Perspectives on Behavior Science

, Volume 41, Issue 2, pp 471–501 | Cite as

Narrative: Why It’s Important, and How It Works

  • Philip N. Hineline


Behavior analysts have said little about narrative and storytelling, emphasizing instead the functional/pragmatic aspects of verbal behavior. Nevertheless, these are ubiquitous human activities, and they are important to understand. Stories are prominent in essays on social issues, fund-raising appeals and political speeches, and they are the bedrock of theater. Foundational narratives are at the roots of major religions and of conflicts between them, and narrative has been proposed as an organizing basis for psychological wellbeing as well as a source of empathetic reactions. The ongoing process of reading or hearing a good story entails interlocking relations between establishing stimuli and their related, differentiated reinforcing consequences, with a story’s coherence providing a key to its reinforcing effects. What are the behavioral principles that underlie the repertoires involved in all this? Behavior analysts have defined and studied some—the basic verbal classes, of course, although temporally extended sequences require some adjustments in these. Intraverbal behavior needs to be parsed into sub-categories to delineate highly varied sequences such as occur in paraphrase and translation. These two, along with imitation, generalized imitation and re-telling of stories, entail a salient role of complex invariance. The terms pliance and tracking help to balance the roles of speaker and listener, and to account for joint attention, which appears important in early verbal development. Transfer and transformation of function are additional ubiquitous processes, addressed through stimulus equivalence, relational frames, and other higher-order operants, especially naming, which entails the fusion of speaking and listening. Finally, we should consider ways in which a behavioral understanding of narrative can serve both behavior analysis and its surrounding culture.


Narrative Storytelling Coherence as reinforcer Complex invariance Establishing stimuli Higher-order operants Relational frames Stimulus equivalence Tacting and tracking Transfer of function Transformation of function 

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Copyright information

© Association for Behavior Analysis International 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Philip N. Hineline
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyTemple UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA
  2. 2.StoningtonUSA

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