Relational Frame Theory and Human Behavior

According to relational frame theory (RFT), some properties of language can create and promote suffering. One of them would be when we literally believe what our thoughts, emotions, and feelings tell us and act according to what they dictate to us.
Relational Frame Theory and Human Behavior
Cristina Roda Rivera

Written and verified by the psychologist Cristina Roda Rivera.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Relational frame theory (RFT) is a theory about language and cognition that serves as an experimental basis for acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). From the perspective of relational frame theory, behavior and language are intrinsically related.

This framework provides a functional explanation of some of the findings that have been derived from cognitive research on language. It also provides the basis for studying phenomena in a monistic way. It’s a theory that sets out to study the so-called “mental processes” in an operational and experimental way.

Relational frame theory: Concepts and properties

To understand what a relational frame is, you need to know that human beings don’t only learn from direct experiences. They also learn indirectly by relating stimuli separately from their physical properties. This added linguistic value of the stimuli is what would condition their ability to govern relationships and functions.

A woman thinking.

Properties of a relational frame

To link and transform both cognition and language, there are three properties:

  • Mutual bonding. A relationship between two stimuli involves responding to one in terms of the other, and vice versa. If, in a given context, A is directly related to B, then there’s a derivative relationship between B and A.
  • Combined bonding. One of the defining characteristics of relational frameworks has to do with the ability to combine events mutually. If A is related in a characteristic way to B, and A is related to C, then B and C would also be related.
  • Function transformation. If a stimulus has a function, and then another stimulus establishes a relationship with it in that context, then the function of both of them is transformed by the relationship. For example, if someone tells you that there’s a better and cheaper product than the one you usually use, then the probability that you’ll buy it increases. Its function has been transformed by the relationship that has been established.

Type of contextual clues in relational frame theory

Mutual links, multiple link combinations, and transformations of functions are components of a broader relational response pattern. Relational frame theory calls these relational frames. Experts use this concept to explain how we learn to make associations derived from how stimuli relate to each other.

Relational frames can be combined to generate verbal rules that govern behavior. This process allows people to organize, predict, and control how consequences are obtained in relation to the context. This way, you can anticipate future situations without having experienced them.

Contextual keys in relational frame theory

Each learning context presents multiple stimuli with the potential to acquire the value of the keys that govern the development of relational frameworks. RFT distinguishes two subtypes of contextual keys:

  • Those that govern the type of relationship specified (Crel). The most notable types are coordination, opposition, distinction, comparison, spatial, temporal, causal, hierarchical, and deictic.
  • Each stimulus or event can have multiple psychological functions. For this reason, a second class of contextual clues (Cfunc) will specify which stimulus functions will be transformed (Torneke, 2010).

An explanation of human suffering

In this theoretical framework, one can deduce that some language properties make psychological suffering very common. One of them would be the ability to literally believe what our thoughts, emotions, and feelings tell us and then act according to what they dictate.

In this way, if a person thinks of themselves as “useless” and “not worth anything”, this will probably limit their attitude greatly. We could observe how many people give up goals that are within their means because they think that they’ll never reach them.

Types of verbal rules in relational framework theory

Relational framework theory has gone deeper into this. It has set out to explain the main types of verbal regulation (Luciano and Wilson, 2002):

Pliance rules

In these types of rules, the consequences are achieved by complying with them. The person who generated the rule applies the consequences. This is behavior that, to a large extent, is determined by what the cultural context determines as appropriate. For example, a mother says “If you don’t eat your food, I’ll punish you”.

Tracking rules

This is verbally-regulated behavior that guides the human being to obtain specific strengthening stimuli in the given context. These associate directly with the consequences that the behavior produces. For example, “If you eat, you won’t feel hungry and you’ll feel better.” In this case, the consequences would depend on the characteristics of the food. They are, thus, independent of the person who stated the rule.

Augmenting rules

This is a transformation of functions that decides whether a verbal stimulus, object, or event acquires a reinforcing or aversive value. However, it’s important to note that they always operate in combination with pliance and tracking rules.

Augmenting is a verbal rule that changes the strengthening properties of a stimulus that functions as a consequence. Or, in other words, it increases or decreases the likelihood that such a stimulus will influence our behavior.

For example, if you pass by an ice cream shop with some friends, one of them might say: “Oh, I’d love an ice cream right now!” When you hear this expression, then, to some extent, you can sense the taste of the ice cream. As a result, this increases the likelihood that you’ll buy one.

Patterns of behavior determined by verbal rules

Verbal regulations allow us to govern our behavior, depending on the social context. However, they can also have different adverse effects:

  • A rigid apoliance of pliance rules means that the individual is insensitive to the consequences of their actions in a social context. An example would be: “You have to suffer a lot to be a good mother”. The rigidity of the statement would, therefore, limit the mother from being able to defend her basic rights.
  • Tracking rules determine behavior aimed at obtaining short-term benefits. However, this often limits the formation of correct behavior, which would, in turn, further personal development. An example of this would be someone thinking that they have to use drugs to calm down in some way, but don’t think of the long-term consequences of doing so.
  • Augmental rules operate in coordination with the rigid or counterproductive monitoring of rules. They can specify unemotional functions in personal circumstances, for example, “Worrying makes it impossible to live” or appetitive functions for constant and unattainable emotional conditions, such as “If you’re happy, you’re healthy”.
A man thinking.

Contributions and advantages of relational frame theory

Relational frame theory has led to the development of an analytic system that offers many advantages:

  • It’s a parsimonious approach based on a relatively small number of basic principles and concepts in order to explain the phenomena of language and cognition.
  • It allows us to carry out a study of human language in accordance with the processes that compose it and whose definition is carefully specified.
  • It has a broad scope and offers plausible explanations and new empirical approaches to a wide range of complex human behaviors.

The principles are accessible for direct observation, especially in laboratory conditions. Experts have subjected it to several empirical tests, and it has passed them all. Clinical applications have proven to be effective and many potential applications are still in development.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Barnes-Holmes, D., Hayes, S. C. y Dymond, S. (2001). Self and self-directed rules. En S.C. Hayes, D. Barnes-Holmes y B. Roche (Eds.), Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition (pp.119-139). Nueva York: Plenum Press.
  • Barnes-Holmes, D., Hayes, S. C. y Roche, B. (2001). The (not so) strange death of stimulus equivalence. European Journal of Behaviour Analysis, 1, 35-98.
  • Beck, A., Rush, A.J., Shaw, B.F. y Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive therapy of depression. Nueva York: Guilford Press.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.