The Verbal Operants and Some Related Operant Behaviors

In this section we will review how one can classify what is “said” based on environmental variables in the antecedent and consequent conditions. Remember that verbal behavior can include vocal responses, but also includes sign language, gestures, writing, and various forms of augmentative communication. The analysis presented here describes the basic concepts on which a functional analysis of language can be built.

The Mand

The first verbal operant to be discussed is the mand. Some common terms for the mand are request, ask, command, and/or demand. The mand develops early in children. By asking for what one wants and then as a result, getting it, conditions directly improve for the speaker. Mand training is a central part of verbal behavior interventions. Mand training is more effectively done in the natural environment where there are more opportunities for contact with a variety of reinforcers.

Please refer to the chart presented above to see a summary of the antecedent-behavior-consequence relations for the mand. In the antecedent condition, the child wants something. In behavior analysis wanting is referred to as a Motivative Operation. Motivative operations are conditions in the environment that temporarily alter the value of reinforcers; and, therefore, increase the likelihood of behaviors that have produced those reinforcers in the past. For example, someone who has not eaten in a while will be more likely to do things that have resulted in getting food; whereas, a person who has eaten a big meal will be less likely to do things that result in getting food.

The consequence for the mand is direct reinforcement. In other words, the speaker gets what they want, or has an undesirable condition removed. The reinforcer correlates directly with the motivative operation. Asking questions, calling out for attention, making choices, or saying “stop that” are all mands.

Although mands often result in tangible reinforcement, mands can also be reinforced by events such as obtaining attention or information. The mand will be covered in detail in later sections of this manual.

The Tact

Some common terms for emitting a tact are labeling or naming. Please take a minute to review the chart presented earlier regarding the antecedent and consequences for tact behavior. In the antecedent condition for the tact, there is always a stimulus present that comes into “contact” with one of our senses. In other words, one can see, hear, smell, feel or taste something that is followed by a specific verbal response.

Some examples of tacts are: saying “cookie” when you see a cookie; saying “cookie” when you smell a cookie; or, saying “cookie” when you taste a cookie. When we label actions or features of objects, we are also emitting tacts. We can also tact properties of our internal status such as labeling pain, fear, joy, and so forth.

Unlike the mand, tacts do not result in specific reinforcement such as obtaining what has been labeled. The consequence for the tact is non-specific reinforcement. Non-specific reinforcement can include events such as praise, head nods, or other forms of social attention.

So, when one says “cookie” when seeing a cookie, it may be followed by “that’s right, it is a cookie.” Reinforcement may be as subtle as a turn of the head from a listener or as tangible as receiving a bit of food. Non-specific reinforcement may also be of an automatic nature. In other words by saying a word, the speaker may be reinforced by making some other response more likely (for instance, when asked to label a color such as “blue,” a child may say “blue...Blue’s Clues!” an expression associated with an enjoyable activity; for adults, saying a word may be reinforced by allowing the person to match aspects of the environment to the word, for instance saying “keys” as one finds keys that have been misplaced (see Lowenkron, 2004.)

The Echoic

Echoic behavior is repeating what someone else says. Again, the operant relations for echoic behavior can be seen in the chart presented earlier. The antecedent for the echoic is someone else’s vocal behavior and the response is also vocal. The response duplicates features of what is said. Echoic behavior is useful for teaching other forms of verbal behavior such as mands, tacts, and intraverbals. Echoic behavior, according to B.F. Skinner (1957), occurs only as a vocal response with an acoustical response product. Repeating sign language is more accurately referred to as imitation or mimetic behavior (see Imitation description below.)

The consequence for echoic behavior is non-specific reinforcement. The response does not specify its reinforcement.


Conversational responses and answering questions are common terms used to describe intraverbal behavior. Again, review the chart presented above. Like echoic behavior, the antecedent for intraverbal behavior is a verbal stimulus, although not necessarily vocal. The response is also verbal behavior that can be in the same form (i.e., both vocal or both sign) as the antecedent or in a different form (vocal antecedent, signed response, etc.). For instance, answering a question is intraverbal behavior, whether the question is asked in sign language, in writing, or in vocal form and whether it is answered in sign language, writing, or vocally. The intraverbal response does not duplicate the antecedent verbal behavior. In other words, the response is different than what is said in the antecedent. Filling in responses, completing phrases, word associations, and answering questions are all forms of intraverbal behavior.

The consequence for the intraverbal is also non-specific reinforcement.

Listener responding (not usually a verbal operant in Skinner's analysis)

Listener responding generally involves people following directions. A common name for listener responding is receptive language; however, the term receptive language may not imply a behavioral response (the person may hear language without responding in any discernable manner.) The antecedent for listener responding is someone else’s verbal behavior but the response is a non-verbal response (it does not necessarily require an audience or listener.) For example, standing up following someone saying or signing “stand up” is a listener response. The listener’s response does not include vocal talking, sign language or any other form of verbal behavior. Other examples of listener response or receptive behavior include touching a picture or object when it is named, looking at an item when it is named, or following simple one-step directions or multiple component directions.

The consequence for listener responding is also non-specific reinforcement.

Match to Sample (not a verbal operant in Skinner's analysis)

The ability to compare similarities and differences is a critical skill needed for most academic learning. An early skill in the process of learning sameness is being able to match objects that have similar properties. Although matching skills are not technically verbal behavior, being able to make comparisons will assist learners in developing verbal skills. To effectively match items, students need to develop scanning skills and the ability to discriminate items based on their shared properties. This is similar to verbal responses where discrimination is required.

For match to sample skills the student is presented with a stimulus (usually an object or picture) and is generally given a verbal direction to “match” or “put with same.” The student then responds by placing the stimulus near or on another item that shares relevant characteristics. Match to sample responses always involve a conditional discrimination (i.e., in the presence of one particular stimulus, responding to some other stimulus will be reinforced: when shown a ball and told “match”, the student will be reinforced for selecting another ball.)

The consequence for match to sample behavior is also non-specific reinforcement.

Imitation (Mimetic) (Not a verbal operant in Skinner's analysis)

Motor imitation involves copying someone else’s movements. The chart reviewing the operant analysis for imitation skills is presented above. Like echoic behavior, imitation responses duplicate an aspect of the antecedent stimulus. However, the antecedent condition is not a vocal verbal response but rather specific movements. Developing the ability to imitate others allows students to learn indirectly by copying a model.

The consequence for motor imitation is also non-specific reinforcement.

Multiple Control of Verbal Behavior

Most naturally occurring verbal behavior is multiply controlled. This means that several types of conditions may occur simultaneously before people verbally respond (i.e., in the antecedent condition there may be sensory stimuli and verbal stimuli.) Please see the charts presented above for a review of two examples of verbal behavior under the control of multiple antecedent stimuli.

Knowledge of the individual verbal operants provides us with a way to assess complex verbal behavior. Students with autism often fail to use a word for a variety of purposes. They may learn to use the word as a tact but not as a mand. Therefore, when the student responds to a complex antecedent stimulus, it is difficult to determine whether they are responding to one or several of the antecedent conditions. We must determine if responding can be emitted under each of the antecedent conditions independent of the others. If a learner only asks to “pet a dog” when the dog is present and the adult says “what do you want?” we will need to determine if the child asks to pet the dog only when the dog is present (so the question is a tact), only when asked, “What do you want? (No dog present with the response controlled through an intraverbal process) and also in the condition when the dog is not present and a question has not been asked (i.e., to mand for an item that is not immediately present). The learner may be able to say “dog” when they see a dog, but not when they want to pet a dog. The learner may be able to ask for dog when someone asks him to but not when they want to do so when not asked. Discriminating under which conditions the student is likely to say or not say “dog” will help us know what skills the student needs to be taught in order for the student to use the word “dog” across a variety of conditions.

In other words, when a student is presented with a complex antecedent condition it is hard to tell what aspect of that antecedent condition controls the response. A student with a good ability to tact may say “soda” in the presence of a can of soda with the result of being given the soda. The response may appear to be a mand; however, it may only be controlled by the presence of the can of soda as a tact.

We can systematically fade multiple control in order to help the student learn how to use the same word for many functions. This is important because in order to be a competent speaker, people need to be able to use words for a variety of reasons.

Children also need to learn to use language for more precise functions: they will need to tell about how an object is used, to describe various features of the object or situation, and to demonstrate the ability to classify objects and concepts based upon their relation to other objects and concepts. Likewise, students will need to modify primary verbal responses using adverbs, adjectives, prepositions and pronouns. Teaching the secondary verbal operants (autoclitics) can be incorporated into the intensive teaching process. These processes have implications for mand training.