What the #@&^ is RFT?!

Author: Ryan O'Donnell, MS, BCBA

Author: Ryan O'Donnell, MS, BCBA

Language alters stimulus functions in ways that previous systems have not taken into account.  

It's really that simple. For real... That's all this RFT thing is. However, let's explore a bit. 

Relational Frame Theory (RFT)

In his book, Skinner defined verbal behavior as “behavior reinforced through the mediation of other persons” (1957, p2) such that “the ‘listener’ must be responding in ways which have been conditioned precisely in order to reinforce the behavior of the speaker" (1957, p 225).  

Verbal behavior can include vocalizations, gestures, pointing, sign language, or any other form of response that is reinforced by the responding of another organism which has been trained precisely to do so.  For example, if a person requests a drink of water and another person (the listener) provides a glass of water because of their training, said the behavior is verbal.  Pretty simple right?

Using this functional approach to language, scientist-practitioners can begin to examine verbal behavior without losing their behavioral soul.   While Skinner provided behavioral researchers with the foundation to explore language (including anything that rests upon it, such as perspective taking) a criticism of his analysis of verbal behavior arose in that it did not adequately explain the behavior of the listener (Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001).    

To address these concerns, Hayes et al. (2001) expanded Skinner’s original approach in a way that accounts for (and focuses on) listener behavior.   They named their expansion Relational Frame Theory (RFT) and it has since been supported by robust empirical data. Although it is described as Post-Skinnerian, it remains true to Skinner’s functional approach in Verbal Behavior (1957). And yes, there are some who find RFT bewildering (Palmer, 2004), but most behaviorists are familiar (and comfortable) with the database produced by stimulus equivalence research (Sidman, 1971; Sidman, 2000).  RFT is essentially an extension of that work, with a little re-working on the philosophical foundation (i.e., functional contextualism, as opposed to radical behaviorism).

Although stimulus equivalence is one of the most studied phenomena in the behavior analytic literature, it falls short of a full account of the entirety of complex derived responding found in humans.  For example, stimulus equivalence has a difficult time explaining the origins of relations about perspectives of the behaver and others.  RFT, on the other hand, includes stimulus equivalence as but one part of their derived relations.  As such, reflexivity, symmetry, and transitivity are not exclusive to stimulus equivalence but rather a type of broader relational responding (Hayes et al., 2001).   While stimulus equivalence is a kind of relational responding, there are much more, and as such, Hayes et al. (2001) suggest broader terms are required (i.e., relational framing).   

Side note: A discussion at the 2016 Nevada Association for Behavior Analysis (NABA) Annual Convention between Carol Pilgrim and Steve Hayes occurred around the differences in the approaches that Stimulus Equivalence and RFT each respectively take. Needless to say, the discussion continues, but my personal interpretation is that the stimulus equivalence work is starting to align with the thesis and data that can be found in the Relational Frame Theory literature. 

Why should you care?

Well, I personally think learning about all areas of behavior analysis (not to mention outside behavior analysis) is a healthy practice of any field - it allows the science to progress, even if it's through discussion. A few years ago I was part of a larger discussion where there were some reasons why someone should care about it (or anything that's happening in our field for that matter). It's by no means exhaustive, but a start: 

  1. It is a part of our field
  2. It is a growing area of literature 
  3. Functional Contextualism is a "revamp" of Radical Behaviorism
  4. Anyone that is heading down the road of research has an opportunity to influence it, like right now.
  5. It is outside of the Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB) task list (or has been historically)
  6. Researchers have received a lot of federal funding for projects from an RFT framework
  7. It can function as a bridge to working with "higher-level" or "typical" skill sets and knowing it qualifies you as a behavior analyst to do so.
  8. It bridges different fields (could give u home in a cognitive behavioral therapy program and acedemia - one of our presenters is actually heading that route, Tom Buqo).
  9. It opens up conversations for areas we have repeatedly been told that our science can't touch.
  10. It is an area that if you can refute empirically you can build your career, and maybe something much, much larger.

Hopefully, this helps make a little sense out of why RFT is and why someone should at least explore it a bit. If you're looking to really dive into the topic more, read the Sidman resources in the reference section, then I'd suggest starting with this book, and then moving to this one afterward. You can also join us in any of our Next Gen Revolution Summits, where this is sure to be amongst some of the discussion depending on the topic and the particular presenter, as a few of them utilizing it in practice daily, with some great success, and a continually skeptical perspective.


Hayes, S. C., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Roche, B. (2001). Relational frame theory: A post-skinnerian account of human language and cognition. New York, NY: Plenum Press.

Palmer, D. C. (2004). Data in search of a principle: A review of relational frame theory: A post-skinnerian account of human language and cognition. Journal of the experimental analysis of behavior, 81, 189-204.

Sidman, M. (1971). Reading and auditory-visual equivalences. Journal of Speech & Hearing Research, 14, 5-13.

Sidman, M. (2000). Equivalence relations and the reinforcement contingency. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 74, 127-146.

Skinner, B., F. (1957). Verbal behavior. New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts.