by Brian Thompson, Ph.D.In a cognitive psychology class in graduate school, I was taught an account of the fall of behaviorism and rise of cognitive psychology that has achieved near mythical status. According to this narrative, Skinner’s (1957) Verbal Behavior, an attempt to describe in behaviorist terms how humans develop language, was criticized by Noam Chomsky in his review as too simplistic and mechanistic to account for the complexity of human language. This mortal wound weakened the hegemony of behaviorism and its hold on academic psychology, allowing for cognitive approaches to seize power and advance the field.
Like many students, I accepted this story without question, including its characterization of Skinner and behaviorism, which supported many of prejudices against behaviorism I had picked up during my education. However, as I began to learn more about behaviorism a few years later, I found that there was another side to this story. Among behaviorists, the view is that Skinner did not respond to Chomsky’s critique because Chomsky misunderstood his book and had attacked a caricatured version of behaviorism different from Skinner’s brand of radical behaviorism. Skinner did not appear to feel the attack was worth responding to, although MacCorquodale (1970) eventually published a reply.
Skinner’s disinterest in responding to Chomsky’s critique may in fact have weakened the behaviorist position in the eyes of many psychologists and led to it’s gradual disappearance among many graduate programs in following decades. Moreover, some behaviorists also believe that Skinner’s account of language was flawed—just not for the reasons Chomsky outlined. Friman, Hayes, and Wilson (1998) argue that Skinner developed a valid theoretical foundation for studying private events (e.g., thoughts, emotions), but that he simultaneously indicated that studying private events was “theoretically and practically unnecessary” (p. 140). In this view, Skinner overemphasized the study of direct contingencies of emotional experiences rather than the emotional experiences themselves.
Within the past 20 years, behaviorists have steadfastly developed a theoretical and research literature tackling language from a behaviorist perspective called Relational Frame Theory (RFT). This has yielded an edited book, Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian Account of Human Language and Cognition. RFT is “post-Skinnerian” in the sense that it is indebted to Skinner’s work but moves beyond it with a re-working of Skinnerian ideas and expanded nomenclature. RFT stands on its own, but Barnes-Holmes, Barnes-Holmes, and Cullinan (2000) discuss how RFT and Skinner’s work may be bridged.
RFT is dense, even for seasoned behaviorists, so only a cursory discussion of the main principles will be offered here. It is rooted in functional contextualism, a philosophy of science with a focus on the study of an act or event within a particular context (See Hayes, 1993). Functional contextualists believe that there are no unshakable, universal truths; instead, they value what is useful and practical. The basic unit of RFT is the relational frame, which is the “action of framing events relationally” (Hayes, Fox, et al., 2001, p. 43). The idea of a “frame” is like a picture frame in that relational responding can involve any sort of events, just as a frame can hold any picture.
Relational frames have three key properties. The first is called mutual entailment, which simply means that relations between stimuli are bidirectional. If I told you that my cell phone was called a “shug wuggle,” you’d instantly understand that a shug wuggle is also my cell phone: A = B, B = A. A nonhuman organism can be trained to choose a picture of my cell phone after being shown a blue square, but it would need additional training to pick a blue square after being shown my cell phone. A major feature of relational frames is that they are arbitrarily applied; that is, they don’t depend on any formal or physical properties of the environment. There’s nothing particularly “shug wuggle-like” about my cell phone—the relationship we established is completely arbitrary. In addition to mutual entailment, relational frames involve what is called combinatorial entailment. If I told you that a shug wuggle costs $50, you may also surmise that my cell phone costs $50: A = C, C = A, B = C, C = B. Lastly, relational frames involve transformation of stimulus functions. This refers to a modification of functions in the stimulus relations. If prior to telling you that a shug wuggle is my cell phone I told you that a shug wuggle is “a pain,” you might initially think that a shug wuggle referred to something physically painful. After you found out a shug wuggle is my cell phone, you may decide that what I meant was that a shug wuggle is difficult or inconvenient to operate.
I’ve provided just a sketch here, but the relatively simple idea of how relational framing forms the basis of human language unfolds into many insights about how language and cognition work. These include applications of RFT in the realms of development, education, and even spirituality. Perhaps the most widely studied application of RFT is in understanding the processes of psychopathology and of psychotherapeutic change, which has helped to inform psychological interventions such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) across hundreds of studies.
RFT is the foundation for ACT, a form of applied behavioral analysis and one of the “third wave” treatments within the cognitive behavioral tradition (Hayes, 2004). Although one does not need to be familiar with RFT to be a competent ACT therapist, an understanding of RFT can deepen one’s understanding of ACT. For example, RFT and ACT have informed theories about the processes of mindfulness (*Editor's note: see our prior articles on mindfulness for a summary of this concept - M.A.*). In addition to supporting an understanding of the processes involved in ACT, RFT has been applied with very promising results to children with development disabilities such as autism. This recent application of RFT has resulted in the book, Derived Relational Responding Applications for Learners with Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities: A Progressive Guide to Change.
As you might have gathered from my brief example, RFT is not an easy read. The edited RFT book is often referred to within the ACT community as a “cure for insomnia.” During a recent ACT training I attended with a major contributor to the ACT and RFT literature, he referred to the RFT book as something for “super nerds,” which earned me amused glances from colleagues who knew I was studying it as part of my postdoc at Portland Psychotherapy. Yet the book is far from impenetrable. In a comparison to literature, it’s closer to Joyce’s Ulysses than Finnegans Wake: sometimes difficult but not baffling so, and rewarding with additional re-readings.
The main website for both ACT and RFT is the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science. For paid members—and you only pay what you feel the membership is worth, based on your values (at minimum $1)—you have access to publications, treatment protocols, and listervs for ACT and RFT. For anyone interested in learning more about RFT and/or ACT, the access to PDF’s of related publications is worth joining for in itself.
If you would like to learn more about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Psychotherapy Brown Bag recommends the following resources, which are also available through the online store:
- Learning ACT: An Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Skills-Training Manual for Therapists by Jason Luoma, Steven Hayes, and Robyn Walser
- Mindfulness for Two: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Approach to Mindfulness in Psychotherapy by Kelly Wilson
- A Practical Guide to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Steven Hayes and Kirk Strosahl
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change by Steven Hayes, Kirk Strosahl, and Kelly Wilson
- The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to Breaking Free from Anxiety, Phobias, and Worry Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by John Forsyth and Georg Eifert
Brian Thompson is a psychologist resident in Portland, Oregon