Theoretical roots

Printer-friendly version

RFT: A Theory of Language and Cognition

ACT is based on Relational Frame Theory (RFT), which is a comprehensive basic experimental research program into human language and cognition. RFT has become one of the most actively researched basic behavior analytic theories of human behavior, with over 70 empirical studies focused on it tenets. In ACT, virtually every component of the technology is connected conceptually to RFT, and several of these connections have been studied empirically.

According to RFT, the core of human language and cognition is the learned and contextually controlled ability to arbitrarily relate events mutually and in combination, and to change the functions of specific events based on their relations to others. For example, very young children will know that a nickel is larger than a dime by physical size, but not until later will the child understand that a nickel is smaller than a dime by social attribution. In addition to being arbitrarily applicable (a nickel is “smaller” than a dime merely by social convention), this more psychologically complex relation is mutual (e.g., if a nickel is smaller than a dime, a dime is bigger than a nickel), combinatorial (e.g., if a penny is smaller than a nickel and a nickel is smaller than a dime then a penny is smaller than a dime), and alters the function of related events (if a nickel has been used to buy candy a dime will now be preferred even if it has never actually been used before).

The applied implications of RFT derived from the following key features:

  1. Human language and higher cognition is a specific kind of learned behavior. RFT researchers have shown that arbitrarily applicable comparative relations (the nickel and dime situation just mentioned) can be trained as an overarching operant in young children; similar evidence has emerged with frames of opposition and coordination.
  2. Relational frames alters the effects of other behavioral processes. For example, a person who has been shocked in the presence of B and who learns that B is smaller than C, may show a greater emotional response to C than to B, even though only B was directly paired with shock
  3. Cognitive relations and cognitive functions are regulated by different contextual features of a situation.

The primary implications of RFT in the area of psychopathology and psychotherapy extend from the three features just described. RFT argues that:

  1. verbal problem solving and reasoning is based on some of the same cognitive processes that can lead to psychopathology, and thus it is not practically viable to eliminate these processes,
  2. much as extinction inhibits but does not eliminate learned responding, the common sense idea that cognitive networks can be logically restricted or eliminated is generally not psychologically sound because these networks are the reflection of historical learning processes;
  3. direct change attempts focused on key nodes in cognitive networks creates a context that tends to elaborate the network in that area and increase the functional importance of these nodes, and
  4. since the content and the impact of cognitive networks are controlled by distinct contextual features, it is possible to reduce the impact of negative cognitions whether or not they continue to occur in a particular form. Taken together, these four implications mean that it is often neither wise nor necessary to focus primarily on the content of cognitive networks in clinical intervention. Fortunately, the theory suggests that it is quite possible instead to focus on their functions.

RFT has proven itself successful so far in modeling higher cognition in a number of areas, and the neurobiological data collected so far comport with the theory. RFT is meant to be a comprehensive contextualistic account of human language and cognition and thus its goals extend far beyond ACT or even the behavioral and cognitive therapies in general. Because all of the key features of the theory are cast in terms of manipulable contextual variables, it has readily lead to applied interventions in such areas as education.