Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Disrupting Verbal Processes: Cognitive Defusion in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Other Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapies

Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Disrupting Verbal Processes: Cognitive Defusion in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Other Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapies

Article excerpt

The notion of "stimulus function" has been a central characteristic of behavioral psychology since relatively early on. Kantor (1938) noted a distinction between a stimulus object and stimulus function, with the latter referring to the effect a stimulus has on a subsequent response. Kantor noted both that the same stimulus object could have different functions (i.e., lead to different kinds of responses) and that different stimulus objects demonstrate the same function when they are followed by functionally similar responses. Skinner (1938/1991; pp. 232-262) wrote an entire chapter about the notion that stimuli can serve a variety of functions (e.g., elicitation, discrimination, reinforcement) regardless of form, and emphasized the centrality of functional analysis throughout his career. The notion of stimulus function points directly to both the primary importance of the functional class in behaviorism and to behaviorism's pragmatic focus on stimuli that actually elicit or evoke subsequent responses.

While not traditionally discussed with this terminology, operant and respondent conditioning can be said to result in transformations of stimulus function. In the case of respondent conditioning, when a previously neutral stimulus is presented before an unconditioned stimulus, this pairing results in a transformation of the first stimulus's function such that it now elicits the same response as the second stimulus. Pavlov's (1927) classic experiment in which the sound of a bell, reliably presented before food, came to elicit the same salivation response as food exemplifies this notion perfectly. The effects of operant conditioning may also be described as involving transformations of stimulus function. When a three-term contingency is established, for example, the discriminative stimulus takes on an eliciting function with respect to the subsequent response. The response itself (which may later become a stimulus for further responding) may take on the reinforcing function of the consequence that follows. The process of operant conditioning essentially involves a transformation of stimulus functions that occurs according to how these stimuli with various prior functions become interrelated.

Skinner spoke extensively about the way in which direct contingency processes such as operant and respondent conditioning can lead to dramatic changes in stimulus function. He argued that direct operant processes applied equally to verbal and nonverbal behavior (Skinner, 1957). More recently, some behavioral psychologists (e.g., Hayes, Blackledge, & Barnes-Holmes, 2001) have argued both theoretically and empirically that Skinner's treatment of verbal behavior has proven inadequate. Relational frame theory (RFT; see, for example, Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001) is based on the empirically supported assumption that unique verbal learning processes may be largely responsible for many of the functions verbal stimuli come to demonstrate. In other words, RFT describes how uniquely verbal processes result in the transformation of function for stimuli these processes are brought to bear upon.

Given the rather consistently pragmatic focus of radical behaviorism (e.g., Hayes, 1993), it should not be surprising that RFT's positing of verbal sources of functional transformation can be explicitly linked to interventions designed to alter or disrupt these transformations of function when they prove problematic. A signature example is the notion of cognitive defusion, a process central to acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT; Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999). From an ACT-RFT perspective, verbal processes are both a boon and a bane for human beings in general, allowing us to organize our behavior in highly sophisticated manners on the one hand and to become entrapped by debilitating negative self-evaluations and overly rigid verbal rules on the other. In other words, verbal processes can make the world of direct (nonverbal) contingencies far more aversive than it needs to be. …

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