Addressing the Limitations of Protocol Analysis in the Study of Complex Human Behavior

By Cabello, Francisco; O'Hora, Denis | International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Addressing the Limitations of Protocol Analysis in the Study of Complex Human Behavior


Cabello, Francisco, O'Hora, Denis, International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy


An early research strategy in the experimental analysis of behavior was to study the behavior of non-human animals to better understand ths variables that control human behavior (Skinner, 1938,1953). In recent years, however, it has become increasingly clear that, in certain contexts, human performances diverge significantly from nonhuman performances (Hayes, 1987; Hayes & Hayes, 1992). For example, language-able humans do not demonstrate the expected performances on particular schedules of reinforcement that are almost ubiquitous in non-human populations (Baron, Kaufman & Stauber, 1969; Harzem, Lowe & Bagshaw, 1978; Matthews, Shimoff, Catania & Sagvolden, 1977; Shimoff, Catania & Matthews, 1981; Weiner, 1970). Also, verbally competent humans readily demonstrate derived relational responding (e.g., stimulus equivalence; Sidman & Tailby, 1982), but non-humans rarely do so (Dube, Mcllvane, Callahan & Stoddard, 1993; Hayes, 1989a). That is, when human subjects are trained that a particular Stimulus A is related in a specific way to a second Stimulus B (e.g., A is greater than B), and that Stimulus B is related in a specific way to a third Stimulus C (e.g., B is greater than C), in the absence of further training, subjects respond in accordance with a number of untrained or derived relations (e.g. A is greater than C, both B and C are smaller than A).

Most commentators (for a book-length review, see Hayes, 1989b) have explained the foregoing differences between humans and non-humans in terms of language capabilities and, in particular, the human ability to describe contingencies and to generate verbal rules. Indeed, Lowe (1979) suggested that verbal behavior introduces a fundamental difference between human and nonhuman behavior, a position that has been termed the "language hypothesis". As a consequence, the empirical literature noticeably shifted from non-human to human participants during the early nineties (Dymond & Critchfield, 2001; Hyten & Reilly, 1992; Navarick, Bernstein & Fantino, 1990). Furthermore, at that time, many experimental procedures were devised to study verbal behavior and the influence of verbal processes in other behavior. Some of them concentrated on the effect of instructions provided by the experimenter on subject performance, whereas others were interested in self-verbalized instructions that participants state about their own responding (Chase & Danforth, 1991; Zettle & Young, 1987).

The current paper is concerned with protocol analysis, a recent method for analyzing verbal behavior and the effect of verbal responding on other behavior using verbal reports from participants. The main feature of this technique is that subjects are instructed to say aloud everything they are thinking about, thus providing a concurrent verbal stream that allows a moment to moment analysis of the relation between what subjects are saying and what they are doing, and of the role of verbal behavior in human responding. In the first part of this article, we briefly outline the self-reports approach to verbal control and the protocol analysis method and review some of the recent behavioral interest in the methodology. We then present some conceptual and methodological considerations of the protocol analysis procedure that might have restricted the number of published behavioral studies that employed these techniques. Finally, we describe a number of recent developments, presenting some of our own work specifically aimed to address the considerations indicated above. It is our hope that these developments will encourage the wider use of protocol analysis in the study of complex human behavior.

SELF-REPORTS AND THE EXPERIMENTAL ANALYSIS OF VERBAL CONTROL

Despite the controversial status of verbal reports within the experimental analysis of behavior (e.g., Critchfield, Tucker & Vuchinich 1998; Perone, 1988), an important body of empirical evidence obtained through verbal reports has demonstrated that different types of verbal regulation such as counting, describing or planning, may be consistently related to participants' performances, (Barnes & Keenan, 1989, 1993; Holland, 1958; Leander, Lippman & Meyer, 1968). …

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