Academic journal article International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy

Relational Frame Theory: Some Implications for Understanding and Treating Human Psychopathology

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy

Relational Frame Theory: Some Implications for Understanding and Treating Human Psychopathology

Article excerpt

Researchers and clinicians, from a variety of psychological perspectives, assume that incidences or clusters of psychopathology involve abnormal behavior (Davison, Neale, & Krung, 2004). A number of key classification systems have been traditionally employed as a means of organizing these behaviors -and the thoughts, feelings, and other internal states to which they are related- into syndromes or functional classes that can readily be discussed in the scientific and lay communities. The most widely used categorical model of classification is DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) in which clusters of abnormal behaviors, thoughts, and feelings are grouped as syndromes, that in turn are organized across five interrelated classification axes (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). From a strictly behavioral perspective, however, syndromal classification appears to be of limited utility in identifying common functional dimensions of abnormal behavior (Wilson, Hayes, Gregg, & Zettle, 2001). It is perhaps for this reason that syndromal classification has not been adopted as a primary diagnostic tool by researchers and practitioners who advocate a functional, and typically behavioranalytic, approach to psychological problems (Hayes, Wilson, Gifford, Follette, & Strosahl, 1996). In contrast, these professionals demonstrate a preference for a dimensional model of classification that emphasizes functional behavioral overlaps or commonalities that directly guide assessment and treatment (e.g., the presence of high levels of emotional avoidance, see Hayes, Nelson, & Jarrett, 1987). Identification of these commonalities is driven almost entirely by a core set of basic behavioral principles, thereby reflecting a more integrated scientist-practitioner approach to psychopathology than that offered by syndromal classifications (Barlow, Hayes, & Nelson, 1985).

One important corollary of the functional or behavior-analytic approach to abnormal behavior, that arises from its reliance upon a core set of basic behavioral principles, is the need to effect appropriate changes in the applied science when the basic scientific principles are modified or extended. The current paper argues that such a change is presently underway in the science of behavior analysis under the rubric of Relational Frame Theory (RFT, Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001). Specifically, these researchers have argued that the burgeoning literature on derived stimulus relations calls for a reinterpretation of complex human behavior, including most types of abnormal behavior, that extends beyond a purely contingency-based analysis. The primary aim of the current paper is to describe the behavioral account of human language and cognition, known as RFT, and its implications for a new functional interpretation of human psychopathology as complex human verbal behavior.

The current article is divided into three parts. In Part 1, we provide a brief summary of the integrated history of behavioral psychology and behavior therapy, including their emphases on the principles of classical and operant conditioning as the basis for an account of human psychopathology. In Part 2, the core features of RFT are presented, including the three concepts of bidirectional stimulus relations, relating relations, and rule-governance that constitute critical components of the RFT approach to human suffering. The paper therein attempts to illustrate, with the use of clinically relevant examples, the ways in which these concepts can be used to understand psychopathology and psychotherapy. In Part 3, RFT interpretations of three central features of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), namely acceptance, defusion, and values are provided with a view to demonstrating the utility of basic RFT concepts in the treatment of human suffering.

PART 1

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN BASIC PRINCIPLES AND TREATMENT

Early behavior therapists hailed 'Learning Theory' as the scientific basis from which to understand human psychopathology, and substantive empirical evidence of basic behavioral principles did much to stimulate the development of new intervention procedures and to generate clinical interest in the basic science (Mahoney, 1994). …

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