The Speaker Doesn’t Matter: What Research in Verbal Behavior Can Tell Us About Effective Communication


By Scott Herbst, PhD ([email protected])
bSci21 Contributing Writer

Scott Herbst, PhD

Scott Herbst, PhD

In 1982, Charlie Catania, Byron Matthews, and Eliot Shimoff published a study looking at the effects of shaping verbal behavior. What they did was set up a multiple schedule. If you’re not familiar (or have forgotten), a multiple schedule is one where there’s one reinforcement schedule going at a time, that has a discriminative stimulus associated with it, and occasionally it switches to a different schedule that has a different discriminative stimulus. You could imagine it as students going to successive classes with different professors. One professor calls on each student that raises her or his hand, each time she or he does so. The next professor might call on a student every five minutes, regardless of how many times she or he raises a hand. What you’ll probably see in either classroom are very different amounts of hand-raising. In this case, we assume that reinforcer is being called on, and that the different professors are our different discriminative stimuli. The students can’t respond in both classes simultaneously; and if they have a professor they like more, they have to wait until the classes change to see that professor again. That’s the essence of a multiple schedule.

As I was saying, they arranged a multiple schedule where one was a random ratio, where reinforcement depended on the number of presses, and the other was a random interval, where a reinforcer would only be delivered after some interval of time. In the ratio schedule, the best way to get more reinforcers is to press fast, and in the interval, pressing really fast wouldn’t affect the rate of reinforcement much at all; as long as you press at a steady rate, you’ll earn the most reinforcers you can. In the real world, random ratio might be something like playing the game of Hungry Hungry Hippos with your eyes closed.  The only way to win is to make that hippo move its mouth as fast as possible.  A random interval would be more like email.  They come in periodically throughout the day, and if you don’t have reminders that flash across your screen as they do, you’ll probably find you go and check steadily as the day progresses. 

What they did next was interesting, and is why this one of my favorite studies of all time. For some of the participants, in between schedule changes, they gave them breaks, and asked them what they thought was the best way to earn points. In a subset of that group, they gave them points based on their guesses, and actually started reinforcing the content of their answers so that participants said they should respond fast or slow. Once they shaped verbal behavior, they started messing with the schedules. The switched the random ratios to random intervals, and the random intervals to random ratios. Guess what? The behavior of the participants didn’t change. They kept responding consistent with the way that the experimenters shaped their verbal behavior. All of them.

Interesting, right? Here’s where it gets even cooler. They had another group of participants who went through the same basic ordeal, except with that group, they didn’t have them guess; they simply told them what the best way was. But when they pulled the old switcheroo (which by the way, Microsoft Word™ recognizes as a word – I learned something today!) with this group, some of them adjusted their behavior to the changes and some didn’t.

(This, of course, is a very cursory overview. If you have any lingering “yeah, but…”s or “well what about…”s, you should go download the article. They put in a lot more controls than I am describing here. You can find it free with a Google search. )

There are a couple things to learn from this. First, if you’re interested in teaching someone something, there’s a decent chance that telling them will work. And there’s a decent chance you’re only wasting your breath. Second, if you are really interested in teaching someone something, your best bet is to have them articulate it for themselves, and then reinforce their behavior when they articulate correctly. And things actually get a little tricky here. As people, one of the things we love the most is to be right, and one of the things we really don’t like is to be wrong. That has a lot to do with relational framing and is a topic for another post. The important thing is that you don’t want the person to feel like they’re on the spot, or that this is a situation where its important that they answer right or wrong. Treat it more like an occasion for you to check in and see how well you did at explaining it instead of a chance to test how well they did at learning. A really easy way to do this is after you make a point, say, “I’m curious, what are you hearing?” Another way is to say, “I want to see if I explained that clearly. Will you tell me what you’re taking away?”

And then they will say whatever they say, and chances are they’ll have added something you didn’t intend for them to take away, or have left out something critical. Mostly people don’t listen that well. There’s nothing wrong with that. Rocks are hard. Water is wet. Mostly, people don’t listen that well. What will really work as you do this is to have patience. It’s the way the universe just happens to be constructed. What you can say next is, “Ok good, and not quite.” Then you can point to what they got right, and then point out what they missed or what they added. And then ask, “So what are you hearing now?” And then repeat this process until they hit it on the head. Then they’ll really have it for themselves.

Finally, a couple of points here. Like any shaping procedure, make sure you are always reinforcing successive approximations. If it takes a few times for them to “get it,” celebrate any time that they get closer. Let yourself get excited when they do. The procedure is working! Even if it’s not all the way there yet. Also, thank them for their patience in staying with you, even if they don’t look that patient. We all wish that difficult concepts could be downloaded into our repertoire Matrix style, but until then, we’re stuck doing things the old-fashioned way. And the old fashioned way is frustrating! It involves a lot of extinction and, sometimes, punishment. Your learner will likely show some of the behaviors that go along with those processes. At the very least, you’re likely to see some eye-rolling and sighing. Rejoice in the eye-rolling and sighing! It’s an indication that learning the material is a reinforcer to them, and they just haven’t contacted that yet. I, personally, love it when I’m teaching and a student gets visibly frustrated. Signs of frustration are signs of caring, and them caring is much more difficult to shape. Reinforce their caring. Thank them for staying with you and being committed to learning.

To conclude, the headline I gave this isn’t totally true. The speaker does matter. If you are saying inaccurate things, there isn’t much hope for effective learning. However, if you’re only saying accurate things, without checking in to see that the listener is getting what you are saying, then you’re leaving that what you’re saying is being accurately heard up to chance. One thing I’ve learned in teaching, is that when I adopt these practices, I am much more likely to contact what ultimately reinforces my teaching behavior – seeing the light bulb go on over the head of a student.

What is your reinforcer for teaching?  Let us know in the comments below!  Also consider subscribing to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Catania, A. C., Matthews, B. A., & Shimoff, E. (1982). Instructed versus shaped human verbal behavior: Interactions with nonverbal responding. Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 3, 233-248.

About the author:
Scott Herbst, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Applied Behavior Analysis Department at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology where he teaches graduate courses in basic concepts, relational frame theory, and radical behaviorism. In his spare time he coaches people in applying behavioral principles in their lives and organizations.

Be the first to comment on "The Speaker Doesn’t Matter: What Research in Verbal Behavior Can Tell Us About Effective Communication"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.