What is Relational Frame Theory (RFT)?

Relational Frame Theory (RFT) is a psychological account of human language and cognition. RFT evolved alongside Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and like ACT is part of Contextual Behaviour Science (CBS). RFTs account of language and cognition does not apply to ACT and CBS in isolation but more widely to many aspects of human behaviour.

Key to RFT’s account of human language and cognition is our ability to make relations between aspects of the world. RFT argues that these abilities have greatly increased human potential and, at the same time, have greatly increased our potential to experience suffering.

Being able to make relations between different aspects of the world is not unique to humans. Research has found that Rhesus monkeys can select the ‘taller’ of two stimuli. The monkeys can do this correctly over multiple trials even when the stimuli that was previously the tallest is replaced by an object that is even taller. This suggests that they are making ‘relational responses’. In other words, that they are responding in terms of the relationships between objects. However it is important to note that in the above research the relationship between stimuli exist in the world, one stimuli is physically taller than the other. The ‘tallness’ is part of the formal properties of the object.

The seemingly unique feature of human cognition is our ability to make ‘arbitrary’ relationships between objects. Arbitrary relationships are those that are independent of the formal properties of objects. For example the relationship between the letters that make up the word ‘d-o-g’ and an actual ‘dog’ are arbitrary. There is nothing but social convention and learning histories that connect them. The ability known as ‘arbitrarily applicable relational responding’ (AARR) allows humans to bring almost anything into a relationship with anything else. It is this ability that brings with it both potential and pain.

Researchers highlight the importance of three properties of human language and cognition: mutual entailment, combinatorial entailment and the transformation of stimulus functions.

Mutual entailmentIf ‘a’ to ‘b’ is learned, then the reverse relationship ‘b’ to ‘a’ can be derived without the need for learning
Combinatorial entailmentIf ‘a’ to ‘b’ and ‘b’ to ‘c’ is learned then ‘a’ to ‘c’ and ‘c’ to ‘a’ are derived without learning
Transformation of stimulus functionsImagine that ‘a’ is aversive to an individual. If they learn that ‘a’ is similar to ‘b’, then ‘b’ automatically becomes aversive as the functions of ‘a’ transfer to ‘b’

The implications of transformation of stimulus functions are key to RFTs understanding of human suffering. You may remember how the word ‘d-o-g’ and an actual dog can become arbitrarily related. Now imagine if for some reason actual dogs became aversive or associated with fear for an individual. If this was the case as a result of the transformation of stimulus functions, contact with the word ‘d-o-g’ may now evoke fear.

The implications of these processes are vast. Although they are initially trained and reinforced during our developmental history they eventually becomes generalized and take place outside of our awareness. This suggests that our world can be shaped by the written word, spoken language and even own our thoughts without us needing to directly contact the environments where these objects and events are taking place. It also suggests that the functions of objects can change without us ever needing to contact the objects themselves. This indicates how verbal relationships can structure our world and our behavior in both helpful and unhelpful ways. These processes and the insights that flow from them are key to ACT and the approach it adopts in its psychological interventions.

You can find more information about RFT on this website, for example it was something I explored in a chapter about disparity in health care provision that was published in 2011. However one of the best resources for online information about RFT is the official website of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS). This provides an evolving, global, online resource for those interested in ACT, RFT and other aspects of CBS. If interested, you can also purchase an informative and yet easy to access book written by Niklas Torneke here.