What is Relational Frame Theory (Part Two)

February 24, 2008 by Shawn Smith

RFT-part-2In Part One, we looked at one of the handy cognitive shortcuts that separates humanity from other non-verbal earthlings: relational framing. We have the ability to derive relationships that aren’t explicitly taught; other animals don’t, for the most part. That means that our knowledge can increase exponentially whenever we learn a single new piece of information.

For example (we can’t do this stuff without examples), if we teach a person that a curved yellow fruit is called a banana, the person will automatically discern that the sound “banana” represents curved yellow fruit. That’s two pieces of information for the price of one, and we’ll refer to this as bi-directionality.

That may not seem like much at first glance, especially when we’re simply about naming things, but let’s look at what happens with more complex relational framing behavior.

Let’s say you and I bump into each other at the local psychology convention and I introduce you to my brother, Leroy and my father, Rupert. I’ve given you only two pieces of information:

1. Leroy is my brother.
2. Rupert is my father.

But check out what happens behind the scenes in your average human mind. From those two facts, you derive four additional relationships. (The red arrows represent relationships that are explicitly taught, and the blue arrows represent things that we figure out on our own.)

1. I am Leroy’s brother.
2. I am Rupert’s son.
3. Leroy is Rupert’s son (probably).
4. Rupert is Leroy’s father (most likely).

That’s a grand total of six relationships from two just pieces of information.

Now let’s say that our paths cross again at the psychology supply store where I introduce you to my mother, Consuela, and my niece, Miranda. Once again, I’ve given you two facts:

  1. Consuela is my mother
  2. Miranda is my niece

Your mind will combine them with what you already know, and look at all the relationships it will derive without being directly taught.

  1. Consuela is my brother’s mother.
  2. Miranda is my brother’s daughter.
  3. Rupert is Miranda’s grandfather.
  4. … and so on.

You have now derived several new relationships from two measly pieces of new information. Now we’re framing relationally, baby!

You may have noticed that there are assumptions involved. Maybe Rupert and Consuela were never married, or maybe Miranda is not Leroy’s daughter. Relational framing is prone to certain types of errors that can affect mental health. We’ll come back to that. All things considered, however, the ability to derive relationships is an immeasurable cognitive advantage.

This type of behavior is unique to humans. From an early age, we are shown multiple examples of the same types of relationships until we learn how to recognize them on our own. After viewing enough trials, we learn that an uncle-niece relationship is the same from one family to the next. We also learn how to apply bi-directionality in relationships.

The advantages are incalculable. For example, frames and bi-directionality make family reunions easy for us to comprehend. If you’ve ever seen a family reunion among non-verbal animals, you now what I mean. It’s chaos.

A Gaggle of Frames

Familial relations are just one minor example of relational framing. We do it with scads of relationships that have nothing to do with bloodlines:

  • Same and different
  • Faster and slower
  • Bigger and smaller
  • Worse and better
  • Earlier and later
  • Closer and further
  • Mine and yours
  • Here and there
  • …and so on.

Let’s take a look at one. If I tell you that I am faster than my father, and Miranda is faster than me, you will automatically discern that Miranda is faster than my father and my father is slower than Miranda.

Now, you may be saying “but Shawn, animals can discern things like faster and slower, otherwise cheetahs wouldn’t be able to spot the slowest runner in a herd, and the cockroaches in my favorite restaurant wouldn’t run to the darkest corner when the lights go on.”

You’re right, animals can make distinctions. There are two important differences between the way humans make these distinctions and the way non-verbal critters do it.

The first, as we’ve been discussing, is the human ability to derive relationships that aren’t obvious (e.g., we figure out that Miranda is faster than my father without being shown or told directly). When a cheetah locates the slowest animal in a herd, she is doing so by making direct comparisons at that time and place. The entire herd is present and no imagination is required.

Which brings us to the second difference. We humans can make symbolic comparisons. For example, we can comprehend that a dime has a higher value than a nickel even though a nickel is larger and weighs more. That, my friends, is a feat that your average cheetah will never accomplish. How would she carry change, anyway? The jingling would scare off her prey. Symbolism (and words are merely symbols) is one of the crown jewels of human cognition.

Symbols are also arbitrary. The reason we call this thing in front of you a “computer” is because we all agree to call it that. The reason a nickel is less valuable than a dime, despite its obvious size and weight advantage, is that we agree on it. As arbitrary as they are, symbols are huge time-savers. Saying “please pass the salt” is much easier than pantomime.

Yep, we’re relationship-deriving, arbitrary symbol-using machines, and we just cannot resist using them on ourselves. That’s where relational framing can get us into trouble, mental-health-wise.

You Derive me Crazy

Here’s another way in which humans use symbols that animals cannot: we can attach emotional content to thoughts, symbols, and memories, thanks to our ability to see bi-directionality in relationships.

Here’s what I mean. Say, for example, that I take my cat to the veterinarian, who gives her a shot of medicine. Cats hate shots, and so the next time I show her a hypodermic needle, she will resist and show signs of distress. She might shiver and howl, and her little heart will pound in her chest. Because she remembers the pain it caused, she will do whatever she can to get away from that needle before it strikes again.

When she responds that way, we know that the cat has associated the needle with painful shots in the tushie. Humans operate the same way in the presence of a thing that has caused pain before. Nothing extraordinary there.

Here’s the interesting part. Animals can be trained to report whether they have experienced a painful event (by pushing a lever, for example). When they do so, there are no signs of distress. They don’t howl and their hearts don’t pound. Even though they are remembering pain, they are as calm as if they were contemplating a sunny day.

A human, on the other hand, will show signs of distress when describing a past, painful experience.

Sometimes, the memory of a painful event can evoke more distress than the actual event did. Sometimes, an imagined event can cause distress even though the person has never experienced it. If you’ve ever worried about your own death, you know what I mean.

This is all due to the bi-directionality in language. Just as the word “banana” can evoke the image of a banana, so can “needle” evoke distress. The word “needle,” the object, and the memory of the pain it caused are mentally connected, and each one automatically evokes the other two. The three are said to be in a frame of coordination.

And so, we can experience distress even when we are only imagining a painful thing. If we’re not careful, we can make things worse by attaching other words to the painful event. For instance, one way of avoiding the distress caused by the thought of a needle is to replace that thought with something pleasant – say, a banana split.

Let’s suppose that the next time I get a shot, I try to distract myself by thinking “banana split, banana split, banana split.” If I’m able to distract myself sufficiently that I don’t experience the pain at all, then the strategy might work.

Unfortunately, that approach can be problematic because I know that I’m thinking of a banana split in order to avoid thinking of needles. I’m not a dummy, after all, and I’m not going to be fooled so easily (especially by me). Banana splits may then come to remind me of needles, which in turn causes distress. I have brought banana splits into the frame of coordination with “needle” and now both symbols are related to distress. If I try to avoid that pain by thinking of something else, I’ve just expanded the network even further.

This is the paradox of pain-avoidance strategies: in trying to prevent pain, more and more things can become reminders of the pain we are trying to avoid. The problem can become even worse when the pain we hope to avoid comes from the inside, like feelings of anxiety, depression, or thoughts about ourselves.

Take anxiety. (Not literally.) It’s easy to avoid objects that scare us, like needles, elevators, or airplanes: just stay away from them. But when the thing we want to avoid comes from the inside, we can’t just walk away. Anyone who has ever had a panic attack, for example, will quickly learn to avoid having another one. They’re awful.

What sensations are associated with panic? Maybe a racing heart, or dizziness, or an upset stomach, among many other things. Thanks to bi-directionality, physical sensations can enter a frame of coordination with “panic attack” and so we can learn to avoid them.

It doesn’t end there. Anything that causes such physical sensations can enter a frame of coordination with “panic” and “nervousness.” If contact with the in-laws causes a racing heart, that can summon the idea of panic, which is to be avoided. We can therefore learn to avoid contact with the in-laws.

You can see how this would progress. As ideas enter a frame of coordination with “panic” then the specter of panic gets larger and larger while a person’s world gets smaller and smaller as they avoid more things. Since the pain comes from inside, not the outside world, a person can’t just walk away from it, and so it grows. This is the very definition of a vicious cycle.

This is most assuredly not a complete model of panic, it is just one sloppy example. The list of thoughts, feelings, and ideas that we can incorporate into a problematic avoidance strategy is endless, and we haven’t even begun to consider the effects of biology, personal history, social context, and contingencies from the outside world.

Language Is a Two-Edged Sword

Wilson et al. (2001) summed up the trap of language wonderfully:

“Thus comes the paradox that a species that has by far the fewest contacts with direct sources of pain… through language is able to suffer with a degree of intensity, constancy and pervasiveness that is literally unimaginable in the nonhuman world. Because of [bi-directionality], we can judge ourselves and find ourselves to be wanting; we can imagine ideals and find the present to be unacceptable by comparison; we can reconstruct the past; we can worry about imagined futures; we can suffer with the knowledge that we will die.”

Language is obviously not the only thing that separates us from other critters, but it is one of the most easily quantified. The same words and symbols that have helped us conquer the world seem to bring a kind of pain that only humans can experience.

RFT is a far-cry from the old communication models to which most of us have become accustomed, and this little essay falls far short of capturing the theory’s richness.

Think of this as a dried up little hors d’oeuvre before the empirical smorgasbord. If I’ve piqued your interest, you should next set aside a couple of hours for Eric Fox’s most excellent RFT tutorial. Then, if you’re feeling brave, you might tackle the book Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian Account of Human Language and Cognition. (Try not to read the whole thing in one night.)


Users Guide Human Mind Why Our Minds Make Us Unhappy, Anxious, and Neurotic, and What We Can Do About ItHey there, are you curious to know more about applying mindfulness and behavioral theory in real-life, without the heavy jargon? Check out The User’s Guide to the Human Mind!

Wilson, K.G., Hayes, S.C., Gregg, J., & Zettle, R. (2001). Psychopathology and psychotherapy. In Hayes, S.C., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Roche, B. (Eds.) Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian Account of Human Language and Cognition (p. 215). New York: Plenum Publishers.

Dr. Fox’s RFT tutorial can be found here: http://foxylearning.com/rft.

Here’s another excellent RFT book: Learning RFT: An Introduction to Relational Frame Theory and Its Clinical Applications, by Niklas Torneke.

The Simpsons avatars were generated at www.simpsonsmovie.com.