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The Ups and Downs of “Behaviorese”

The Ups and Downs of “Behaviorese”

Every business and discipline has its technical terms, neologisms, and acronyms. Such word usage is of great value to those within what we in behavior analysis call a particular “verbal community” (another such technical term …sigh). Within these communities, technical terms and expressions assume that everyone is on the same page with respect to their meaning. When people are, the terms work very well in communicating quickly and precisely. Huge problems can arise, however, when any “in crowd” lingo is used outside the verbal community in which it developed.  Confusion, apprehension, miscommunication, and failures to accomplish goals all can result when there is a mismatch between what the speaker is saying and the listener is hearing.

The wide application of behavior principles in business, government, and education, brings people well versed in the lingo of that discipline together with people invested in using the principles to better serve the needs of their clients and students, but often unversed in speaking what I will call  “Behaviorese,” the technical language of the science of behavior.  

One camp within our discipline points out what I noted in the last sentence of the first paragraph, and argues that technical language describing technical procedures and processes needs to be made accessible to those with whom we are working, but who may not be so well-versed in Behaviorese. No one seriously argues with this point of view. To do so would be suicidal for any discipline having any impact whatsoever outside its own insular verbal community. 

Over howls of protests from perhaps the majority in the discipline, a second camp within behavior analysis has argued that many of our terms represent a false, or at least pseudo, precision. This camp suggests that on close inspection the apparent unity of definition of many “precise” terms is at best precarious.

Those in a third camp represent a sort of middle-of-the-road position. They recognize the necessity of the points made by the first camp, but take exception to the position of the second camp that many of our terms are only “pseudo-scientific.” The argument of this group is that someone who can describe a concept as the behavior-analytic (verbal) community uses the term, is more likely to “understand” the term than someone whose descriptions of the term do not conform to the standard use of the term by the community.

The proof of the pudding, though, is in the eating. The real question is whether being able to describe a term with the precision found in the larger group’s use of that term makes any difference in how precisely the student applies the term in their research or practice.  One meaning of “understanding” is to do something, whether it is parrot a definition or implement a contingency. This requires research that we have not yet conducted. 

In any case, however, it seems to me to be useful in teaching students principles to teach them to speak in precise behavioral language when describing the contingencies they are studying and in working with other behavior analysts. It also seems essential to teach students how to translate precisely described terms into usable practices for those in need of behavior analysis in everyday settings where many different “verbal communities” live and work. 

Posted by Andy Lattal

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.