Airstream Dreams: An Example of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior in Everyday Life

Guest Blog by: Amber L. Valentino, Psy.D., BCBA-D

Chief Clinical Standards & Research Officer, Trumpet Behavioral Health

I recently spent two nights on California’s redwood coast in a renovated 1952 Airstream trailer. The Airstream was owned by two young artists who stylishly renovated it as part of a passion project. They rented it out as an Air B-n-B ™, using the extra money to fund an eventual backpacking trip through Europe. The Airstream offered me a refreshing aluminum alternative to a standard hotel during my short trip. Upon arrival, everything was perfect. When I woke up the first morning, I started my usual routine that always involves coffee. Lots of coffee. I needed to make drip coffee, which I am skilled at doing. However, there was one very important thing missing: filters. I looked high and low and could not locate them. Going without coffee was most certainly not an option. I evaluated each of my remaining options to get coffee, one of them being driving the 5 miles into town.

Ultimately, I assessed that I had several hours of my morning left and did not want to brave the chilly CA coast so early. I was hesitant to contact the Airstream owners to get filters, as it was early, and I did not want to bother or wake them. I ultimately decided that despite the early morning hour, contacting them was my best option. So, I sheepishly asked “…excuse me, can you tell me where the filters to make coffee are?”

Mands, Mands, Everywhere

You do it every day. Your friends and family do it every day. You do it covertly, maybe in nonverbal form (a look, a grimace); and you do it overtly, in verbal form (asking a question, ordering a drink). You ask for what you need or want. Behavior analysts called this type of language a “mand” and B.F. Skinner chose the word mand because it sounds and evokes the same response as the similar words command, demand and countermand.

Core to understanding and ultimately emitting a mand is motivation. Most people, when hearing the term “motivation,” think quickly about the layman’s definition of the word: “the desire to do or have something.” The layman’s definition isn’t far from the way behavior analysts use the term, though there’s a bit more to it. Behavior analysts use the term establishing operations (EOs) to refer to an environmental variable that increases the reinforcing effectiveness of some stimulus, object, or event, and increases the current frequency of all behavior that has been reinforced by that stimulus, object, or event. Wow! That’s a fancy way of explaining how someone asks for coffee. To put it simply, you experience an event in your environment that makes something valuable and thus, makes you engage in behaviors that you’ve done before to get that thing.

What’s So Important About Mands?

The mand is an important part of speech and is critical for several applications of behavior analysis, including teaching individuals with intellectual disabilities. In fact, researchers posit that the mand should be the first form of verbal behavior taught to individuals struggling to acquire language due to the motivational properties involved in this type of speech. Teaching this verbal operant first, before any others, gives language meaning for the speaker and allows them to exert control over the environment in an adaptive way – quite powerful, indeed!

If you observe a session of applied behavior analysis with a child with autism (a very common application of the science), you’ll likely see a therapist teaching the child to mand in some form. Depending on the skill of the learner, mand training could take the form of early basic requests using an alternative communication system (e.g., asking for sips of juice or to be picked up using sign language or pictures), or it could take complex form, (e.g., asking questions or manding for information, such as “how did you do that?”).

Mand training is not just for young children – the ability to ask for the things you want and need is a core part of anyone’s life and can be taught at any age. Several years ago, when I was a pre-doctoral intern (the specific number we will not mention!), I’ll never forget the moment I truly recognized the power of teaching the mand. There was a tall woman in her 20s, we’ll call her “Ronnie.” Ronnie engaged in very intense problem behavior. Her self-injury was so severe that she had caused permanent damage to her eyes and bruising across her face and torso. And in I walked, standing 5 feet tall, with some crackers and water, with the goal of teaching her to mand.  There were four people standing around me in full body armor available to assist if needed. However, their help wasn’t needed during my time with Ronnie. After a few opportunities, she willingly gave me her hands and let me form them into different signs for small sips of a drink and pieces of her snack. At that moment, I truly realized the power of giving someone the ability to ask for what they want or need; something many of us likely take for granted most of the time. Skinner’s analysis of language is truly powerful, and examples are readily apparent in our everyday lives.

Aurora, the owner of my temporary aluminum home, reinforced my mand with gusto by running over to the Airstream with a handful of filters so I could happily carry on with my morning routine. She knocked on the small door of my Airstream and when I opened it, emphatically stated “I’m so sorry to have overlooked this – here you go. Thank you for asking!”

Dr. Amber Valentino received her doctorate degree in clinical psychology from Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. She completed a pre-doctoral internship and post-doctoral fellowship at the Marcus Autism Center/Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. In her current role as Executive Director of Research and Clinical Standards for Trumpet Behavioral Health, she coordinates research initiatives, maintains and further develops the company’s clinical standards, and directs all training functions.