Relational Frame Theory in Therapy (RFT): Why the Controversy?

Relational frame therapy is a complex approach to psychology that's also considered controversial. Get detailed info on RFT at HealthyPlace.

Relational frame therapy is not easy to understand. In simple terms, it is an approach to therapy based on the idea that relating one concept to another is where all human language stems from. It was established into a cohesive theory of language that proposes all human communication is founded in the capacity for creating relational links between stimuli. In other words, we're able to connect the dots between events – for example, connecting the word ‘dinner' with the act of eating a meal. This method of relating one word or concept to another is the basis of relational frame therapy.

Relational Frame Therapy: What Is a Relational Frame?

Relational frame therapy is a psychological theory of language. RFT argues that humans can create links between concepts, words and images and that this unit of relating is an essential building block of ‘higher cognition' – or human ability to connect.

For example, a child might develop a relational frame when it associates a basic image of a dog in a picture book with the word ‘dog' and an understanding of what a dog is. Even if that child sees a breed of dog he hasn't come across before, he will still recognize the animal as a dog because of the relational frame he has developed.

The emergence of specific frames in childhood can, therefore, affect the way we relate to stimuli throughout our lives, which allows for more in-depth analysis and understanding in therapy.

What Is the Goal of Relational Frame Therapy?

The goal of relational frame therapy is to provide a general theory of psychology that allows for multiple domains and levels of analysis. It focuses on how humans learn language through interactions with the environment and communications with others. It is based on a psychological approach called ‘contextualism,' of which there are two main types.

Functional contextualism

Functional contextualism is the bedrock of relational frame theory. It is a modern philosophy of science that was developed in behavioral science and behavior analysis. Its most common application is in relational frame theory and acceptance and commitment therapy. It emphasizes the importance of predicting and influencing psychological events (such as thoughts, feelings, and behaviors) with precision by focusing on manipulable variables in their context.

Here, each word view is underlined by everyday objects and ideas that become analogies and metaphors. These are known as "epistemological assumptions." Unlike descriptive contextualism, functional contextualism uses empirically-based concepts and rules.

Descriptive contextualism

In relational frame theory, descriptive contextualism seeks to understand the complexity of a whole event through a personal and aesthetic lens. Here, stories of the past are constructed in an attempt to understand current events. This approach is personal, temporary and specific. Is uses techniques such as social constructionism – an approach to philosophy that questions what is defined by humans and society to be reality.

Problems with Relational Frame Theory

There are many advantages to relational frame theory, but it is not without its controversy. According to the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS), benefits of RFT include:

  • It relies on just a few principles and concepts
  • It is precise and has a broad scope for problem-solving
  • It allows for true depth of analysis
  • It is directly observable, and results are based on empirical research that supports its application
  • It has many clinical applications, so it can be used for a diverse range of patients

The controversy around relational frame therapy is hard to summarize due to the complexity of RFT itself. However, according to a 2009 journal for the Association for Behavior Analytics International, many of the problems surrounding this form of therapy stem from two primary sources:

  1. Its treatment of human language deviates from important behavioral psychology that was offered by the field's founding father, B.F. Skinner, in 1957. Some of its proponents are directly critical of key areas of Skinner's work.
  2. RFT has drastic implications for the future of science surrounding human behavior. Its focus on stimulus functions and reactions are based solely on verbal relations with other events and concepts.

According to Gross and Fox: ‘Such changes in stimulus functions mean that our ability to predict and influence the behavior of humans with verbal abilities will be greatly impaired if we rely solely on analyses of direct-acting contingencies.'

Relational frame therapy is a behavior-analytic approach to verbal communication and human cognition. It may bear similarities to Skinner's Account of Verbal Behavior (1957), but it also contains contrasting ideas that call into question a number of philosophical, conceptual, and empirical issues to the field of psychology.

article references

APA Reference
Smith, E. (2019, September 26). Relational Frame Theory in Therapy (RFT): Why the Controversy?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 16 from

Last Updated: October 15, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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