Is the linkage between ACT and RFT post hoc?

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It has sometimes been said that the link between ACT and RFT is post hoc, but that is not the case. The basic, applied, and philosophical work co-evolved from the very beginning.

In some areas of behavior analysis, applied work is based on animal work that is well worked out. Unfortunately, in the area of language and cognition the animal work never got there, so there was a more iterative process.

RFT began from a clinical lab that was trying to fill a need for a better basic analysis. The work went back and forth from basic to applied constantly.

Many of the publications come out years later, so understanding the sequence of events requires a closer look at the record. For example Steele and Hayes, 1991 if the first undeniably RFT experimental study, but it was designed and conducted in 1985-86 and was the cap of a six or seven year long process of both basic and applied development.

Rob Zettle has written about this history. He was not just there but also created some of the key conceptual advances that lead to both ACT and RFT. The history is available in the publications area (search for Zettle, 2005).

By the late 1970s we were getting frustrated with cognitive therapy / cognitive behavior therapy. We wrote a critical chapter on RET in 1979; we were doing conceptual work on rule-governance even that early. In 1981 a chapter interpreting CT from the point of view of rule-governed behavior was written -- it appeared in 1982. It too is on in the publications section (search for Zettle & Hayes, 1982). That chapter is concerned about rule-based insensitivity and undermining pliance; it breaks with Skinner on the definition of rules and do so in a way that demands RFT or something like it.

In that same year we were already doing the basic studies on rule-based insensitivity that would publish in the mid-80s. So we were already testing how rule produce psychological inflexibility. Studies were being planned to try to learn how to undermine that effect. The earliest ACT (nee “Comprehensive Distancing”) manual was drafted in that same year and the earliest applied tests were begun

Probably the easiest way to document this is to look at papers presented orally in 1981-1982, since oral presentations overcome most of the distortions due to publication lags.

Here is part of that list:

Hayes, S. C., Korn, Z., Zettle, R. D., Rosenfarb, I., & Cooper, L. (November 1982). Rule governed behavior and cognitive behavior therapy: The effects of comprehensive cognitive distancing on pain tolerance. AABT, Los Angeles.

Hayes, S. C., Zettle, R. D., & Rosenfarb, I. (May 1982). An empirical taxonomy of rule governed behavior. ABA, Milwaukee.

Hayes, S. C. (May 1982). Rule governed behavior and psychopathology. ABA, Milwaukee.

Hayes, S. C., Rosenfarb, I., & Zettle, R. D. (May 1982). Rule governed behavior and sensitivity to changing contingencies. ABA, Milwaukee.

Hayes, S. C. (May 1981). Rule governed behavior: Functional units of listener activity. ABA, Milwaukee.

Rosenfarb, I., Hayes, S. C., & Zettle, R. (May 1981). Self reinforcement: A social commitment analysis. ABA, Milwaukee.

Hayes, S. C. (November 1981). Running on empty: The ascendance of technical research. AABT, Toronto.

Thus, you can see that the experimental rule-governed studies on insensitivity; studies on commitment; conceptual work on rules; conceptual work linking rules to sychopathology; criticisms of CBT; philosophical work on the need for theory; and the earliest studies on ACT all emerged iteratively at the same time.

By 1984 the paper on Making Sense of Spirituality (Hayes, 1984 … you can find this in the publication list) makes it all clear what will come later. Self, deictic frames, defusion, flexibility and more are in there in one way or another. Shortly after that, the first RFT studies and the first ACT randomized trials began to appear.

RFT is far broader than ACT ... but it has been an ACT-RFT effort from the very beginning. This does not mean that ACT processes are in a point to point correspondence with RFT processes. Over time this is happening more and more, but linkages in each direction were created on the fly.

The bottom line is this: the record shows that ACT, RFT, and contextualism are all part of one research and conceptual program that emerged at the same time and that have co-evolved for 25 years.

- S

Steven C. Hayes