RFT: Relational Frame Theory

The relational frame theory (RFT) is a cognitive behavioral approach to psychotherapy. It was created by Dr. Steven Hayes, who has been practicing psychology for over thirty years and has authored many books on the subject of mental health. RFT views human experience as being composed of four components: thoughts, feelings, behaviors and events; each component can be either framed positively or negatively in any given situation.

The goal of therapy is to help clients identify their own frames within these four components which they use in their daily lives and learn how to reframe them when necessary so that they can lead more fulfilling lives with less stress. 

This blog post will explore what the RFT is all about, including what it does for people who practice it in their daily lives.

What is Relational Frame Theory (RFT)

Relational frame theory (RFT) is a human language psychological theory. Originally developed by Steven C. Hayes of the University of Nevada, Reno, it has been expanded to include science, especially by Dermot Barnes-Holmes and his colleagues at the University of Ghent. This article contains what is RFT, its process, and some little details about RFT.

RFT or Relational Frame Theory is a comprehensive theory developed on language and cognition on the basis of functional contextualism philosophy, aiming to contribute to the understanding of human behavior. There are currently over 200 empirical studies that support RFT propositions that form the theoretical basis of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

relational frame theory - rft
RFT, Source: @date_the_right_guy

According to RFT, the basis of human language and cognition is the behavior defined as arbitrarily applicable relational responding. Examining the statement below, which is like a brief summary of the RFT, will make the subject easier to understand.

It is defined as the behavior that occurs as a reaction to a stimulus. The relational response is that it is the behavior of responding to the relationship between stimuli. For example, a monkey can learn to choose the longest one among many different sized rods (stimuli). If the long rod’s choice is reinforced each time, the monkey will learn to respond to this relationship by isolating the length relationship between the rods. He will now be able to generalize his response in other settings, even if he has not been rewarded for his choice before to choose a bar just because it is the longest.

However, what is at stake here is a relationship based on the physical properties of the stimuli. This leads us to the other term in the above statement. A relationship is called “nonarbitrary” if it is based on physical properties between stimuli and “arbitrary” if it is independent of the stimuli’ physical properties.

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RFT Book, Source: @hackingappliedbehavioranalysis

Arbitrary relationships are created through social acceptance and that do not exist outside of the social context in which they exist. Here the relationship is determined by the context, not the non-arbitrary (physical) properties of the stimuli. For example, there is no relationship between the word ‘lemon’ and a real lemon due to physical similarity. For someone who does not speak Turkish, this letter combination (l-i-m-o-n) will not make any sense.

For someone who does not know the Latin alphabet, it will consist of meaningless shapes. The word ‘limon’, which has no meaning outside of its social context, will have the functions of a real lemon in the Turkish-speaking social context. While it will cause a yellow oval fruit to appear in the minds of some, it will cause some to grimace and others to have a watery mouth.

Human beings are the only species that are capable of responding to such arbitrary relationships. While animals can learn to respond by isolating physical relationships, as it is stated in the monkey example, by taking this ability one step further, people can learn to abstract away from the physical properties of the stimulus, that is, to respond to arbitrary relationships.

So How Are People Able To Respond To Arbitrary Relationships?

rft: relational frame theory 2
RFT, Source: @matthiasjbarker

Before answering this question, several important points should be made. Learning in humans is twofold. If we learn that A is the same as B, we conclude that B is also the same as A. When we learn a relationship through direct learning (classical conditioning, operant conditioning, etc.), we derive another relationship from it. If lemon is shown to us physically and is called “lemon,” we derive the information that the “lemon” sound is the equivalent of a physical lemon.

Again, for example, “Rachel is bigger than Mike.” When the information is given to us, we derive the information that Mike is younger than Rachel. To the reader of this text, this may seem like a very ordinary thing. However, this phenomenon, which we call mutual entailment, is peculiar to human beings. After teaching a living thing other than humans that A has any relation with B, it should also be taught that B has a relationship with A.

Another important point is that different relationships can be brought together. For example, A with B; If B is the same as C, we conclude that C is the same as A, and A is the same as C. If a real lemon is shown and said “lemon” in an English-speaking context, in addition to the information (relation) that the “limon” sound indicates lemon, we derive the information that the words “limon” and “lemon” have the same meaning. This phenomenon is called combinatorial mutual entailment, referring to bringing together information (relationships).

The term “derived” in the term “derived relational responding,” which is synonymous with “arbitrary relational responding,” corresponds to the two phenomena we mentioned above.

The question of how people can respond to arbitrary relationships can be explained by saying the relational response is an operant behavior, and that behavior itself is learned. From an early age, we learn the relationships between many different objects and events through direct learning.

For example, when our parents say the names of things we see – just pointing with their fingers – or repeatedly use the expressions ‘this (is) dog, ”this (is) table,’ ‘this is (‘), ‘pointing behavior. We are exposed to hundreds of learning processes in which the expression is ‘remains the same. Thus, we abstract away the pointing behavior or the expression’ ..is ‘, which remains the same in all of our learning experiences.

Clues that determine how stimuli such as “pointing behavior” and “is” are associated are called “contextual clues.” Contextual cues may consist of some visual or auditory combinations such as ‘the same,’ ‘is…’, ‘greater,’ or visuals, movements, or gestures such as pointing by hand. Once contextual clues are learned, they can be applied to any object and event in the environment, thus making relationships independent of the stimulus. This creates a situation in which everything can be associated with everything.

As we can place stimuli in relations of equality and similarity, we can also place them in many different relationships such as contrast, causality, and difference. The term relational framing, which gives the theory its name, which is synonymous with an arbitrary enforceable relational response, also emphasizes this very process by referring to the fact that anything can be placed in any frame.

So What Does Being Able To Relate Everything to Everything Leads To?

Before moving on to the answer to this question, let’s briefly talk about the stimulus function. An organism’s behavior concerning or under the influence of a particular stimulus means that the stimulus has a function on the organism’s behavior. The function is not an inherent feature of the stimulus, so it can only be understood by analyzing the context and organism’s response to that stimulus.

For example, consider a bell as a stimulus. This bell will function for our sense of sight when we see it and a function for our hearing when it rings. While the same ringtone may have a function for a student at the school to enter or leave the class, it may call an institutional staff member. That is, the same stimulus can have different functions in different people and contexts.

Another important point is that the function(s) can be transferred to another stimulus. For example, in Pavlov’s experiment, the drooling function of food was transferred to the bell. For Pavlov’s dogs, the bell now has some of the stimulating functions of food. While stimulus functions may change through direct learning as in this example; The ability to associate without the need for direct learning provides an infinite number of possibilities for the change of stimulus functions. Now everything can have any meaning – in other words, any function.

Let’s review these processes with an example in our daily life to understand the subject better. A young child whose language development is incomplete may think that three $5 paper money is more than one $100 paper money.

Here is the multitude; As you can see, it is determined by its physical properties (or to put it in more technical terms; it is under the control of physical properties). But when the same child grows a little bit older, and his language development reaches a stage, he learns that $100 paper money is more than three $5 banknotes. This new knowledge that the child will learn in a social context with language development is a completely arbitrary relationship.

This arbitrary relationship; is reciprocal ($100 is more than $5, $5 is less than $100), can be combined (If $100 is more than $5 and $5 is more than $1; $100 is more than $1), and can change the function of associated stimuli (If the Child can buy a candy with $1, even if they never bought it with $100 before, they will prefer $100)

So What Does RFT Tell Us About the Relationship of Language with Psychopathology?

Through language, we can bring anything to the present moment. For example, if we were attacked with our dog in Taksim Square a few months ago, while only that square and places that physically resemble the square may trigger the same fear for our dog, we can experience the same fear even when sitting on our warm sofa at home. Anything we hear or see, our thinking or talking about that moment; it can cause us to experience the same feelings and sensations.

Again, through language, anything can become a source of pain (two-way relationship). For example, when we desire something, we experience what we do not have. When we get something we want, we are also threatened with losing it.

And further, we can increase the pain we experience through language: For example, “Why was I there at that hour?”, “Why couldn’t I defend myself?”, “I still can’t forget”, “It will never pass.”, “It will be worse in the future.” We increase the pain symbolically with sentences.

Through language, we can add pleasant or unpleasant functions to our inner lives and develop some rules: “Anxiety is bad.”, “I have to get rid of anxiety.”, “I have to feel good to do these things.” etc. While we pursue the feelings we like, we try to get rid of those that do not.

While we can escape and escape what we don’t want in the outside world, this strategy often doesn’t work for symbolic threats in the inner world. Because language – and hence the relationships established through language – is learned and something learned cannot become unlearned.

On the contrary, the effort to avoid symbolic relationships leads to paradoxical effects. To avoid the pain caused by the traumatic memory, watching movies after a while will become the source of pain. Because – yes, you guessed it – learning is twofold.

To summarize; Human beings are the only living species capable of responding to arbitrary relationships without direct learning. This ability forms the basis of language and cognition. According to RFT, language is the behavior of establishing and responding to symbolic relationships, and it is based on all the complex abilities that a person has.

Finally, Let’s Mention a Few Important Points About Language:

• Language in itself is the only learning process that needs to be learned, and once learned it affects all learning processes; it gives meanings to objects and events and changes their effects.

• Language distinguishes man from other species; but it is also the source of human suffering.

• Language is a generalized, operant behavior and therefore can be affected. Consequently, whenever language is a causative factor, human behavior can be affected.


Ramnero, J., & Törneke, N. (2008). The ABC of Human Behavior. Litera Publications

Törneke, N. (2010). Learning RFT: An introduction to relational frame theory (rft) and its clinical applications. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Villatte, M., Villatte, J. L., & Hayes, S. C. (2015). Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. New York: Guilford.

Zettle, R., Hayes, S. C., Barnes-Homes, D., & Biglan, A. (2016). Handbook of contextual behavioral science. Chichester, UK: Wiley-

To read more about theories like RFT, you can check here.

Last Updated on December 11, 2022 by Lucas Berg


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