What if we had no verbal behavior? June 20, 2019

The predominant challenge facing students of behavior analysis, not to mention those well into their careers, is dealing with the insidious and pervasive contributions of mentalism to colloquial and even professional dialects. If you are not utterly convinced of this proposition, you should read an earlier post titled, “How good are you at recognizing mentalism?”

With that essay as required background, let us consider an interesting way to address the challenges of mentalism – imagining that we have no verbal repertoire. This is a more difficult exercise than you might suspect. Although we’ve all been there as babies and early toddlers, we weren’t aware of much at all at that age (see Johnston, 2014). After these first few years, however, our verbal communities gifted us with a growing verbal repertoire. We have enjoyed the capability of talking and listening in one form or another ever since, the only exceptions taking the form of substantial limitations in brain function.

The voice in our head

Another post from a few years ago (“The mind’s eye and the voice in our head”) discussed the lack of a verbal repertoire by considering what it would be like to not be able to think. The conventional conception of thinking is that it is largely a verbal exercise. Taking away that option means that we would interact with our environment without awareness, recognition, or reflection. After all, being aware of our experiences means being able to identify, label, or describe them – all verbal responses. Although it might seem hard to imagine what this would be like, we often behave without being aware of what we are doing. Consider the example of driving while being distracted, such as while daydreaming. During these hopefully brief interludes, we are entirely oblivious about what we are doing that keeps us from having a horrible accident. Meanwhile, we are responding by modulating the steering wheel, accelerator, and brakes as required by the highway environment, only later realizing that we have no idea of what we’ve been seeing and doing for the past few minutes.

In other words, without the verbal repertoire that is the foundation for awareness, we simply respond as the current environment and our learning history dictate. Another way of putting it is that without a verbal repertoire, we respond to our environment just as other animals do. Unfortunately, our understanding of the behavior of other species, especially those we’re around all the time such as the family dog, is contaminated by our tendency to assume that they too have an active mental life that plays a significant role in their behavior. Lacking any other way of describing of explaining their behavior, we fail to appreciate the example they provide of how life is lived without awareness.

Only a side effect

It may seem unhelpful to the theme of this post to point out that the lack of a verbal repertoire greatly reduces the temptation to propose mental causes for behavior, given that most of us acquire this capability, but that is actually getting to the point. The verbal community teaches us to attribute a powerful and pervasive causality to our verbal repertoire. Without exploring alternative possibilities, we assume that our verbal behavior is a primary source of control over the behavior of others, as well as over our own behavior. Extending that assumed influence to our private verbal behavior greatly multiplies the opportunities for causal mischief.

Guided by colloquial dialect, it is easy to buy into ways this verbal repertoire might supplement – if not dominate – environmental causes underlying our behavior. The assumed mechanism for that role lies in mental processes of some sort, which are offered as the most important explanations for behavior. If these processes seem not merely familiar but patently obvious, remember that we’ve heard little else all our lives. Absent training in behavior analysis, it’s understandable that we would suppose that the impact of environmental consequences, which we’ve not been taught to notice or appreciate, is surpassed by the ability of mental processes to manage their effects.

Behavior analysts know that our verbal repertoire is fully learned. In contrast, our cultural training is inconsistent on this point, although it is at least clear in assigning verbal behavior a key role in our mental life. However, this mental domain is entirely the creation of our everyday verbal repertoire. Without this repertoire, there would be no basis for attributing so much of our behavior to mental processes. In fact, that mental domain is not a distinct physical phenomenon, in spite of attempts to redefine it in terms of neurological activity in the brain. It is not available to other species and is not even a meaningful concept for humans who for whatever reason have not learned a verbal repertoire. The assumed existence and utility of mentalism in any form depends entirely on having learned to talk. Mentalism is only a side effect of that training history and a misleading distraction at that.


Johnston, J. M. (2014, December 18). The mind’s eye and the voice in our head.

Johnston, J. M. (2014, May 14). What is remembering and why don’t we remember when we were toddlers?

Johnston, J. M. (2017, February 7). How good are you at recognizing mentalism?


What if we had no verbal behavior?

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Jim Johnston

Dr. Johnston received his doctorate from the University of Florida in 1970 and held faculty positions at Georgia State University, the University of Florida, and Auburn University. He has published both laboratory and field research with both human and non-human species on a variety of topics. He has longstanding interests in the area of developmental disabilities and founded the Master’s Program in Applied Behavior Analysis in Developmental Disabilities at Auburn University. He has served as editor of The Behavior Analyst and on the editorial boards of the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, among others. He has served as president of the Association for Behavior Analysis International, as well as for the Florida, Alabama, and Southeastern behavior analysis organizations, and was the first president of the Behavior Analysis Certification Board and the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts.

What if we had no verbal behavior? June 20, 2019