Have you ever thought about the amazing ability of humans to create associations between words—which are really just arbitrary combinations of sounds—and objects, events, and complex ideas?
Other species are able to make simple associations, but our ability surpasses theirs by leaps and bounds. We are able to extend and generalize our understanding from very specific situations to much broader contexts, allowing us to learn a tremendous amount of information and understand astoundingly complicated ideas.
If you’ve ever wondered how we developed this cognitive superpower, you will likely find the topic of this piece fascinating: Relational Frame Theory.
Read on to learn about this theory and its implications for how we think and how we communicate with one another.
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What is Relational Frame Theory? A Definition
Relational Frame Theory, or RFT, was established to integrate a wide range of psychological phenomena into a cohesive theory of language based on contextual relationships. It proposes that human cognition and communication are founded in our capacity for identifying and creating relational links between stimuli, and made possible by our “arbitrarily applicable relational responding” ability (Cullinan & Vitale, 2009).
Relational Frame Theory “for Dummies”: RFT Made Simple
If this definition leaves you scratching your head, you’re not alone! It’s a complicated theory, one that even those who study it admit is difficult for non-experts to grasp quickly (Blackledge, 2003). We’ll try to break it down in more simple terms.
Basically, RFT is based on the idea that relating one concept to another is the foundation of all human language.
While many animals (including our four-legged furry friends) are able to connect the dots between a neutral event and a subsequent important event (e.g., hearing a bell and then getting food), humans are also able to connect a neutral event that follows an important event (e.g., hearing a bell after getting food, but still relating the bell with getting food).
Not only can humans connect events in this manner, they can also connect disparate words and their meanings across relational networks.
For example, if you always said the word “dinner” to a child before, during, or after their evening meal, he would connect the word “dinner” with eating his meal. If you then told the child that “supper” was another word for “dinner,” he would be able to easily connect the new word to the event of eating dinner. From that point forward, calls of “dinner time!” and “supper time!” would be treated with equal enthusiasm by the hungry child!
This ability is one of the amazing features of the human brain, and it lays the foundational bricks for language (verbal, written, and body). This method of relating is accomplished through the development of what researchers call relational frames or the relationships we form between concepts based on reinforcement.
For example, if a child sees many different kinds of birds and is told that each is a “bird,” she will be able to identify a species of bird she has never seen before as a bird, because she has developed a relational frame (e.g., “things with feathers and wings and beaks are birds”).
There are three properties of relational frames that detail how connections can be made and relationships formed (Blackledge, 2003):
- Mutual entailment: if an individual notices that A leads to B, then A will be connected to B in his mind, but B will also be connected to A.
a. Example: if an individual always brushes his teeth before bedtime, then going to bed will naturally make him think of brushing his teeth as well.
- Combinatorial entailment: if A is related to B, and B is related to C, then A is related to C and vice versa.
a. Example: if a child is told that “angry” is another word for “mad,” and that “upset” is another word for “angry,” she will be able to make the unspoken connection between “mad” and “upset.”
- Transformation of functions: if A and C are related and B, which is related to one or both A and C, is thrown into the mix, the relationship between A and C may change.
a. Example: a child associates an ice cream shop with tasty treats and a fun experience; if, one day, the cashier at the ice cream shop is mean to the girl, the relationship between going to the ice cream shop and her experience may change.
These three properties are what allow us to learn and develop new relational networks, and represents one of the unique abilities of our species.
Dr. Steven Hayes, a clinical psychologist, and professor of the University of Nevada’s Behavior Analysis program, developed the relational frame theory to help explain human cognition and language. Hayes studied behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner, as do all psychology students at one point or another. While he appreciated the brilliance of Skinner explaining and describing behavior, he saw an opportunity to make a significant contribution to the discipline of behaviorism—a theory on language from the behaviorist perspective.
Once Hayes had developed a solid theory about relational framing and language, he began to expand his work to a very important goal:
“What we are seeking is the development of a coherent and progressive contextual behavioral science that is more adequate to the challenges of the human condition.” (Hayes, n.d.).
Hayes goes on to say that RFT and related research is intended to develop
“useful basic principles, workable applied theories linked to these principles, effective applied technologies based on these theories, and successful means of training and disseminating these developments…” (Hayes, n.d.).
One of the ways in which Hayes is working towards this goal is through contributing his research skills and knowledge to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). He has applied the theories and findings of RFT to cognitive and behavioral therapy and generated a large body of evidence to prove the efficacy of ACT’s techniques.
Relational Frame Theory and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (+PDF)
It might not be immediately clear how the relational frame theory of language and cognition is connected to a form of therapy, but you’ll see that ACT is firmly rooted within RFT.
According to the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, an organization dedicated to the same goals as Dr. Hayes, ACT is:
“a unique empirically based psychological intervention that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies, together with commitment and behavior change strategies, to increase psychological flexibility.”
Hayes describes ACT as
“a third wave therapy that combines approaches from different traditions in the service of improving psychological flexibility”
“an evidence-based psychotherapy that uses acceptance and mindfulness process, and commitment and behavior change processes…” (Hayes, n.d.).
ACT is based on the idea that suffering is a natural and unavoidable condition for humans; however, that doesn’t mean we should simply throw in the towel and resign ourselves to suffering. ACT also holds the idea that some of the suffering we experience is unnecessary and even harmful to our mental health, and applies relational frame theory to changing and eliminating the thinking and language patterns we have that contribute to suffering.
One of the most common problems that clients present within therapy sessions is that of experiential avoidance. Experiential avoidance is a process of anticipating problems and coming up with solutions, which often involve getting rid of the problem or avoiding it (Harris, 2011). This works great for many of our external problems, but its effectiveness diminishes greatly when applied to internal problems (e.g., depression, anxiety, addiction).
ACT offers techniques to help clients stop trying to avoid or manipulate their own feelings, and learn how to accept their inner experiences and apply their energy toward actual solutions to their problems.
There are six core processes of ACT that apply the theories and findings of RFT to changing clients’ thought and language patterns.
These six core processes are (Harris, 2011):
- Cognitive Defusion
- Being Present
- Self as Context
- Committed Action
Acceptance is an alternative to the (very natural) human instinct to avoid negative, or potentially negative, experiences. Acceptance is an active choice to be aware of and allow these types of experiences without trying to avoid or change them. To be clear, acceptance is not a goal of ACT, but a method of encouraging action that will lead to positive results.
Cognitive defusion refers to the techniques that are intended to change how an individual reacts to or interacts with their thoughts and feelings rather than the nature of these thoughts and feelings. ACT is not intended to limit our exposure to negative experiences, but to face them and come out the other side with a decreased fixation on these experiences.
Being present is the practice of being aware of the present moment while declining to attach judgments to the experience. In other words, being present involves actively experiencing what is happening without trying to predict, change, or make value judgments about the experience.
“Self as context” is the simple idea that an individual is not his or her experiences, thoughts, or emotions. Instead of being one’s experiences, the “self as context” process rests on the idea that there is a “self” outside of one’s current experience. In other words, we are not what happens to us. We are the ones experiencing what happens to us.
Values are those qualities and ideals that we believe in, that we hold dear, and that we find fulfillment in when we choose to work towards and uphold them in our daily lives. We all hold values, consciously or unconsciously, that direct our steps. In ACT, the therapist assists his clients in applying processes and techniques that help them live their lives according to the values they have identified as central to them.
In ACT sessions, the therapist will help her clients commit to actions that will further their goals and facilitate their attempts to live a life that is consistent with their values. All of the exercises, techniques, and practices of ACT are intended to assist individuals in reaching their goals through positive behavior changes (Harris, 2011).
If you’re interested in learning more about RFT and ACT, check out Harris’ textbook ACT Made Simple. You can find it for purchase here, or get a free, inside look at an expanded version of the chapter on the connection between RFT and ACT in this PDF.
If you want a more academic-focused dive into RFT and ACT, this article from RFT developer Steven C. Hayes might be just what you’re looking for.
Autism and Relational Frame Theory
Given RFT’s focus on language, it’s not surprising that it has important implications for those with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Usually, we naturally engage in the relational framing process and learn to create and understand novel utterances (Plumb, n.d.). In children with ASD, there is an interruption in this process.
Children diagnosed with ASD experience delayed or abnormal verbal and/or social functioning at an early age. Signs and symptoms of problems with language and social communication can include:
- Delayed or absent development of spoken language, with no gestures to compensate
- Inadequate attempts to begin or maintain conversations
- Repetitive, stereotyped, or idiosyncratic language
- The absence of social imitative play or spontaneous or “make-believe” play (relevant to the appropriate developmental stage; McHugh & Reed, 2008)
Children displaying these symptoms have trouble learning the relational frames that non-ASD children learn as a matter of course. Studies have shown that reinforcement can be applied to teach children with ASD some of these relationships and associations; however, even when they succeed in grasping some of these concepts that come easily to other children, they often fail to generalize across contexts.
RFT can be used to explain some of the problems facing ASD children struggling to learn a language; according to the theory, they are experiencing an issue somewhere within the relational framing process. They have trouble making mutual and combinatorial associations and struggle with the transformation of functions. When they do manage to develop some useful relational frames, the frames they come up with on their own are frequently too rigid to allow for application to other contexts.
This deficit may also be at the root of another problem for people with ASD: lack of empathy and inability to take another’s perspective. Those on the autism spectrum have shown deficits in understanding and using the relational operant known as “deictic framing;” in other words, people with ASD have trouble distinguishing between “I” and “you,” between “here” and “there,” and between “now” and “then” (Vilardaga, 2009). Given the importance of being able to distinguish between “you” and “I” to empathy and perspective taking, it’s no wonder people with ASD struggle with them.
Fortunately, RFT not only offers an explanation for some of the issues children with ASD face, it may also offer some of the keys to improving the language and communication skills of these children. The more we learn about how humans normally learn and engage in relational framing, the better equipped we are to encourage the development of relational framing in those who are at a natural disadvantage.
There is already promising research on teaching relational framing to those with ASD (Murphy, Barnes-Holmes, & Barnes-Holmes, 2005; O’Connor, Rafferty, Barnes-Holmes, & Barnes-Holmes, 2009), and further research on RFT and autism is likely to expand on what we already know in this area.
If you’d like more information on how RFT relates to autism, and you have a few hours to spend on it, check out this video of the 3-hour workshop on the subject. It was presented at the Penn State National Autism conference in 2011 by experts Ian Stewart, John McElwee, and Siri Ming.
RFT Tutorial and Training
For a more detailed explanation of RFT and information on further reading, check out Dr. Shawn T. Smith’s two-piece overview of RFT here.
If you’re looking for a more structured opportunity to learn about RFT and its applications, there is a great tutorial available from foxylearning.com and endorsed by the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS). This tutorial is an interactive online course that uses graphics, animations, and hands-on activities to teach you the basics of RFT. It is open to anyone and quite accessible for a wide variety of audiences, but it will probably be especially useful for psychology students and practicing psychologists; it can also help you meet your continuing education (CE) licensing requirements to maintain your status as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, as it has been approved by the American Psychological Association (APA).
There are also workshops and courses you can take to learn more about RFT if you are interested. Check out the following resources for more information:
- Online training in ACT – The Youth Model of Acceptance, Mindfulness, and Positive Psychology, from Dr. Louise Hayes
- Online course on ACT – ACT in Behavioral Analysis 9-week Consultation Course, with Dr. Tom Szabo and hosted by Praxis
- Workshop – Using RFT and ACT to Optimize Therapy for Persons with Autism, led by Dr. Mark R. Dixon
- Webinar on RFT – Relational Frame Theory in Education, presented by Ian Stewart and hosted by Praxis
- Online training on ACT – The Flexible Therapist, presented by Jill Stoddard, hosted by Praxi
- Online training on RFT – Using Relational Frame Theory in Experiential Practice, by Matthieu Villatte
Books on Relational Frame Theory
In addition to courses, tutorials, and other trainings on RFT, there are several great books available for your perusal. Fair warning: some will be a bit technical for someone new to RFT!
Advances in Relational Frame Theory: Research and Applications
This book, edited by RFT experts Dr. Simon Dymond and Dr. Bryan Roche offers an excellent deep dive into relational frame theory, the research that has been done in this area, and the applications (both actual and potential) of RFT. It will walk readers through an explanation of RFT in general and provide information on:
- Application of RFT principles to real clinical problems.
- Application of RFT to understanding behavior in the context of the workplace.
- The verbal and relational underpinnings of several clinical problems.
- The use of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and EEG (electroencephalogram) in RFT research.
- The measurement of implicit attitudes.
- The integration of RFT into evolutionary theory, in the pursuit of a contextual behavioral science.
Other Books on RFT
Besides Dymond and Roche’s book, there are several other popular books on RFT and ACT, including:
Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian Account of Human Language and Cognition by Steven C. Hayes, Dermot Barnes-Holmes, and Bryan Roche
In 2001, this groundbreaking book was published, offering one of the first in-depth looks at RFT outside of the RFT research circle. Within the RFT and ACT community, it’s often referred to simply as “the purple book,” due to its bright cover and its ubiquitous presence in the field. It not only introduces readers to the theory and foundations of RFT, it also provides empirical and conceptual tools researchers can use to explore human language and cognition. It both challenges and expands upon behavioral psychology, making it a must-read for any behavioral psychologists, cognitive psychologists, therapists, and students aspiring to one of these careers.
The Thriving Adolescent by Louise L. Hayes and Joseph Ciarrochi
This book is intended to provide therapists, teachers, counselors, and other adults who take an active role in the lives of young people with the tools they need to help adolescents reach their full potential. It walks the reader through ACT techniques to assist teenagers in figuring out how to manage their emotions, identify and live out their values, practice mindfulness, and develop healthy relationships with others.
Learning RFT: An Introduction to Relational Frame Theory and Its Clinical Application by Niklas Tӧrneke
Learning RFT is an excellent introduction to the theory for psychologists, therapists, counselors, and students, as well as anyone else seeking a deeper understanding of RFT. The author describes RFT, how it developed from behaviorism, and its application in ACT.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Second Edition: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change by Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl, and Kelly G. Wilson
If you’re looking for a more in-depth look at ACT in particular, you’ll want to add this book to your bookshelf. Authored by RFT founding father Steven C. Hayes and other experts in ACT, it acts as an update and expansion to the first edition, which provided an early look into the groundbreaking new form of therapy focused on acceptance and psychological flexibility. It will give you a description of ACT that comes straight from the developers, along with a detailed look at how it can be applied to six core processes: cognitive defusion, acceptance, attention to the present moment, self-awareness, values, and committed action. It also includes sample therapeutic exercises and patient-therapist dialogues to help you take your learning from the theoretical to the applied.
A Take Home Message
The topic of this article was a bit more in-depth than usual, and we packed a lot of information into just a few pages. Don’t worry if it still seems unclear to you—it’s still tough for the author of this piece to wrap her head around it!
I hope you got at least a basic understanding of RFT and its applications to human lives, especially its contributions to promoting mental health through ACT. I encourage you to look into the resources listed above if you’d like to dive a little deeper into this topic.
What do you think of RFT? Does the theory make sense to you? Have you ever tried ACT, either as a client or as a mental health professional? Let us know in the comments!
As always, thanks for reading!
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
- Blackledge, J. T. (2003). An introduction to relational frame theory: Basics and applications. Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice, 3, 421-433. doi:10.1037/h0099997
- Cullinan, V., & Vitale, A. (2009). The contribution of Relational Frame Theory to the development of interventions for impairments of language and cognition. The Journal of Speech and Language Pathology – Applied Behavior Analysis, 4, 132-145. doi:10.1037/h0100254
- Harris, R. (2011). Embracing your demons: An overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Psychotherapy. Retrieved from https://www.psychotherapy.net/article/Acceptance-and-Commitment-Therapy-ACT#section-the-goal-of-act
- Hayes, S. (n.d.). ACT and RFT community. Steven C Hayes: ACBS. Retrieved from http://www.stevenchayes.com/acbs/act-and-rft-community/
- Hendriks, A. L., Barnes-Holmes, Y., McEnteggart, C., De Mey, H. R. A., Janssen, G. T. L., & Egger, J. I. M. (2016). Understanding and remediating social-cognitive dysfunctions in patients with serious mental illness using relational frame theory. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 143. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00143
- McHugh, L., & Reed, P. (2008). Using relational frame theory to build grammar in children with autistic spectrum conditions. Journal of Speech and Language Pathology-Applied Behavior Analysis, 3, 60-77. doi:10.1037/h0100233
- Murphy, C., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Barnes-Holmes, Y. (2005). Derived manding in children with autism: Synthesizing Skinner’s verbal behavior with relational frame theory. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 38, 445-462. doi:10.1901/jaba.2005.97-04
- O’Connor, J., Rafferty, A., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Barnes-Holmes, Y. (2009). The role of verbal behavior, stimulus nameability and familiarity on the equivalence performances of children. Psychological Record, 59, 53-74. doi:10.1007/BF03395649
- Plumb, J. (n.d.). Applied RFT. ACBS. Retrieved from https://contextualscience.org/applied_rft
- Vilardaga, R. (2009). A Relational Frame Theory account of empathy. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, 5, 178-184. doi:10.1037/h0100879