by Angela Coreil, PhD (Original post to June, 2016)

So, what’s the deal with RFT? Isn’t this just another theory to add to your dusty reading stack? No. Put it on top, like yesterday.

RFT is a theory of how relating becomes a part of our processing of the world. We are richly hooked into our very verbal sense-making of the world. Our internal verbal-ish history can become a more predominate shaper of perception, in the moment, than even previous respondent or operant conditioning. Move over Bandura and those ridiculous Bobo dolls, we’re onto something big.

Yes, it’s a big deal. HUGE. The most coherent, expansive, and useful theories we have in psychology allow us to predict and influence behavior are operant and respondent conditioning-based. Functional Analysis (FA) is a cornerstone of modern behaviorist therapies and yet we’re saying that even if you account for all the ‘external’ context you could be missing the most important variable in the room.

Our ideographic and collective history of verbal relating influences our perception. Note: this is not the same as ‘language’. What we’re talking about is a hodgepodge mix of learning history, language, internal rules, sensations, etc. that people often hear as “language”). It’s not about “language” it’s about relational history that gets heavily influenced by language because that’s the framework we see the world through. Just think… when is the last time that voice in your head actually shut up? Never? We are verbal and that verbal-ness is often key in high-jacking a human’s response to the contingencies in the room. Further, we understand that the specific ways and frequencies in which we relate things can influence our perception, behavior, emotion in predictable ways.

So, this verbal relational soup of history is on-going and heavily influencing our contact with the world. This is pretty profound, but in itself, esoteric at best. Like knowledge of quantum mechanics and M-theory it’s cool but what can we DO with it? That’s where we really start getting to the sexiness inherent in RFT. RFT describes properties of relating such that you can walk back and forth with empirical logic from observation, to assessment, to intervention strategy.

As a clinician and researcher, I’ve done most of my work in exposure-based treatment of anxiety and related issues. In treating severe anxiety at the Intensive Outpatient and Partial Hospitalization levels I saw clients on a daily basis for hours, for months at a time.  It was doing this level of treatment where I saw the quirks of change, or lack of it, in my client’s behavior the best. It was here that I kept running across quirks in treatment and assessment that were not well explained in the literature. One of those phenomena was that what tended to most amp up or dampen exposure intensity within OCD and PTSD wasn’t what you’d expect. I found that often the stimuli or experiences that were most painful for people were linked to their values or their sense of themselves, others, or the world. I also noticed that sometimes hierarchies needed to include exposure to stimuli that just didn’t fit into normal models of fear conditioning (see exposures to milkshakes, umbrellas, The Doors, and emotions themselves). And, weirder yet – that a change in context could sometimes seemingly result in immediate ‘habituation’.

I returned to Relational Frame Theory and behavior analysis because training across modalities still left me with insufficient explanation for what I saw. Take the example of values intensifying exposure via values. Yes, that might be covered by ACT mid-level terms but it doesn’t give you a full picture. If we consider properties inherent in various types of ‘framing’ that might be at hand in values we not only know what to do to move this material with the client but we also have indications of other, less intuitive things that might also be amply or de-amplify an exposure (outside of values). We can reasonably say that hierarchical framing is likely at hand. Knowing this, we might also be able to find other material that moves exposures up and down the hierarchy simply by understanding the types of relations that are most predominant in driving the client’s experience. 

What’s more, you can do this underneath the level of therapeutic orientation and diagnosis. Everything becomes about relations that we can influence without clinging to our own preferred tools. (Yes, that’s right. I’m a behaviorist and I believe those psychoanalytic folks may even be getting it right too – just differently. None of us has a total lock-down on effective treatment.

I see this as the real beauty and possibility of Relational Frame Theory and behavior analysis – the promise that unification of psychology – across all areas influenced by human thought, across levels of analysis, across basic and applied, across therapeutic orientation, and across diagnoses might be possible. That we may just be able to move forward from the elaborated mess of opposing theories, big egos, and lack of cooperation that we currently call ‘psychology.’

Are you interested in learning more about RFT and behavior analysis? Let us know in the comments or consider taking one of our online training events.


Angela Coreil, PhD

Angela Coreil, PhD

Consultant and Educator

Angela J. Coreil, PhD works with individuals and organizations to promote better connected, purposeful, and effective living through behavior analytic principles. She has over a decade of clinical experience treating human suffering and promoting human excellence using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and other behavioral therapies. She now focuses on the promotion and translation of Clinical Behavior Analysis as a way to improve our science.

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