Introducing The ACT Matrix

If you follow our blog, you’re probably pretty familiar with acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), an evidence-based therapy that has been successful in treating a variety of psychological issues from anxiety and depression to substance abuse, trauma, and eating disorders. In contrast to other treatment options, act has proven extremely effective in helping clients who are “stuck” in unhealthy thought patterns by encouraging them to align their thoughts and actions with their values. But the ACT model is complex and not always easy to use.

Traditionally, ACT is delivered with a focus around six core processes that are often collectively referred to as the hexaflex: cognitive defusion, acceptance, contact with the present moment, observing the self, values, and committed action. Each of these core processes serves a specific function, but they are often made more complex than needed in both theory and in practice. So a team of clinical psychologists and popular ACT workshop leaders compiled The ACT Matrix: A New Approach to Building Psychological Flexibility Across Settings and Populations, an edited volume of chapters that fuse the six core principles of ACT into a simplified, easy-to-apply approach that focuses on client actions and behavior as workable or unworkable, rather than good or bad.

What is the matrix?

The ACT matrix is a simple way to help people to adopt a point of view that enhances psychological flexibility. Editors of The ACT Matrix, Kevin L. Polk, PhD, and Benjamin Schoendorff, MSc, MPs, call it “a tool of human liberation that rests on recent advances in the understanding of learning and cognition that underlie ACT training and therapy.”

At its essence, the matrix is a diagram that prompts noticing two differences:

  1. The difference between five-senses experiencing and mental experiencing (the vertical line of the matrix), and

  2. The difference between how it feels to move toward stuff that’s important from how it feels to move away from stuff inside, like anxiety or guilt (the horizontal line of the matrix).

When invited to notice these differences, most people can. But for some folks it’s more difficult. Why someone would have trouble noticing these differences goes to the heart of what’s going on behind the scenes of the matrix.

Basic Assumptions

All science stands upon basic assumptions. For example, we can look at life and the universe as being like a machine. A set of mathematical equations can describe the machine and how its component parts interact. Many of our Western notions of science are built on some variation of this view that the universe is like a machine. However, there’s more than one way to look at things, and the scientific foundation of the matrix is built on a completely different set of basic assumptions. Put simply, humans (and living organisms in general) are not machines. Mathematic equations don’t fully do the trick when it comes to explaining behaviors—the things that make up a life.

So instead of basing our science on a mechanistic view, we look at how a person behaves in the situation the person is in at the time. We look at the whole picture, rather than simply at how the constituent parts interact. You can do this at any time. For instance, you can look at the act (reading) in context (the situation you’re in).

The matrix is an application of functional contextualism (Hayes, 1993), an approach that seeks to identify what works in particular contexts. In functional contextualism, the concern isn’t about how things are in themselves or what’s true independent of what works to attain particular goals. What’s true isn’t how things “really” are, but what works in a given situation. This makes functional contextualism particularly well adapted to interventions in which what’s important isn’t what people think is “true,” but what works for them in their varied life situations.

An alternative to functional contextualism is seeking to identify the mechanisms linking separate parts of reality. Newtonian physics is an example of that. Applied to health, this gives us the standard model of disease, in which an underlying cause is seen as the root of a symptom. Treatment is about removing the cause to remove the symptom. For instance, in diabetes, lack of insulin is seen as the root of a symptom, so treatment implies supplementing with insulin to achieve levels sufficient to remove symptoms and restore health.

Though we rarely think about them, the basic assumptions—or, as the philosopher of science Pepper (1961) referred to them, root metaphors—underlying in our worldviews condition how we go about understanding things and treating people. Therefore, they are important to examine. Functional contextualism was developed to provide a framework for a psychology that doesn’t limit itself to identifying parts and instead takes into account how whole individuals function in their varied life contexts. It’s an extension of Skinner’s radical behaviorism, and its basic assumptions are derived from Darwin’s view of evolution rather than Newtonian physics. The focus is on selection by consequences. This is different from the standard model to the point of perhaps seeming counterintuitive. The matrix helps people easily operate in and navigate this seemingly counterintuitive functional contextual mode. 

A functional contextual perspective conditions a different model of health—one in which how people interact with their life situations determines the consequences of their behavior and whether their behaviors are workable in moving them toward what’s important to them. Trying to change one’s feelings or thoughts may or, more often, may not work to move a person toward what’s important. From this perspective, diabetes is a condition that generally appears with certain behavioral patterns and that, over time, can best be treated by changing eating and exercise patterns. In this model of health, the target for treatment is long-term quality of life, not short-term fixes.

Next week we’ll take a look at the starting point for working within the ACT matrix, and how to begin noticing the difference between moving toward and moving away in this context. 


Hayes, S. C. (1993). Analytic goals and the variety of scientific contextualism. In S. C. Hayes, L. Hayes, H. W. Reese, & T. R. Sarbin (Eds.), Varieties of scientific contextualism (pp. 11–27). Reno: Context Press.

Pepper, S. C. (1961). World hypotheses: A study in evidence. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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