All Behaviour is Communicative. Is it?

Updated: Oct 25, 2019

I hear this phrase being thrown about quite often. Both by professionals in the field of Behaviour Analysis but also in general conversation outside the field or in social media marketing ploys. Before we delve into the statement ‘all behaviour is communication’ let’s unpick the two concepts separately. Behaviour and Communication. Are they synonymous?

What is behaviour?

For any behaviour geeks out there behaviour is defined by Skinner (1938) as “the movement of an organism in a frame of reference provided by the organism or by various external objects or fields.” Simply put, behaviour is anything an organism does. It is the movement of an organism through space and time. The interaction between an organism and its environment. It must be observable, measurable and includes actions, words or thoughts and can only be performed by a living organism, namely animals and humans.

What is communication?

Communication involves a ‘speaker’ who directs their communicative behaviour to a ‘listener’ who then receives that message and may deliver reinforcement in the form of tangible or social attention. Communication can be verbal, signs/gestures or pictures. Pointing to an item/picture/menu may not always be communicative if there is only one person present and no listener receiving the message. Communication MUST involve two people.

Not all behaviour is communicative

‘All behaviour is communicative’ implies that humans only behave when they are interacting with others and that behaviour cannot occur alone. Some of the most challenging behaviour observed in some of our ASD learners are performed alone. Think of any self-stimulatory behaviour or behaviour that functions as automatic reinforcement. This type of behaviour does not require any communication or any interaction with others. Another example of a behaviour that is not necessarily communicative is a child who desires a cookie. She engages in problem solving behaviour and climbs on a chair to gain access to the cookie thus reinforcing the climbing behaviour. Again, no ‘communication’ was required or two-way interaction. She gained tangible reinforcement in the form of the cookie for her climbing behaviour without another individual.

All behaviour is functional

If we replace the word ‘communicative’ with ‘functional’ so that ‘all behaviour is communicative’ becomes ‘all behaviour is functional’ then perhaps this is more accurate. By accepting the notion “all behaviour is communicative” that has become a mantra for so many people, tells us nothing about the function and is not very helpful at all when used alone. Instead, when we go back to the science and parsimony and accept that all behaviour falls under the four functions (sensory, escape, attention, tangible) the only function that requires two people/interaction is ‘attention’.

Communicating as a behaviour

Jim Johnston in his blog eloquently summarises the confusion of using the word communication to describe behaviour or causes of behaviour:

“Communicating doesn’t work very well as a label for a distinct form of verbal behavior. We already have established labels for the broad classes of behavior we consider verbal, and they are at least somewhat descriptive in everyday usage. Communicating is not an additional or unique form of verbal behavior…….. As with many everyday terms (including language, for example), communication is best left out of our technical vocabulary.”

Another common statement I have heard thrown around is “not all behaviour is communication, but all communication is behaviour.” What do we mean by communication? Can it be operationally defined? Does it pass the dead man’s test? If it does, then in my literal thinking I presume only living organisms can behave and so a ‘behaviour’ cannot behave or hence ‘communicate.’

So, when describing behaviour and the causes and influences on behaviour it is not helpful to use colloquial terms such as ‘communicative’ for scientific purposes in phrases such as “he is engaging in challenging behaviour because he is trying to communicate x, y or z (insert function)”but I do see the usefulness of the phrase for the layman parent, teacher or support worker who is new to ABA and learning the basics of why we do what we do. It is better than the conclusion that behaviours occurs ‘out of the blue’ or for no apparent reason or even worse circular reasoning and hypothetical constructs like ‘he engaged in behaviour due to his intelligence, diagnosis or personality.’ It is a step in the right direction when thinking about causes of behaviour and determining the function. In order for it to be effective the term ‘communicative’ must be defined as everyone will have different interpretations and learning history with the word and its meaning.

So, if you are a parent or teacher new to ABA, I probably won’t correct this statement if you use it, but beware if you are an ABA student, professional or BCBA candidate I will be asking “Is it?”.

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The Behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. New York: Appleton-Century.

Evelyn is the founder of Pathway to Learning in Northern Ireland and has been practising in the field since 2002 and supervising BCBAs, BCaBAs and RBTs since 2009. For further information on remote BCBA supervision, group or face-to-face supervision contact us.