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What is Relational Frame Theory (RFT)?

Relational Frame Theory (RFT) is a psychological account of human language and cognition. RFT evolved alongside Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and like ACT is part of Contextual Behaviour Science (CBS). RFTs account of language and cognition does not apply to ACT and CBS in isolation but more widely to many aspects of human behaviour.

Key to RFT's account of human language and cognition is our ability to make relations between aspects of the world. RFT argues that these abilities have greatly increased human potential and, at the same time, have greatly increased our potential to experience suffering.

Being able to make relations between different aspects of the world is not unique to humans. Research has found that Rhesus monkeys can select the 'taller' of two stimuli. The monkeys can do this correctly over multiple trials even when the stimuli that was previously the tallest is replaced by an object that is even taller. This suggests that they are making 'relational responses'. In other words, that they are responding in terms of the relationships between objects. However it is important to note that in the above research the relationship between stimuli exist in the world, one stimuli is physically taller than the other. The 'tallness' is part of the formal properties of the object.

The seemingly unique feature of human cognition is our ability to make 'arbitrary' relationships between objects. Arbitrary relationships are those that are independent of the formal properties of objects. For example the relationship between the letters that make up the word 'd-o-g' and an actual 'dog' are arbitrary. There is nothing but social convention and learning histories that connect them. The ability known as 'arbitrarily applicable relational responding' (AARR) allows humans to bring almost anything into a relationship with anything else. It is this ability that brings with it both potential and pain.

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Uploaded: December 1, 2011. Last edited: August 20, 2014
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© 2018 Miles Thompson