water color figures thinking and communicating

Relational Frame Theory 101: Theoretical Foundations, Part 2

A couple of weeks ago we posted an introduction of arbitrarily applicable relational responding (AARR) within the context of relational frame theory from the chapter by Ian Stewart, PhD, and Bryan Roche, PhD, in Advances in RFT: Research and Application. Patterns of arbitrarily applicable relational responding are referred to as relational frames. RFT suggests that a variety of these frames exist including, but not limited to:

  • Sameness (or coordination, e.g, “A=B”)
  • Comparison (e.g., “C is bigger than D”)
  • Opposition (“Black is the opposite of white”)
  • Distinction (“This is not the same as that”)
  • Hierarchy (“A whale is a type of mammal”)
  • Analogy (“A is to B as C is to D”)
  • Deixis (“I am here and you are there”)
  • Temporality (“Spring comes before summer”)

RFT researchers have increasingly proven that people respond in accordance with a variety of these frames, and that the responses can be trained up when weak or absent (e.g., Barnes-Holmes, Barnes-Holmes, Smeets, Strand & Friman, 2004; Barnes-Holmes, Barnes-Holmes, 2003; McHugh, Barnes-Holmes, Barnes-Holmes & Stewart, 2006; Roche & Barnes, 1997; Rosales, Rehfeldt & Lovett, 2011; Steele & Hayes, 1991; see also Dymond, May, Munnelly & Hoon, 2010; Rehfeldt & Barnes-Holmes, 2009).

Despite the variety among relational frames, they all share three core properties:

  1. Mutual entailment – That feature of relational framing whereby a unidirectional relation from stimulus A to stimulus B in a certain context entails a second unidirectional relation from B to A. For example, if a child is shown two previously unseen identically-sized foreign coins, told that coin A is worth more than coin B, and subsequently derives that coin B is less than coin A, this is mutual entailment. (Note that symmetry—the first type of generalized, contextually-controlled relational responding to be learned, which Sidman described as one of the three properties of stimulus equivalence—is a subtype of mutual entailment in which the entailed relation is the same as the specified relation.)
  2. Combinatorial entailment – The phenomenon whereby two stimulus relations can be combined to allow the derivation of a third relation. For example, if I show the same child in the example above three identically-sized foreign coins and tell her that coin A is worth more than coin B and coin B is worth more than coin C, and she subsequently derives that A is worth more than C and C is worth less than A, this is combinatorial entailment. (Note that transivity, another of the properties of equivalence, is a sub-type of combinatorial entailment in which the entailed relation is the same as the specified relation. In the context of equivalence, for example, if “A goes with B” and “B goes with C,” then “A goes with C” and “C goes with A.”)
  3. Transformation of function – The process by which language can influence our behavior (e.g., Dymond & Rehfeldt, 2000). If two arbitrary stimuli, A and B, participate in a relation and stimulus A has a psychological function, then under certain conditions the stimulus functions of B may be transformed in accordance with that relation. For instance, imagine that the child in the above exercises and I are in a foreign country in which coins that the child has never seen before can be used to buy things; and imagine then that I show her a previously unseen coin A and ask if she wants this coin. She is likely to reply that she does. Imagine that I then show her a second novel coin, B. If I then tell her that A is worth less than B and ask her which she wants, she will likely choose B, whereas if I tell her that A is worth more than B then she will likely choose A. In this way, relational framing with respect to stimuli in our environment can transform the psychological functions of those stimuli. Transfer of functions, which was discussed in the context of equivalence, is a subtype of transformation of functions in which the psychological function that appears in the related stimulus is the same as the function inhering in the original stimulus. The phenomenon of transformation of functions through arbitrarily applicable relations has been demonstrated in well over one hundred RFT studies with a variety of relations and function (see Dymond et al., 2010 for an overview). From an RFT perspective, this phenomenon allows a technical understanding of the influence of language over our behavior, and the generativity and flexibility that characterize this influence. It allows insight into rule following, for example, one of the distinctly human phenomena that had posed problems for the Skinnerian conception of language. 

RFT offers an analysis of rule-governed behavior in terms of the relational frames involved and the cues that occasion the derivation of those relations (cues), as well as in terms of the psychological functions transformed through those relations and the cues that occasion those transformations of function.

Consider the following rule as an example presented by Stewart and Roche:

If you press fast when the blue light is on and press slow then the red light is on, then you will earn the maximum number of points, which are exchangeable for money afterwards.

From the RFT perspective, an analysis of this rule points to the following relational frames:

  • Coordination between words (e.g., blue light) and actual objects or events
  • Before-after relations specified in terms that indicate a temporal antecedent (e.g., “When the blue light is on”)
  • Perspective (I-you) relations
  • If-then relations that specify a contingency

The words “press fast” and “press slow” are stimuli that alter the behavioral functions of the button in an operant laboratory such that the listener is more likely to press it at a particular rate in particular contexts specified in the rule (“when the blue light is on” and “when the red light is on” respectively). RFT suggests that someone provided with a rule such as this determines whether or not the rule is being followed by the extent to which the rule coordinates with actual behavior. If the listener discriminates that events in the non-arbitrary environment specified by the rule are indeed in the relations specified by the rule, then the rule is being followed. In this case, if the listener perceives that he is pressing fast when the blue light is on, then he is following the rule correctly.

The example shows the significance of RFT in that it allows for the theoretical analysis of rule-governed behavior and how it might affect human behavior. As in the case mentioned above, the transformation of the functions of aspects of the operant set-up through relational frames as just described might allow immediate adjustment to experimental contingencies. Relational frame researchers are able to empirically model simple examples of rule-governed behavior in the laboratory by establishing contextual cues for sameness, distinction and temporal (before and after) relations so as to allow transformation of the ordering functions of arbitrary stimuli and, more specifically, influence over patterns of sequential responding to those stimuli (e.g., O’Hora, Barnes-Holmes, Roche & Smeets, 2004).

This important work on rules and other examples of complex behavior is providing behavior analytic insight into the potentially profound effects of human verbal behavior and the processes through which it can produce such effects (see, for example, Torneke, Luciano, & Valdivia Salas, 2008).


Barnes-Holmes, Y., Barnes-Holmes, D., Smeets, P. M., Strand, P., & Friman, P. (2004). Establishing relational responding in accordance with more-than and less-than as generalized operant behavior in young children. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 4, 531-558.

Dymond, S., & Rehfeldt, R. A. (2000). Understanding complex behavior: The transformation of stimulus functions. The Behavior Analyst, 23, 239-254.

Dymond, S., May, R. J., Munnelly, A., & Hoon, A. E. (2010). Evaluating the evidence base for relational frame theory: A citation analysis. The Behavior Analyst, 33, 97-117.

McHugh, L., Barnes-Holmes, Y., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Stewart, I. (2006). Understanding false belief as generalized operant behavior. The Psychological Record, 56, 341-364.

O’Hora, D., Barnes-Holmes, D., Roche, B., & Smeets, P. M. (2004). Derived relational networks and control by novel instructions: A possible model of generative verbal responding. The Psychological Record, 54, 437-460.

Rehfeldt, R. A., & Barnes-Holmes, Y. (Eds.) (2009). Derived relational responding: Applications for learners with autism and other developmental disabilities. Oakland, CA: Context Press/New Harbinger.

Roche, B., & Barnes, D. (1997). A transformation of respondently conditioned stimulus function in accordance with arbitrarily applicable relations. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 67, 275-300.

Rosales, R., Rehfeldt, R. A., & Lovett, S. (2011). Effects of multiple exemplar training on the emergence of derived relations in preschool children learning a second language. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 27, 61-74.

Steele, D. L., & Hayes, S. C. (1991). Stimulus equivalence and arbitrarily applicable relational responding. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 56, 519-555.

Torneke, N., Luciano, C., & Valdivia Salas, S. (2008). Rule-governed behavior and psychological problems. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 8(2), 141-156.

Sign Up for Our Email List

New Harbinger is committed to protecting your privacy. It's easy to unsubscribe at any time.

Recent Posts

Quick Tips for Therapists