Relational frame theory

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Relational frame theory (RFT) is a psychological theory of human language. It was developed largely through the efforts of Steven C. Hayes of University of Nevada, Reno and Dermot Barnes-Holmes of National University of Ireland, Maynooth.

Relational frame theory argues that the building block of human language and higher cognition is 'relating', i.e. the human ability to create links between things. It can be contrasted with associative learning, which discusses how animals form links between stimuli in the form of the strength of associations in memory. However, relational frame theory argues that natural human language typically specifies not just the strength of a link between stimuli but also the type of relation as well as the dimension along which they are to be related. For example, a tennis ball is not just 'associated' with an orange, but can be said to be the same shape, but a different colour and not edible. In the preceding sentence, 'same', 'different' and 'not' are cues in the environment that specify the type of relation between the stimuli, and 'shape', 'colour' and 'edible' specify the dimension along which each relation is to be made. Relational frame theory argues that while there are an arbitrary number of types of relations and number of dimensions along which stimuli can be related, the core unit of relating is an essential building block for much of what is commonly referred to as human language or higher cognition.

Several hundred studies have explored many testable aspects and implications of the theory, such as the emergence of specific frames in childhood,[1] how individual frames can be combined to create verbally complex phenomena such as metaphors and analogies,[2] and how the rigidity or automaticity of relating within certain domains is related to psychopathology.[3] Perhaps most intriguingly, in attempting to describe a fundamental building block of human language and higher cognition, RFT explicitly states that its goal is to provide a general theory of psychology that can provide a bedrock for multiple domains and levels of analysis.

Relational frame theory focuses on how humans learn language (i.e., communication) through interactions with the environment and is based on a philosophical approach referred to as functional contextualism.[4]


RFT is a behavioral account of language and higher cognition.[5] In his 1957 book Verbal Behavior, B.F. Skinner presented an interpretation of language. However, this account was intended to be an interpretation as opposed to an experimental research program, and researchers commonly acknowledge that the research products are somewhat limited in scope. For example, Skinner's behavioral interpretation of language has been useful in some aspects of language training in developmentally disabled children, but it has not led to a robust research program in the range of areas relevant to language and cognition, such as problem-solving, reasoning, metaphor, logic, and so on. RFT advocates are fairly bold in stating that their goal is an experimental behavioral research program in all such areas, and RFT research has indeed emerged in a number of these areas including grammar.[6]

In a review of Skinner's book, linguist Noam Chomsky argued that the generativity of language shows that it cannot simply be learned, that there must be some innate "language acquisition device". Many have seen this review as a turning point, when cognitivism took the place of behaviorism as the mainstream in psychology. Behavior analysts generally viewed the criticism as largely off point,[7] but it is undeniable that psychology turned its attention elsewhere and the review was very influential in helping to produce the rise of cognitive psychology.

Despite the lack of attention from the mainstream, behavior analysis is alive and growing. Its application has been extended to areas such as language and cognitive training,[8] animal training, business and school settings, as well as hospitals and areas of research.

RFT distinguishes itself from Skinner's work by identifying and defining a particular type of operant conditioning known as derived relational responding. This is a learning process that to date appears to occur only in humans possessing a capacity for language. Derived relational responding is theorized to be a pervasive influence on almost all aspects of human behavior. The theory represents an attempt to provide a more empirically progressive account of complex human behavior while preserving the naturalistic approach of behavior analysis.[8]


Several dozen studies have tested RFT ideas. Supportive data exists in the areas needed to show that an action is "operant" such as the importance of multiple examples in training derived relational responding, the role of context, and the importance of consequences. Derived relational responding has also been shown to alter other behavioral processes such as classical conditioning, an empirical result that RFT theorists point to in explaining why relational operants modify existing behavioristic interpretations of complex human behavior. Empirical advances have also been made by RFT researchers in the analysis and understanding of such topics as metaphor, perspective taking, and reasoning.[9]

Proponents of RFT often indicate the failure to establish a vigorous experimental program in language and cognition as the key reason why behavior analysis fell out of the mainstream of psychology despite its many contributions, and argue that RFT might provide a way forward. The theory is still somewhat controversial within behavioral psychology, however. At the current time the controversy is not primarily empirical since RFT studies[10] publish regularly in mainstream behavioral journals and few empirical studies have yet claimed to contradict RFT findings. Rather the controversy seems to revolve around whether RFT is a positive step forward, especially given that its implications seem to go beyond many existing interpretations and extensions from within this intellectual tradition.[11]


Acceptance and commitment therapy[edit]

RFT has been argued to be central to the development of the psychotherapeutic tradition known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Clinical Behavior Analysis more generally.[12] Indeed, the psychologist Steven C Hayes was involved with the creation of both, and has credited them as inspirations for one another.[13] However, the question of the exact nature of the interaction between basic science (RFT) and applications such as ACT not been without controversy.[14][15]

Autism spectrum disorder[edit]

RFT provides conceptual and procedural guidance for enhancing the cognitive and language development capability (through its detailed treatment and analysis of derived relational responding and the transformation of function) of early intensive behavior intervention (EIBI) programs for young children with autism and related disorders.[9] The PEAK training system is heavily influenced by RFT.

Evolution science[edit]

More recently, RFT has also been proposed as a way to guide discussion within evolution science, whether within evolutionary biology or evolutionary psychology, toward a more informed understanding of the role of language in shaping human social behavior. The effort at integrating RFT into evolution science has been led by, among others, Steven C. Hayes, a co-developer of RFT, and David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University. For example, in 2011, Hayes presented at a seminar at Binghamton, on the topic of Symbolic Behavior, Behavioral Psychology, and the Clinical Importance of Evolution Science, while Wilson likewise presented at a symposium at the annual conference in Parma, Italy, of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, the parent organization sponsoring RFT research, on the topic of Evolution for Everyone, Including Contextual Psychology - Interplay between evolution and contextual behavior science.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ McHugh, Louise; et al. (2004). "Perspective-taking as relational responding: A developmental profile". The Psychological Record. 
  2. ^ Stewart, Ian; Barnes-Holmes, Dermot (2001). "Understanding metaphor: a relational frame perspective". Behaviour Analysis. 24 (2): 191–9. PMC 2731509free to read. PMID 22478364. 
  3. ^ Nicholson, Emma; Barnes-Holmes (2012). "Developing an implicit measure of disgust propensity and disgust sensitivity: examining the role of implicit disgust propensity and sensitivity in obsessive-compulsive tendencies". Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. 43: 922–930. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2012.02.001. 
  4. ^ Hayes, Steven C.; Brownstein, Aaron J. (1986-01-01). "Mentalism, behavior-behavior relations, and a behavior-analytic view of the purposes of science". The Behavior Analyst. 9 (2): 175–190. ISSN 0738-6729. PMC 2741891free to read. 
  5. ^ Blackledge, J.T. (2003). "An Introduction to Relational Frame Theory: Basics and Applications". The Behavior Analyst Today. 3 (4): 421–34. doi:10.1037/h0099997. 
  6. ^ Louise McHugh & Phil Reed (2008). "Using Relational Frame Theory to build grammar in children with Autistic Spectrum Conditions" (PDF). Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis. 3 (2–3): 241. doi:10.1037/h0100247. 
  7. ^ For a behavior analytic response to Chomsky, see MacCorquodale (1970), On Chomsky's Review Of Skinner's Verbal Behavior
  8. ^ a b Cullinan, V. & Vitale, A. (2008). "The contribution of Relational Frame Theory to the development of interventions for impairments of language and cognition" (PDF). Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis. 3 (1): 122–35. doi:10.1037/h0100237. 
  9. ^ a b Barnes-Holmes, Y.; Barnes-Holmes, D. & McHugh, L. (2004). "Teaching Derived Relational Responding to Young Children". JEIBI. 1 (1): 4–16. doi:10.1037/h0100275. 
  10. ^ Dawson, D.L.; Barnes-Holmes, D.; Gresswell, D.M.; Hart, A.J.; Gore, N.J. (2009). "Assessing the Implicit Beliefs of Sexual Offenders Using the Implicit Relational Assessment Procedure: A First Study". Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. 21: 57–75. doi:10.1177/1079063208326928. 
  11. ^ Hayes, S.C.; Barnes-Holmes, D. & Roche, B., eds. (2001). Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. New York: Plenum Press. ISBN 9780306466007. 
  12. ^ Orellana, Javier. "Why Relational Frame Theory Alters the Relationship between Basic and Applied Behavioral Psychology | IJPSY". Retrieved 2016-10-10. 
  13. ^ Hayes, Steven C. (2004-01-01). "Acceptance and commitment therapy, relational frame theory, and the third wave of behavioral and cognitive therapies". Behavior Therapy. 35 (4): 639–665. doi:10.1016/S0005-7894(04)80013-3. 
  14. ^ Barnes-Holmes, Yvonne; Hussey, Ian; McEnteggart, Ciara; Barnes-Holmes, Dermot; Foody, Mairéad (2015-01-01). Zettle, Robert D.; Hayes, Steven C.; Barnes-Holmes, Dermot; Biglan, Anthony, eds. The Wiley Handbook of Contextual Behavioral Science. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. pp. 365–382. doi:10.1002/9781118489857.ch18. ISBN 9781118489857. 
  15. ^ "Mastering the Clinical Conversation: Language as Intervention". Guilford Press. Retrieved 2016-10-10. 

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