Relational Frame Theory: Vague misgivings and a pseudo-experiment


I keep being asked what I think of RFT, and I recently had some papers rejected because I did not discuss the results in terms of RFT.  Innocently, I did not know we had got to the point that it was required in behavioural discussions.

In what follows are my vague misgivings rather than an extended critique.  But I also provide a loose experiment which illustrates what I am saying rather than proves anything at all.  [RFT proponents do not have discuss their results in terms of what I am saying, btw.]

Vague Misgivings

The history of metaphors in psychology is a constant fight to place ‘thinking’ and some of ‘language’ into a private or inaccessible space—the mind, the brain, private events, etc.   The idea is to allow (theoretically) that new events can then occur within these private spaces which are not dependent anymore on external contexts.  This the panacea or alchemist’s gold being sought to explain everything for which we cannot see obvious external events or contexts.   And that is what I am, in general, disagreeing with, and think we have to just dig deeper in describing external contexts (as good BAs should), not invent private spaces that generate non-external events.

So as one example, with associationisms we might be said to learn stimulus response associations externally at first but we can then do things with those networks of associations in the private spaces without further external contexts.  This becomes ‘thinking’, whereas I am arguing elsewhere that thinking is external not private.

So as another example, we might commence cognitions by seeing something external (perception) but this is turned into information representations which are then passed to an information processor in an unobservable space.  Once there, the cognitive representations can be changed and augmented in many ways independent of the external environment, says cognitive theory.

My vague misgiving is that RFT seems to fall squarely into this category of metaphorical theorizing (even to the point of wanting to call it a theory and repetitiously stating that is is “scientific”).  What occurs is a private event and we can then form ‘derived relations’ or have ‘emergent relations’ with no further environmental control.  Just like associationisms and cognitive theories, it becomes like a ‘run-about inference ticket’ (Prior, 1960) in which anything goes and we get a sort of ipso facto argument as the ‘explanation’.

These points are only vague but they give me pause.

Are Derived and Emergent Relations Unlearned?

There is a rare philosophical tradition that logic is not ready-made or innate in any way, but depends on social relationships and is learned through social relationships (Dewey, Bentley).  I have made the same argument for ‘emergent’ or ‘derived’ relations.

Here is a little experiment I ran informally, which should be taken as a thought experiment (albeit real) rather than any sort of proof.

I was at the house of a friend (not close) and they had a 10-12 year old boy. He was learning a little English at school but primarily spoke Portuguese.

After dinner I asked, through someone translating, if he would be willing to do something with myself and another person present.  I got three lots of different small tokens. From memory, one was small sugar packets, two were different brands of artificial sweeteners.

The three of us sat around a table with our own piles, and did not speak at all.  I did not prime him at all as to what was happening or what was expected.

I then took a token packet from my pile and put it on his pile.  He spontaneously put one of his into my pile.  We did this a couple of times.

A –>B, B –>A

Then I primed the other person to put one of her packets onto my pile, and I then put one of mine onto the boy’s pile.  He spontaneously (no talking, no explanation) put one of his onto the other person’s pile.

A –>B, B –>C, C –>A

Can you see the point?  I have tried to argue elsewhere that derived and emergent relations are learned but they are learned as social actions not as linguistic or symbolical actions.

Social reciprocity between two people and generalized social reciprocity between three people are known from the social behavior of all peoples in the world and are taught to children before they even begin to talk (not always successfully I should add!) (Sahlins, 1965).

So this little experiment is meant to get you thinking that we have not yet plumbed the depths of how so-called ‘emergent’ or ‘derived’ relations come about.  If they are learned as social behaviours at 0-2 years old, this puts all ‘private events’, ‘association networks’ or ‘cognitive processes’ into a real environmental context that can be described if behaviour analysts and RF Theorists would just have the patience to document more detailed contexts and histories.



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