ACBS Spotlight -- "Learning RFT": Simple, Coherent, & Highly Recommended New Book Targeting Clinicians But Useful to Many

Printer-friendly version

learning rft.jpg



My first reaction to this book is a simple and powerful: "FINALLY." 

Why, you ask? 

A dutiful student of a radical behavioral, functional contextual research laboratory, I've slogged through the original RFT book, frantically tried to fill the gaps in my behavioral background, and attempted to wrap my brain around the sometimes convoluted RFT studies designed to hone in on one particular part of the theory. I've taken Eric Fox's excellent RFT Tutorial a few times, attended numerous workshops, talks (informal and formal), and conferences, read post after post on the RFT listserve, and talked endlessly to folks who possess an uncanny ability to translate RFT into something meaningful for us clinicians. 


All of this has helped me find ways to make RFT a part of my way of thinking; about behavior in general, about my behavior specifically, and about how I conceptualize, assess, and intervene with my clients. I can now see more clearly both the 'dark' and 'light' sides of human language capabilities; understanding transformation of function, for example, helps me get both problematic responses to psychological events as well as promote values and value-directed behavior. 

Applied work in the domains of developmental disabilities and intellectual abilities is inspiring. Kids with autism and developmental delays are being taught things like theory of mind, perspective taking, and are increasing their intellectual performance with training in RFT principles. Also, the number of research laboratories all over the world that embrace and produce RFT studies alongside other applied projects is growing.

It's clear that SOMETHING is going on here. And knowing a little bit about what that might be could be fun, exciting, and hopefully helpful for all of us. As Steve Hayes has said many times, ACT principles and procedures may become subsumed by the culture. The principles of RFT, on the other hand, have the potential (so long as they continue to be useful and supported by the data) to be both far-reaching and deeply impactful -- in education, developmental psychology, behavior analysis, and yes, in psychotherapy. 


Perhaps not everyone shares this experience, but for me, it took quite a lot of dedication, time and persistence to reach a level where I can appreciate RFT, understand it  AND draw upon the principles flexibly in my practice.  I recognize that not everyone has the luxury to spend years struggling with the concepts, or the willingness to throw the books/articles down in frustration and come back to them. Perhaps again. And again. And again.


Sure.  And there are lots of great ways to learn a piece of RFT and what it has to offer -- the RFT Tutorial being an excellent (and very fun) example. But rarely is there a full treatment of ALL that RFT could offer us. The original (2001) RFT book stepped up to the plate, but so much more work has been done in the meantime. For a long time I've been looking for a single work that is simple enough that I don't get a headache reading it, but covers the complexity with enough finesse and care that the scientist in me is satisfied.

Alas, age-old wisdom supplies that it's hard to do everything well. Or is it? 

While people may argue with me about whether this book does 'everything' well, I put forth this question: If one, lightweight, easily digestible book could teach the principles of RFT, supply a brief but informed history of behavioral thinking, and translate that work into useful clinical and psychotherapeutic moves anyone could use after reading them, would you buy it?

If you answered YES, you are in luck – your wish has been granted with this book.


OK. Let's get down to details. There are many aspects of this book that I find praise-worthy.

Situating RFT within the history of behavioral thinking. First, one of the things Törneke does is provide you with a useful context in which to situate RFT. This is fantastic for those of us who only recently came to call ourselves behaviorists (and for those who maybe aren't quite sure yet). In the first two chapters, Törneke provides a brief history of behaviorism and presents Skinnerian principles and verbal behavior with simplicity, clarity, and enough citations to whet the appetites of those interested in reading more. He asks and answers the question of why thinking is a clinically relevant behavior, and critically examines existing cognitive models with an eye towards prediction and influence.

Clear, concise, example-laden description of RFT principles. Next, Törneke focuses on presenting RFT itself, linked to every-day examples that we can all understand. He quickly makes the principles of RFT relevant to our clinical work by discussing such crucial phenomena as sense of self, the many forms of rule-governed behavior, and the use of analogy and metaphor, but always linking the concepts to the evidence base. Complex organism-environment interactions such as implicit rule following are presented clearly and without undue complication. He manages to make understanding Cfunc and Crel interesting, personally relavent, and even exciting.

'Luke, I am your father': The clinically-relevant dark and light sides of the "force" of relational framing capabilities. The 'dark' side of human language capabilities provides another segment of the book that will help clinicians better understand the suffering of their clients. How relational framing and transformation of function can create additional psychological suffering is examined in great detail, including the problems with pliance, tracking, augmenting, rule-governed insensitivity to immediate consequences, dominance of indirect stimulus functions, and how it is that humans struggle against themselves. These are given equal weight to that oldie but goodie, experiential avoidance, providing practicing clinicians with a broader and deeper sense of potential language traps that lead to suffering.

Alphabet Soup (ACT, FAP, DBT, MBCT...): An introduction to behavioral-principle-governed psychotherapy, with attention to verbal contexts. Finally, and most importantly, rather than prescribing protocolized concepts for working with clients, Törneke skillfully weaves a tapestry of principles to clinical concepts and intervention strategies that go way beyond simply'doing' an ACT metaphor. While the chapter 'Altering the Context With a Focus on Consequences' serves more as an introduction to such firmly behavioral psychotherapies as Functional Analytic Psychotherapy, Törneke does provide a nice overview of ways to use such important behavioral strategies as consequating actions and shaping appropriate behaviors in clear clinical language. What is completely (to my knowledge) new is the following chapter 'Altering the Context With A Focus on Antecedents' in which Törneke describes ways to use verbal stimuli in specific ways and for a specific purpose; to increase the potential effectiveness of psychotherapy.

O data, where art thou? While such RFT-consistent psychotherapy moves have not been directly tested in clinical studies, there is experimental evidence that, at least at the level of process, some verbal contexts tend to be more healthy, flexible, and effective for dealing with stress and life problems. RFT, after all, is the basis for moves such as defusion, self-as-context, and understanding both effective and ineffective rule-governed behaviors (such as pliance or values). More work needs to be done, for sure. 

But pending further evidence in either direction for it's utility for psychotherapeutic work, I highly recommend that every clinician, behaviorally-trained or not, peruse this last segment of the book. Perhaps it might provide you with some new tools, or even strengthen your understanding of why the ones you already use are often helpful. At the very least it may whet your appetite for further learning in ACT, FAP, or other behaviorally-oriented treatments.

And for those of you with a passion for research, perhaps you will find questions yet to be asked an answered regarding this concepts. 


In any case, I cannot recommend this book enough for learners. And for those of you who wish to teach RFT to others? Assigning this book may cut down on that pesky years-long latency period for understanding it. Once a new-comer to RFT reads this book, new avenues may open up -- philosophically, clinically, research-wise, and perhaps even personally.

Maybe you'll consider dusting off your suitcase and attending the International RFT Meeting in Japan this coming March or the annual World Conference in Italy this coming July, or even joining the RFT Special Interest Group

This book could be a stand-alone treatment of RFT, but after reading it, I'm betting that few people will stop there. There is so much more exploring to do and with this book in the behaviorists' arsenal, who knows what might be possible?


Behaviorally Yours,

Jennifer Cfunc Plumb


PS -- You don't have to take my word for it. Here's what some fellow travelers had to say:

"At times, while reading Törneke's book, I have felt as though I were in the middle of a thriller about the psychopathological behaviors of humans. Clues to unraveling the mystery embedded in complex concepts like 'arbitrarily applicable relational responding' have alerted me, as the reader, to what is coming up next. Our ability for relational framing and for rule-governed behavior may at first glance seem fabulous-a gift from the gods-but darkness lurks around the corner. Our ability to problem-solve is the villain. This book helps me make sense of it all."
—Maria Midbøe, M.Sc., candidate in psychology at Stockholm University in Stockholm, Sweden

"Until now, explanations of relational frame theory have remained largely esoteric and even impenetrable to all but the most specialized scholars. For the first time, this extraordinary book provides a highly accessible account of relational frame theory, including its larger context within psychology, the current research in the field, and its many potential applications. Törneke strikes a fine balance between doing justice to relational frame theory and making the theory, research, and its implications readily comprehensible to the non-expert. This unique book is a must-read for scholars of human cognition, as well as clinicians, educators, others seeking to harness the power of basic psychological principles in their applied work, and anyone interested in the renaissance of modern behavior analysis."
—James D. Herbert, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, and director of Anxiety Treatment and Research