Fair Words Butter No Parsnips

I ran across this quaint old expression recently in an 1839 novel by British writer Frances Trollope (the mother of Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, for you trivia fans). Though it was my first encounter with the expression, its meaning was clear: you can say whatever fair words you like, but without action those words are for naught. It is an old-fashioned way of saying “talking the talk, but not walking the walk’ or “actions speak louder than words.” Broadly speaking, then, the expression refers to the relation between the two kinds of behavior in which people engage: saying stuff and doing stuff.  

The question, then, is “what is the connection between words and actions?” Or in behavioral psychology terms, the correspondence between saying and doing. Fair words alone not followed up by appropriate actions are at the root of many problems between people, between organizations and people, and between organizations.  Fair words followed by appropriate actions really do butter the parsnips. These correspondences characterize much of what we identify as “reliability,” “integrity,” and “honesty” in people and organizations. They establish and destroy reputations and relationships.

There is a rather large body of research demonstrating how simple correspondences are learned by children.  Using one procedure, a child is given a choice of playing with one of three items “sometime later.” After that time lapses, the child is given a chance to play with all three of the items (a game, a doll, and a toy truck, for example). Before say-do training takes place, the child may be equally likely to play with any of the items. During a training condition, whenever the child plays with the object that s/he had earlier named as the one s/he would play with later, a small reward is given. Over time, correspondence develops such that the child reliably plays with the earlier-mentioned toy. Thus, correspondence is shown to be not something that children are born with, but rather something learned as a result of the reinforcement of associations between saying something and later following up by doing it.

Some of the more interesting correspondence work has involved assessing how, what we call generalization, occurs.  The question is whether learning to correspond on saying and doing one activity, roughly “playing” in the above example, can become a general skill so that there is correspondence across a variety of different people, situations, and events. Specifically, does learning to correspond between the activities described in the preceding paragraph lead to learning to correspond in other circumstances, such as saying I will take out the garbage or wash dishes after dinner and actually doing so later.

Reliability, honesty, and integrity are critical in relationships of any kind where people depend on one another to do what they say they will.  It is important as well in relations between organizations and the public, where organizations are expected to meet their commitments to customers, employees, and the general public. As the data show, you get what you reinforce. People and organizations of integrity have a long history of being reinforced for certain kinds of say-do correspondence. Integrity training begins early for most of us.  Although it may not be taught as systematically as were the children in the above description, people and organizations of integrity have this common history of reinforcement of say-do correspondences. Knowing what we know about teaching integrity holds out the promise that others lacking in these critical skills can still acquire them through systematic and consistent feedback around specific instances and non-instances of say-do correspondence. Indeed, they can learn to butter the parsnips.




Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.