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Relational frame theory, or RFT, is a psychological theory of human language and cognition, developed largely through the efforts of Steven C. Hayes and Dermot Barnes-Holmes and currently being tested in about three dozen laboratories around the world. Based on the philosophical roots of functional contextualism, it focuses on how humans learn language through interactions with the environment. Functional contextualism is an extension and contextualistic interpretation of B.F. Skinner's radical behaviorism, and emphasizes the importance of predicting and influencing psychological events, such as thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, by focusing on manipulable variables in their context.

RFT is a behavioral approach to language[1]. B.F. Skinner proposed one such approach in 1957 in his book Verbal Behavior. Skinner presented his approach as an interpretation, not an experimental research program, and researchers commonly acknowledge that the research products are somewhat limited in scope. For example, it 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 [2].

In a review of Skinner's book, linguist Noam Chomsky argued that the generativity of language shows that it can not 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 unfair and 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. More recent cognitive trends, such as situated cognition or distributed cognition, have similarities to Relational Frame Theory so it is possible that these fields will eventually move closer.

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 cogntive training[3], animal training, business and school settings, as well as hospitals and areas or 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.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

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. [How to reference and link to summary or text]

Proponents of RFT often cite 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 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.


RFT underlies the therapeutic practice known as acceptance and commitment therapy.

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.[4]

See alsoEdit



  1. Blackledge, J.T. (2003). An Introduction to Relational Frame Theory: Basics and Applications. The Behavior Analyst Today, 3 (4), 421-434BAO
  2. Louise McHugh and Phil Reed (2008)Using Relational Frame Theory to build grammar in children with Autistic Spectrum Conditions. Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Applied Behavior AnalysisBAO
  3. Cullinan, V. and Vitale, A.(2008). The contribution of Relational Frame Theory to the development of interventions for impairments of language and cognition. Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis, 2.4-3.1, 122-135BAO
  4. Barnes-Holmes, Y., Barnes-Holmes, D. & McHugh, L. (2004). Teaching Derived Relational Responding to Young Children. JEIBI 1 (1), 4-16[1]

Further readingEdit

  • Skinner, B. F. (1989). Review of Hull's Principles of Behavior. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 51, 287-290
  • 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 0-306-46600-7

External links Edit

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