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 a parsimonious 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. Functional contextualism emphasizes the importance of predicting and influencing psychological events such as thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, by focusing on manipulable variables in the context in which these events occur. In RFT, functional contextualism is applied as a means for extending B.F. Skinner's radical behaviorism to account for the emergence of complex cognitive and language competencies and capabilities from more basic, precursor learning processes.


RFT is a behavioral account of language and higher cognition.[4] 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.[5]

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 (for a behavior analytic response to Chomsky, see MacCorquodale (1970), On Chomsky's Review Of Skinner's Verbal Behavior), 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,[6] 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.[6]


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.[7]

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[8] 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.[9]


Acceptance and commitment therapy

RFT underlies the therapeutic practice known as acceptance and commitment therapy. In addition, it has become important in predicting the differences between standard cognitive therapy changes through thought change, versus acceptance-based interventions like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.[10]

Autism spectrum disorder

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.[7]


The Implicit Relational Assessment Procedure (IRAP) is a computer-based procedure developed by Dermot Barnes-Holmes based on the Implicit Association Test (IAT)[11] and the relational frame theory. It is used to measure implicit beliefs and attitudes[12] by measuring the response latencies for consistent and inconsistent blocks. Studies using these procedures have found that inconsistent blocks tend to have longer response latencies than consistent blocks.

Each block contains a category label and a term that is either similar to or opposite of the category and the subject is to select a key to determine if the two terms are similar or opposite. Consistent blocks are trials in which the category label and the term is consistent with social norms while inconsistent blocks are trials in which the category label and term is inconsistent with social norms. For example, when measuring the implicit sexual beliefs of sexual offenders, Dawson, Barnes-Holmes, Gresswell, Hart & Gore[13] presented a category label (e.g., adult or child) and a sexual term (e.g., sexual or non-sexual) and the participants were to select a key and determine if each block was true or false.

Uses for the IRAP include measure of implicit social stereotyping, ageism, attitudes toward work and leisure, self-esteem,[14] deviant attitudes in child sex offenders,[13] attitudes toward meat & vegetables from meat eaters and vegetarians,[15] and other preferences.

One study also demonstrated that the IRAP is difficult to fake, a limitation that can be common to the IAT[16] or other measures. Most studies to date have focused on undergraduate participants, although two other studies focused on Irish citizens[14] and prisoners. Future studies on the IRAP would benefit from continuing to extend the population that has used this procedure.

Evolution science

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


  1. McHugh, Louise; et al. (2004). "Perspective-taking as relational responding: A developmental profile". The Psychological Record.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  9. 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. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  11. Power, P., Barnes-Holmes, D., Barnes-Holmes, Y., & Stewart, I. (2009). "The Implicit Relational Assessment Procedure (IRAP) as a measure of implicit relative preferences: A first study". The Psychological Record. 59 (4): 621–640. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Barnes-Holmes, D., Barnes-Holmes, Y., Stewart, I., & Boles, S. (2010). "A sketch of the Implicit Relational Assessment Procedure (IRAP) and the Relational Elaboration and Coherence (REC) model" (PDF). The Psychological Record. 60 (3): 527–542. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  14. 14.0 14.1 Vahey, N. A., Barnes-Holmes, D., Barnes-Holmes, Y., & Stewart, I. (2009). "A first test of the Implicit Relational Assessment Procedure as a measure of self-esteem: Irish prisoner groups and university students". The Psychological Record. 59: 371–388. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Barnes-Holmes, D., Murtagh, L., Barnes-Holmes, Y., & Stewart, I. (2010). "Using the implicit association test and the implicit relational assessment procedure to measure attitudes toward meat and vegetables in vegetarians and meat-eaters". The Psychological Record. 60 (2): 287–306. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. McKenna, I. M., Barnes-Holmes, D., Barnes-Holmes, Y., & Stewart, I. (2007). "Testing the fake-ability of the implicit relational assessment procedure (IRAP): the first study" (PDF). International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy. 7 (2): 253–268. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

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  • Hayes, S.C.; Barnes-Holmes, D. & Roche, B. (Eds.), eds. (2001). Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. New York: Plenum Press. ISBN 0-306-46600-7. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Törneke, N. (2010). Learning RFT: An Introduction to Relational Frame Theory and Its Clinical Applications. Context Press. ISBN 1-57224-906-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links