Symbolic Processes and Stimulus Equivalence

Behavior and Philosophy 23 (3-1):13 - 30 (1995)
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Abstract

A symbol is defined as a species of sign. The concept of a sign coincides with Skinner's (1938) concept of a discriminative stimulus. Symbols differ from other signs in five respects: (1) They are stimuli which the organism can both respond to and produce, either as a self-directed stimulus (as in thinking) or as a stimulus for another individual with a predictably similar response from the recipient in each case. (2) they act as discriminative stimuli for the same kind of object for all members of the verbal community within which they function as a symbols; (3) they acquire their properties by virtue of arbitrary social convention rather than any natural and intrinsic connection between the sign and what it is a sign of; (4) competent members of the verbal community can both produce the appropriate symbol in response to a naturally occurring sign of the presence of the object or a sample of the kind of object which the symbol stands for and select the appropriate object when presented with the symbol; (5) they form stimulus equivalence classes of the kind demonstrated in the matching-to-sample task (Sidman, 1971; Sidman and Tailby, 1982) both with other symbols having the same meaning and, more important, with the naturally-occurring non-symbolic signs of the presence of the object or kind of object which the symbol stands for.

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