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What is Relational Frame Theory?

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  • Written By: Marjorie McAtee
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 24 August 2016
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Relational frame theory (RFT) is a psychological theory explaining how humans infer relationships between objects. Psychologist Dr. Steven Hayes is usually credited for having developed relational frame theory, which seeks to expand upon B.F. Skinner's theories of behaviorism. Most psychologists agree that B.F. Skinner's work in behaviorism laid the scientific groundwork for understanding learning and behavior in human and non-human organisms. Humans, however, have a cognitive learning tool that no other organisms are believed to possess — language. Hayes's relational frame theory seeks to explain the role of symbolic relationships in human communication and cognition, and how humans may infer the existence of certain relationships even when those specific relationships haven't been explained.

Most psychologists agree that words and language are symbolic, abstract concepts. According to relational frame theory, words are typically chosen arbitrarily. When populations stand in agreement as to the meaning of specific words, those words earn their meanings. The meanings of words and sounds are not considered inherent, but are largely dependent on how the listener infers that word's relationship to an object.

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Non-human organisms are often able to identify relationships between words and the objects to which they refer. A dog, for instance, may learn that the word "biscuit" refers to a dog biscuit if the word "biscuit" is uttered prior to the appearance of a dog biscuit. When the dog hears the word biscuit, he generally thinks of a biscuit, and may remember previous experiences in which he was rewarded with biscuits. If biscuits are normally given when the word "biscuit" is pronounced, the dog may quickly come to expect a biscuit each time he hears the word. Hearing the word "biscuit" becomes a significant event in the dog's life, because he has learned that biscuits typically appear when he hears this sound.

If the word "biscuit" were only uttered after the dog has already eaten the treat, however, the dog will most likely fail to gain a grasp of the word's meaning. Because the word is uttered after the biscuit is received, the sound loses its significance for the dog.

Humans, on the other hand, are believed to be the only organisms capable of inferring relationships using the imagination. Most humans are capable of bi-directional inference, meaning that, given some limited information, they're capable of inferring relationships that haven't been specifically pointed out. Upon meeting the brother of a friend, for instance, one may automatically infer that both friend and brother share the same parents. Experience has taught that the relationships between family members are generally always established in the same way. According to relational frame theory, humans not only learn from experience, but can apply those lessons to understanding novel situations.

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