Just Do It: Finding Meaning in Symbols


How is it that a simple phrase: ‘Just Do It’ and a swoosh logo have taken on such special meaning in the last week? These have been highly recognized trademarks of the Nike, Inc. corporation for years, but last week Nike released a new ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick among other athletes performing feats of strength and endurance in the face of adversity. The ad has drawn more attention to Nike than in recent history, and I have not attended to the Nike brand this much since I first yearned for my own first pair of white Nike Cortez sneakers (with a black swoosh) in the 1990s. The new ad has led to a surge in sales along with questions about whether the company was trying to bring to light a moral dilemma, or if they were simply trying to make a buck (or a few million). I won’t hash out the details of the ad campaign, the controversy, or Kaepernick’s story here. What I want to focus on is how the swoosh symbol, the phrase (‘Just Do It’), and Colin Kaepernick, have become equivalent and how these symbols can come to evoke emotional responses depending on your personal history and experiences, even though these stimuli bare no physical resemblance to one another.

What Does This Have to Do with Language?

Concept formation is at the heart of language development. In an earlier blog post, I noted the seminal work of B.F. Skinner’s behavior analytic account of human language. There is now wide empirical support for what he called an “exercise in interpretation” at the time Verbal Behavior was published. Behavior analysts have discussed the relationship between language and concept formation for many years. This research traces back to the seminal work of one of the giants in the field of behavior analysis, Dr. Murray Sidman and his stimulus equivalence paradigm which essentially explains how we learn to form concepts or derive stimulus relations. Importantly, the paradigm has ample empirical support to demonstrate how relationships among stimuli that become equivalent can be taught when they don’t develop on their own. For example, Sidman’s early work focused on developing rudimentary reading skills in a person with an intellectual disability by showing that the young adult learned to match printed words to pictures, and vice versa, after being taught the relationship between dictated names of items and  their corresponding pictures and printed words. The most important aspect of this finding was that the relationship between pictures and printed words was not directly trained, but was derived by the participant. This same teaching paradigm now boasts a robust experimental and applied research base that includes studies showing very young children (as young as 15 months)  can be taught to form new concepts for abstract stimuli; college students can learn fairly difficult concepts with relatively few training trials; and perhaps most importantly, that learners with developmental disabilities can be taught a variety of important skills using this paradigm. Recent developments on derived stimulus relations provide us with additional information to work with when it comes to understanding and teaching language.

How do Emotions Factor In?

Within this body of work, behavior analysts have discussed how symbols can also evoke emotional responses even when these have not been directly trained or the person has not been directly exposed to each symbol/stimulus. For example, one study showed how people who self-reported a phobia of spiders reacted to abstract shapes when these shapes had been paired with pictures of spiders. The emotional reaction to the abstract shapes is described as transformation of stimulus function. A practical example of this can be seen when we learn to react to stimuli that are not physically similar to one another in similar ways (e.g., walking across the street when you hear the word “walk, walk,” but also when you see the white illuminated pedestrian on a crossing signal, or when a police officer waves you to cross the street even if you do not have a specific learning history for responding to each of these symbols in isolation). When I read that someone cut off the swoosh off a pair of Nike socks, I started to think about how this symbol was now associated with and elicited negative emotional reactions for this person. Whether or not you agree with this person’s reaction, we can explain the behavior through the framework of transformation of stimulus function.

Do You Want to Learn More?

If you are looking for some introductory reading material on this topic check out the latest issue of Perspectives on Behavior Science, the Foxy Learning tutorial, Sidman’s own Introductory Tutorial, and a related Behavior Science Dissemination blog titled Symbolic Language and Thought. In subsequent installments I will be featuring guest bloggers and interviews that highlight how language and derived stimulus relations are applied to a wide variety of topics and populations including organizational behavior management, behavioral gerontology, and in romantic relationships, to name a few!