“I” is just a bit of verbal behavior.


By Scott Herbst, PhD

bSci21 Contributing Writer

…and what’s funny is that I am writing an article about rule governed behavior and psychological flexibility, will eventually challenge you to break some of your rules, and I just spent about a half hour typing, selecting all, pressing delete, and doing it all again.  I spent a half hour trying to get it “right.”  In that half hour, there was a lot of concern for saying it in my voice, consistent with my image, in a way that accurately captures and represents who I “am.”  And the whole point of the article is that I “am” not anything, you “are” not anything, and that thinking that I “am” or that you “are” limits what’s possible and available to you and me as human beings.  So let’s dive right in and try this month without all the usual rigmarole. 

I’m going to give you something to play with this month.  And I encourage you to play with it, but play with it in a particular way.  You’ve probably got some idea of what it is to “play” with something.  For some of you, play is competition.  For some you, it means games.  For some of you, it might mean pretending.  It might mean being silly or goofy.  Whatever the word “play” means for you, I invite you to take a moment for yourself and investigate what it means to you to play.  Then, when you see whatever that is or might be, set it aside for awhile and take on this version: to play with something is just to move things around and manipulate them without a particular outcome in mind, just to see what happens.  Children do that with their environment all the time.  Approach this exercise in that way, playfully. 

Ok, now we’re going to, metaphorically, try on some suits.  What does that mean?  Well, if you’re like me, you enjoy buying new clothes (you might not be like me – that’s not a problem).  And when you do it, you go to the store, pick out a bunch of things that look interesting, and then you try them on.  What you find when you try them on is that there were some items that, on the hanger looked like they would be perfect, and then didn’t look good when you put them on, and some that looked really questionable on the hanger but looked really great when you tried them on.  But you didn’t know until you tried them on and stood in front of the mirror for a few minutes, checking yourself out from different angles.  I’m going to give you some things to “try on.”  The way to try them on is to treat them like they’re true for as long as you are engaged with the exercise.  Don’t worry, none of this is “true,” but if you want to get the most out of the exercise, it simply works to treat these few things like they are.  Here they are and they are written in the first person, where appropriate, so that you can try them on as if it is you saying them. 

  1. The person I call “I” is made of words.  My name is a word.  My gender is a word.  My age is a word.  My race is a word.  The thing that I call “I,” is made of words. 
  2. Those words, though we relate them to things existing in space and time, exist in space and time only as instances of behavior.  If I say, “I am a man,” “I am a woman,” or “I am a person,” the relationship between those sounds and anything in the physical universe only exists in my behavior. 
  3. When I say, “I am X,” I immediately and without exception, relate X with other words that are also related with things in the world, and those additional relationships only exist in my behavior.  Outside of my behavior, those relationships do not exist. 
  4. The things that I relate in my behavior (“me” & “I” being one of them) constitute rules for action.  Said behaviorally, they establish reinforcers and punishers, discriminative and respondent stimuli.  Said in a way that anyone can understand, they tell me what is and isn’t ok to do, to like, to dislike, who to love and hate, and just about everything else. 
  5. It doesn’t feel like I have rules for what to like and dislike, but I do.  It also doesn’t feel like I am hurtling through space on a giant, spinning sphere, but I am.  My feelings are a very poor measure of reality. 
  6. There’s nothing “true” about my rules.  Though they look very true to me and they look like they live outside of my behavior, they don’t.  They are just my behavior. 
  7. Most of – if not all of – my behavior is influenced by these rules. 
  8. I am almost never – and probably just plain never – dealing with reality as it is.  I see reality through the lens of my verbal behavior and, as a human being with the ability to read, I am always behaving verbally. 
  9. Sometimes people will agree with my rules.  That they agree doesn’t make them “true.”  It only means that I have found some people who behave similarly to me. 

If saying any of that behaviorally makes a difference in your willingness to try out those nine points, here’s the nickel version.  You have a body that is physically constituted in time and space that, through millions of years of natural selection, avoids situations that cause extreme, sudden changes to it and is attracted to situations that will prolong its existence.  If you’re reading this, you have participated in a verbal community that has trained you to call that body, “I,” “me,” or “myself.”  Along the way of your life, you have also been trained to relate “I,” “me,” and “myself,” with a whole bunch of other physical properties (e.g., I am 5’10, white, anatomically male, and bald) and what we would call explanatory fictions (e.g., I am smart, funny, laid-back, and kind).  By virtue of derived stimulus relations, you now relate those physical traits and explanatory fictions with that body that, through millions of years of natural selection, avoids situations that will cause extreme, sudden changes to it and is attracted to situations that will prolong its existence.  By virtue of transformation of stimulus function, when those explanatory fictions are challenged, your body has reactions as though it is being challenged.  Now, if you’re me, when you find yourself in situations where you might appear stupid, humorless, uptight and mean, those situations occur as a threat your body.  You don’t even have to think about it; those situations just look like a threat you.  If you’d like a longer, very readable explanation of how this works, Niklas Torneke (2010) has written a really nice book about it.  If you’d like a longer, more intellectually challenging discussion, Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, and Roche (2001) have put together just the book for you!  Neither will be as liberal with their use of the word “rule” as I am here, but nobody’s perfect.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I’m going to give you something to play with.  Here are the steps.  You may have a reaction to some of the steps.  That’s ok.  Don’t let the reaction stop you from engaging in the exercise.  Completing the exercise might actually have you see something about the reaction. 

  1. Get a big sheet of paper.  If you have a manila file folder without a bunch of writing on it, use that.  Feel free to use several sheets of paper.  The format doesn’t matter so much.  What you want is a lot of space. 
  2. Start making the categories into which you put yourself.  The ones to absolutely include are gender and race.  Beyond that, what you include is up to you.  You might include religion if it’s important to you (you might also include it if it’s important to you that it’s not important to you).  You might include political alignment or the generation into which you fall.  Nationality is a good one.  You might make a category for Cubs fan if being a Cubs fan is one way you really identify yourself. 
  3. Under each category, make two columns.  Label one “is,” or “are.”  Label the other one, “is not,” or “are not.” 
  4. Under each column, write down the things people say about what those categories are and are not.  This may include ways of being, objects, and events.  Include things that people say that you disagree with.  Feel free to include others in this process.  The more you have for each category, the better. 
  5. Then look at how you are and are not aligned with the ways of being, objects, and events in those categories.  Here you can highlight ways you are, ways that you are but don’t want to be, ways that you should be and aren’t, or any other thing you can think of.  You could also give yourself a percentage score.  For example, I am 70% “is man”, but 15% “is not man.”  (It doesn’t have to add to 100).   
  6. Play with other ways of looking at this thing. 
  7. See what you notice about how those things you are and are not determine the choices you make.  What sorts of things are ok to do and not?  Where will you let yourself go or not?  What will and won’t you say?  Who does this let you be free and home with, and with whom are you very uncomfortable. 
  8. See what else you can discover. 

There are other ways to play with this, and I don’t want you to get stuck with anything I say here.  One thing you could do is make a list of all of the important people in your life and see how what you’ve written here influences your relationships with them.  You could note where you consider them to be the things in your categories and where you see yourself aligning with them and not, and how that influences the quality of your relationships.  There are things you could do and questions you could ask that I haven’t even thought of (please share those in comments).  But mostly, notice how this stuff, that is entirely verbal behavior and completely made up, limits where you do and do not participate in life. 

And then, go participate somewhere.  Break a pattern.  You don’t like elegant restaurants?  Go rent a tuxedo and have a nice meal.  You’re not the kind of person who hangs out at bowling alleys?  Take your friends bowling.  You’re “blue collar?”  Go to the Burberry store and try something on and consider buying it.  It’s important to you that, when you write, your introduction be “just so?”  Start a paper in the middle of a sentence, and end it without giving any real closure. 

Let us know your experiences with this exercise in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Hayes, S. C., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Roche, B. (2001). Relational frame theory: A post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. Springer Science & Business Media.

Torneke, N. (2010). Learning RFT: An introduction to relational frame theory and its clinical application. New Harbinger Publications.

Scott Herbst Six FlexScott Herbst, PhD is the founder and Lead Trainer at SixFlex Training and Consulting.  After six years in academia, he left to pursue his passion of training leaders and managers to create, manage, and communicate in work environments where people are productive, excited, and vital.  As a course designer, he grounds his curricula in cutting edge research in language and thinking as well as decades of research in operant performance.  As a trainer, he is an engaging and powerful speaker who makes learning fun and exciting.   You can visit his company site at www.SixFlexTraining.com, or email at [email protected] for more information.

1 Comment on "“I” is just a bit of verbal behavior."

  1. I love this! Reminds me of a book I often refer to when I find myself in a rut (A Book of Games by Hugh Prather) that helps me challenge my thoughts and change my thinking. Thank you for applying this type of concept to ABA.

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