We all grew up learning to describe our environment by using our five senses; we were maybe taught to describe what we hear as being loud or soft, what we smell as being sweet or pungent, what we feel as being soft or rough, what we taste as being spicy or sour, and what we see by naming objects in the environment or by colors and shapes. B.F. Skinner, the father of our great science, referred to this type of language as tacting. He defined a tact as a verbal operant evoked by a nonverbal stimulus and is reinforced by general, non-specific social reinforcement. So, what exactly does that mean? It means that when we refer to something as being a “tact,” we are talking about something said that is not in response to something read or to something someone else said, and does not result in the speaker receiving a specific item or verbal response. Tacting is often referred to as labeling.
For example, let’s say that you walked into your grandmother’s kitchen after she had been baking all afternoon and you announce, “Mmm, it smells like cookies in here!” You tacting or “labeling” what you smell as smelling like cookies is a tact, provided your grandmother does not hand you a cookie. Another example of a tact is a child walks through a pet store with his dad and sees a bright blue fish, points to the fish and says, “Blue fish!” The child saw the blue fish and emitted a correct tact.
So why are tacts important? We emit tacts to try to start conversations with others, to convey that we feel sick, to be able to identify how others are feeling based on their facial expressions, to teach others about their environment, to be able to sort into categories, etc. Try going a whole day without labeling, aloud or in your head, things that you encounter in your environment. Do you think you can do it?
Marchese, N., Carr, J., & LeBlank, L. 2012. The Effects of the question “What is this?” on tact training outcomes of children with autism. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis; 45(3), 539-547.