Reading 2.1 – The meaning of meaning

Chapter 2 – It’s Just Verbal Behavior

Reading 2.1– The meaning of meaning

Apart from the basic laws of learning, what one thing is so important that failing to understand it means you’re not a card-carrying member of the field – a real behavior analyst – no matter how close you might come in other respects? Feel free to vote your conscience, but for me it’s understanding the meaning of meaning. If you don’t get this, you’re not quite ready for prime time and certainly not qualified to learn the secret handshake. Knowing how behavior analysts approach the notion that behavior – especially verbal behavior – “means” something is that important.

Everyday meaning…

We’re used to considering what people mean when they talk. In our everyday way of talking, words have meaning, and their meanings accumulate and even change when we put them together in sentences and conversations and such. We say, “I know what you mean.” or “What do you mean?” When we don’t know the meaning of a word, we look it up in a dictionary, and when someone’s point in a conversation isn’t clear, we have a discussion to resolve the confusion.

We also talk about the meaning of non-verbal behavior. We often interpret a person’s actions as meaning something. For example, if someone bakes a cake for a friend who is going through a tough time, we might say this gesture means that the person is sympathetic and trying to make the friend feel better.

Is meaningless

Whether we are ascribing meaning to verbal or non-verbal actions, the notion of meaning is entirely about our verbal behavior. The very idea of meaning is a verbal invention and is meaningless without a verbal repertoire. If it seems that events mean something to babies or dogs, for instance, it is only ourselves who see the meaning. We may say that to our dog our picking up the leash means we are going for a walk, but all we are seeing is a relationship between the leash as a discriminative stimulus and the dog’s behavior of jumping around or sitting at the door. Inserting meaning into the relationship is merely gratuitous anthropomorphic mentalism on our part.

In other words, saying that a bit of behavior – whether verbal or nonverbal – means something is itself just a verbal response, no more than an utterance. Any argument to the contrary comes from our tendency to give verbal behavior a special status compared to other behavior. This practice is learned from our verbal community as we acquire a verbal repertoire. We learn not only to say, “dog” in the presence of the family pet, but as our verbal repertoire grows, we are taught that words “refer” to things and events.

But what exactly is this notion of referring? First and foremost, it is invented. There is no distinct movement – no behavior – to observe. It is merely implicit in the idea that verbal behavior – words, sentences, and more – have a property we label as meaning. In the vernacular, we say that words mean something and that we are referring to these meanings when we “use” them. Of course, we don’t “use” words any more than we “use” other kinds of behavior, but describing words as things that can be used almost like objects certainly makes it clear that we are giving verbal responses a special status in our repertoire.

What is the nature of these meanings? They do not exist as physical events, so the only alternative is to assign them to a non-physical domain where they are said to exist in a mental lexicon. Listeners are said to consult this mental dictionary in understanding the meaning of what speakers are saying. Of course, these suppositions are way outside the bounds of the natural sciences, which have always been the limits of the field of behavior analysis.

So how do behavior analysts deal with meaning?

Ridding our technical vocabulary of references to meaning in the everyday sense doesn’t remove our obligation to explain what is actually going on behaviorally that we mistakenly attribute to meaning. How does our talking and writing influence the behavior of others? The answer is almost simple, thanks to B. F. Skinner having explained it to us in 1945 in his seminal paper titled, “The operational analysis of psychological terms.” Behavior analysts recognize that the meaning of words and sentences lies not in a mental lexicon but in their impact on the listener’s behavior, which in turn affects the speaker’s behavior. In other words, behavior analysts approach the meaning of verbal behavior no differently than they do the meaning of any other behavior – as a matter of the environmental function of the behavior.

Chapter 2 explains this approach in some detail. When wanting to understand the meaning of a bit of verbal behavior, we look at the environmental events that occasion and follow the utterance. Quoting from the chapter,

If we comment to a friend that Jules seems happy today, what we mean by happy can be discovered using this analytical approach. Upon reflection, we might realize that we noticed she was being more talkative than usual, smiling to others frequently, and making jokes. It is our reinforcement history associated with emitting this or similar responses (“Jules seems happy today”) in the past that leads us to emit it again now. Our friend, in contact with these same stimuli, might have a similar history and agree with our assessment, thereby reinforcing our verbal response and increasing the likelihood that we will emit it again under similar conditions in the future. If our friend disagreed, it might have the effect of making us less likely to emit this verbal response (describing Jules or even others as happy) in the presence of such stimuli. In other words, what we mean when we say Jules is happy lies in the relation between this verbal response and its prompting and reinforcing conditions. If enough people in our verbal community share a similar history in their role as speakers and listeners regarding the verbal response happy, then this is all there is to the “meaning” of the word. (p. 39)

Why it’s so important

Although conceptually straightforward, this approach to the notion of meaning is certainly not obvious, nor is it easy to apply casually. It requires carefully speculating about the contingencies surrounding samples of verbal behavior, but we have a long history with this kind of analysis that should give us confidence about its usefulness. This approach allows us to deal with verbal behavior no differently than we do other kinds of behavior. Instead of succumbing to the convenience of vernacular dialect, we are able to address verbal behavior without falling into the trap of mentalism. Our conceptual framework remains intact.

Lest you miss it, an important corollary of this view of meaning is that it applies not just to understanding the behavior of others, but to our own behavior. Whether as researchers or practitioners, our own talk about the behavior of our participants or clients must be analyzed in exactly the same way we analyze theirs. Again, our conceptual framework remains unviolated. So why is this approach to meaning the sine qua non of being a behavior analyst? Because of the pervasive role of verbal behavior in the human repertoire, which is especially important in our repertoires as researchers and practitioners. It changes almost everything to view verbal behavior this way.

What it all comes down to is that the everyday sense of meaning is fundamentally mentalistic, and anyone who is comfortable with this approach is ipso facto likely to be comfortable with mentalism in other forms and circumstances. Some colleagues in this situation might only have missed the opportunity to learn the niceties of radical behaviorism as part of their graduate training. Hope lies in continuing education and self-study. There may be more reason to be concerned about those who read the required assignments in this area and learned enough to pass a test or two but are just not all that interested in this stuff and fail to see its importance in their professional life.


Skinner, B. F. (1945). The operational analysis of psychological terms. In Psychological Review, 52, 270-277.