important reason to describe our feelings than that others may treat us differently? What more important reason to give information than that others may act upon it? Could some social function more general than changing what someone else does have provided the selective contingencies under which human language evolved? Transmitting information and describing feelings are functions of language, but these secondary functions matter only if they sometimes make a difference by changing the behavior of others. Verbal behavior does not transmit information or ideas or feelings; the verbal behavior itself is what is transmitted.

Speculations about the origin and evolution of verbal behavior have a long and controversial history (e.g., Catania, 1985), but discriminating the behavior of others was presumably a crucial prerequisite. Verbal behavior is quintessentially social and can emerge only in organisms whose behavior is or can become sensitive to social contingencies. Discriminating the behavior of other organisms, whether of one's own or of other species, has clear selective advantages. Predators that can distinguish whether they have been seen by their prey, like prey that can distinguish whether they have been seen by their predators, have substantial advantages over ones that cannot.

Any account of the origins and evolution of language must be consistent with selection as it operates at three different levels: phylogenic selection, as populations of individuals (and their genes) are selected by evolutionary contingencies; ontogenic selection, as populations of responses are selected by their consequences over the lifetime of an organism; and cultural or memetic selection, as behavior passed on from one organism to another is selected by social contingencies (Catania, 1994; Darwin, 1859, 1871; Dawkins, 1976, 1982; Skinner, 1981; cf. chapters by Donahoe and Glenn in this volume).

The behavior of one organism may allow another to act on the basis of stimuli available only to the first, as when one monkey’s vocal call allows another to escape from a predator it had not seen. In monkeys, predator calls vary with kinds of predator and the response to the call depends on who the caller is and who the listener is (e.g., Gouzoules, Gouzoules & Marler, 1984; Seyfarth, Cheney & Marler, 1980). Elicited cries produced by predator attack provide one of several plausible starting points for the selection of precursors of verbal behavior by phylogenic and ontogenic contingencies. Imagine a band of preverbal hominids with a minimal repertory of fixed action patterns elicited by vocal releasers, so that speakers’ calls reliably determine some behavior of other members of the band. If just a single utterance with effects corresponding to the contemporary word “stop” prevents out-of-reach offspring from wandering off into danger, those participating in such vocal control will over the long run have a reproductive advantage over those who do not (the benefit would accrue to the shared genes of both the individual and the individual’s kin).

From such a start, a vocabulary of releasers limited at first to just a few calls, not yet qualifying as verbal behavior but with relatively simple effects (keeping together during movement; coordinating aggression or flight; etc.), could evolve over millennia into a richly differentiated repertory involving mothers and offspring, mates, and other subgroups of the hominid social unit (contemporary human vocalizations with strong phylogenic components include laughter and yawning: Provine, 2000). If human impact on the habitats of other primates is anything to go by, the species differentiating such repertories soonest and most rapidly is likely to cut off the opportunities for others to do so.

This scenario presupposes speaker and listener behavior evolving in parallel. Primatological evidence implies that the discriminative capacities of listeners increased as speaker vocalizations became more finely differentiated. Contemporary primates, for example, discriminate vocal calls along many dimensions: caller identity, gender, kinship, emotional variables (e.g., Rendall, Owren, & Rodman, 1998; Rendall, Rodman, & Emond, 1996). Small changes in capacities for differential vocalizations would allow selection of finer capacities for discriminations among vocalizations, and vice versa. The contingencies for their parallel evolution would be maintained as long as the distributions of each included overlapping spectra of vocalizations (cf. Skinner, 1986, p. 117: “The human species took a crucial step forward when its vocal musculature came under operant control in the production of speech sounds”; see also Provine, 2000, on how bipedalism, freeing respiration from locomotion, allowed more finely differentiated vocalizations).

If the properties of these protoverbal calls became weakly determined phylogenically or varied along dimensions orthogonal to those that made them effective releasers, ontogenic contingencies could begin to supplement this rudimentary vocal control. For example, dominant speakers might learn to attack listeners who failed to respond to calls, thereby punishing disobedience (presumably the contemporary effectiveness of verbal governance, maintained by reinforcing the following of instructions and/or by punishing deviations from it, depends mainly on ontogenic rather than phylogenic contingencies).

Once vocal behavior had expanded to ontogenically as well as phylogenically determined calls, idiosyncratic repertories developed by individuals would ordinarily be lost to later generations unless reproduced in the speakers' successors. Thus, a critical feature of this evolutionary scenario is the listener’s repetition of the speaker's verbal behavior (cf. Jaynes, 1976). Such repetition is key to the cultural selection of verbal behavior. Once some individuals begin to repeat what others say, verbal behavior becomes behavior maintained by cultural as well as ontogenic contingencies and therefore can survive across generations (one kind of repetition is called echoic, distinguished from simple vocal imitation by its replication of phonetic units rather than mere acoustic properties: Catania, 1998, pp. 241-243; Risley, 1977; Skinner, 1957, pp. 55-65).

Vocal behavior replicates itself in such repetition, but what selective advantages can repetition provide? As vocal behavior became more finely differentiated, only repetition accompanied by other more immediate and significant consequences could maintain functional ontogenic features of vocal repertories over generations. One was that a listener’s repetitions created conditions under which a speaker’s instructions might be followed in the speaker's absence, at later times and in other places. In effect, governance was gradually transferred from the speaker's verbal behavior to the listener's replication of it. Repetition had to come first but once in place powerful contingencies could maintain it. The scope of verbal governance could expand to those remote in time or space from the original speaker, and coordinated human groups could spread beyond the range of a single human voice, thereby setting the stage for wide dissemination of human cultural practices (repetition is also a prerequisite for verbal memory: Catania, 1998).

As human groups expanded, contact with different and conflicting speakers no doubt made it important for listeners to discriminate among different sources of verbal behavior (e.g., group members versus outsiders, rankings within dominance hierarchies). In particular, once the speaker’s direct verbal control was supplanted by indirect control via the listener's repetition of the speaker's utterance, listeners must eventually have learned to discriminate themselves from others as sources of verbal stimuli. Responding directly to what someone has said differs from responding to one's own repetition of the other's utterance, which in turn differs from producing one's own novel utterance. Presumably such complex discriminations emerged only as a consequence of contingencies that made such discriminations important.

Once in place, verbal governance would necessarily evolve in complexity in parallel with the increasing complexity of other human activities, such as the production and distribution of food and goods (cf. Skinner, 1953, 1969). Individuals could learn from each other through verbal behavior. For example, they could be told about contingencies instead of observing them. But verbal governance is eventually attenuated if instructions have little relation to current contingencies, so cultural contingencies no doubt concurrently shaped verbal behavior with respect to environmental events, in classes eventually called naming and describing and characterized in terms of truth and falsity, accuracy and reliability.

Once verbal governance is well-established in a culture, a speaker can instruct what another says as well as what the other does. Giving a definition or stating a fact instructs with respect to verbal behavior just as giving an order instructs with respect to nonverbal. Speaking affects the behavior of others whether or not it is grammatically an imperative; to the extent that a declarative makes another behave with respect to some event, it includes an implicit “look” or “see” or “listen” (cf. Horne & Lowe, 1996). Whether an instance of verbal behavior is an instruction does not depend on its grammatical form: All utterances are, usually in multiple senses, ways of telling someone else what to do.

Obviously, much still needs filling in (for more detailed treatments, see Catania, 1990, 1995c, 2001). For example, transitions from single- to multiple-word utterances not only demand syntactic coordinations but also allow a dramatic expansion in the functions of verbal behavior, perhaps analogous to the dramatic expansion of varieties of living systems in the Cambrian transition from single- to multiple-celled organisms. Once speakers could instruct the verbal behavior of listeners who could in turn instruct nonverbal behavior, the prerequisites for human political and religious institutions were firmly in place. The invention of writing, perhaps initially a matter of record-keeping, moved verbal governance further from the behavior of individual speakers. Human behavior throughout the world has been and still is heavily influenced by records of long-past verbal behavior: The Analects of Confucius, Bhagavad Gita, The Old and New Testaments, The Koran, The Book of Mormon, to mention just a few (fortunately, Mein Kampf failed to achieve a comparably enduring status). Religious behavior provides particularly compelling examples of the verbal phenomena we are about to review: verbal governance in the following of religious precepts, the generation and shaping of verbal behavior in recitations of scripture and other verbal rituals, and differential attention to verbal stimuli in prescribed and proscribed religious texts.

Verbal Governance

Verbally governed behavior is behavior, either verbal or nonverbal, controlled by verbal antecedents (it has been called rule-governed behavior, but the definition of rules, based sometimes on structural and sometimes on functional criteria, is ambiguous). Control is maintained not so much by consequences arranged for particular responses given particular verbal stimuli, but rather by social contingencies that generate higher-order classes of behavior characterized by correspondences between verbal antecedents and subsequent behavior (as in the following of orders in the military, where obedience extends across many different possible orders, some perhaps never even given before).

Operant behavior is behavior that is sensitive to its consequences. A higher-order class of behavior is an operant class that includes within it other classes that can themselves function as operant classes (as when generalized imitation includes all component imitations that could be separately reinforced as subclasses). Higher-order classes of behavior are held together by the common contingencies shared by their members, just as the various topographies of a rat's food-reinforced lever pressing (e.g., left paw, right paw, both paws) are held together by the common contingencies according to which they produce food.

Within higher-order classes, relations between responses and their consequences at the higher-order level need not be compatible with those at the more local level of the subclasses. In the case of verbal governance, social contingencies maintain the higher-order class, but other contingencies act on specific instances. In the military, for example, social contingencies maintaining obedience may conflict with nonsocial contingencies prevailing on the battlefield, as when the aversive nonsocial consequences of advancing under fire oppose the aversive social consequences of retreat. When social consequences prevail, the component responses remain consistent with the higher-order class (orders are obeyed) and the behavior is called verbally governed; it is relatively insensitive to the nonsocial contingencies. When nonsocial consequences dominate (retreat occurs against orders), the behavior is called contingency-governed or -shaped (the former usage emphasizes maintaining contingencies and the latter origins: cf. Skinner, 1969).

This vocabulary of verbal governance and contingency governance is convenient, but it is important to recognize that contingencies operate at both levels, the higher-order and the local levels, and that the distinction between higher-order and local levels is orthogonal to that between verbal and nonverbal behavior. In other words, verbal behavior is defined by certain social contingencies, but such contingencies can operate either on higher-order classes or locally.

Nevertheless, social contingencies, especially in verbal behavior, can have arbitrary properties that free higher-order classes from the constraints imposed by nonsocial contingencies (cf. Skinner, 1957, p. 109: “Abstraction is a peculiarly verbal process because a nonverbal environment cannot provide the necessary restricted contingency”). The point is that verbally governed behavior is often determined more strongly by higher-order social contingencies than by more local (often nonsocial) contingencies, and therefore is often less likely than contingency-governed behavior to change when the local contingencies change. It is also worth noting that verbal behavior includes other higher-order classes along with verbal governance (e.g., naming, as in Horne & Lowe, 1996; relational responding, as in Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001), and that along with or instead of their discriminative or instructional functions (Schlinger & Blakely, 1987), verbal antecedents may alter the functions of other stimuli (e.g., as when something neutral becomes a reinforcer after one is told it is worth having: cf. Hayes, Zettle, & Rosenfarb, 1989, on augmenting stimuli).