Academic journal article International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy

Relational Flexibility and Human Intelligence: Extending the Remit of Skinner's Verbal Behavior

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy

Relational Flexibility and Human Intelligence: Extending the Remit of Skinner's Verbal Behavior

Article excerpt

In Verbal Behavior (1957) Skinner laid out a theory for the functional analysis of human language. The book was severely criticized, most notably by Chomsky (1959), and this served to undermine not only Skinners work, but, it has been argued, the field of behavior analysis in general. Yet Verbal Behavior has also been hailed as a great book (MacCorquodale, 1969). It has been credited with instigating important advances in the treatment of language disorders (e.g., Sundberg & Michael, 2001), and with engendering additional research in conceptual as well as applied domains (e.g., Palmer, 2006). Indeed, a recent citation analysis highlighted that it continues to make an important contribution to the psychological literature (Dymond, O'Hora, Whelan, & O'Donovan, 2006).

While many of the studies spawned by Verbal Behavior remain true to Skinner's original analysis, it is of course natural and fitting that a theory, half a century old, should be updated with more recent research findings. In fact, most of the original criticisms leveled against Verbal Behavior have been addressed by doing just that. Skinner's treatment of verbal behavior focused on language learning that occurred through direct histories of reinforcement. In contrast, modern findings based on the phenomenon of stimulus equivalence (see Sidman, 1994, for a review), and the concepts of Relational Frame Theory (RFT; Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001) have emphasized the inherently derived or emergent nature of human language. In this article we will first outline the basic features of RFT and then highlight the utility of integrating this approach with Skinner's analysis. The remainder of the article will focus on relational flexibility, which we will argue is central to the development of increasingly complex cognitive performances. New assessment and training procedures, which may facilitate the development of relational flexibility in applied settings, will also be outlined. The aim of the current article is to provide a rationale and framework around which current researchers can propagate and extend this important research agenda instigated by Skinner all those years ago.

RELATIONAL FRAME THEORY

Relational Frame Theory (RFT: Hayes et al, 2001) recognizes that a fundamental aspect of human cognition is the ability to identify relations between and among stimuli and events. While many species are capable of responding relationally (e.g. Reese, 1968), humans seem to be particularly proficient at identifying relations that extend beyond the formal properties of the relata. That is, humans can respond to objects and events, even when the relation between them is defined not by their physical properties, but by arbitrary contextual cues (i.e. cues that may be applied on the basis of social whim or convention). This type of responding is called arbitrarily applicable relational responding (AARR).

Since words are arbitrary forms, learning to name objects and events serves as a useful example of this type of responding. When interacting with a young child, a caregiver will often utter the name of an object and then reinforce any orienting response toward that object. When this occurs the caregiver is training an arbitrary relation of similarity between the word and the object. For instance, upon hearing the word apple a child will be praised for pointing to, looking at, or selecting an actual apple. On other occasions, however, the caregiver may present the actual apple and then model and reinforce the appropriate response (i.e., the word apple). In the early stages of language development a number of these name-object and object-name exemplars will be explicitly trained. Gradually, however, the child no longer needs explicit reinforcement for each naming response. After a sufficient number of exemplars the child learns to abstract out the specific contextual cues as discriminative for the derived naming response and can therefore respond appropriately in novel instances. …

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