Academic journal article International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy

Criticizing the Tendency for Evolutionary Psychologists to Adopt Cognitive Paradigms When Discussing Language

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy

Criticizing the Tendency for Evolutionary Psychologists to Adopt Cognitive Paradigms When Discussing Language

Article excerpt


Relational Frame Theory (RFT) is an ambitious account of language and cognition that is conceptually and empirically accessible in ways that other psychological theories of language have not been. In a relatively short time, it has opened previously unreceptive areas of empirical behavioral research and illuminated fundamental aspects of human cognition. And, while RFT has stirred up some controversy among behavior analysts (Boelens, 1996; Burgos, 2003; Sidman, 1994; Galizio, 2003), it has also piqued the interest of researchers outside behavior analysis.

Evolutionary psychologists have also investigated many of the issues and behavioral data addressed by RFT and incorporated them into their work on human cognition and language. Unfortunately, most of these integrations have come from a mechanistic and mentalistic perspective, which is incompatible with the functional, contextual approach that characterizes RFT. An example of this is Dickins' 2003 article, General Symbol Machines: The First Stage in the Evolution of Symbolic Communication. Dickins examines the role of arbitrary relational responding, associative learning, and stimulus equivalence in the evolution of human language and cognition. As the title makes clear, the author uses these concepts to propose cognitive devices and hypothetical mental computational mechanisms, relying on the conceptual framework established by Chomsky. The General Symbol Machine (GSM) that Dickins advocates is similar to Chomsky's inborn Language Acquisition Device (LAD) but is used in an attempt to explain broader categories of relational responding, not just language.

While evolutionary psychologists often adopt the Chomskian approach to language and cognition, there are some glaring disjunctions between the mechanism and mentalism of Chomsky's theory and the functionalism and selectionism of evolutionary theory. In Chomsky's approach, LADs did not evolve through traditional Darwinian principles, and "the relationship between words and the world is intrinsic, fixed, and determined" (Devereux, Rosenwasser, & Hantula, 1997). Given this fundamental difference in the two perspectives, it could be argued that the Chomskian approach is not the best match for evolution-based theories of language and cognition. Nor is it compatible with RFT, which is antithetic to the concept of fixed or determined relationships between words and the world.

Because evolutionary explanations of language frequently have their basis in Chomskian principles, they are unable to satisfy the empirical, methodological, and philosophical preferences of behavior analysis. Mental and mechanical explanations may allow for the prediction of behavior, but they do not directly allow for its control or influence. The scientific goal of behavioral influence requires the specification of the determinants of these behavioral processes not in terms of hypothetical cognitive structures but in terms of the controlling contexts and functions of verbal behaviors (Dougher & Hayes, 2000). It is our contention that by using a larger evolutionary framework to examine RFT, we may gain some insight into the specific functions and environmental contingencies that have been instrumental in the development of language.

Relational Frame Theory provides a functional, contextual perspective for studying verbal behavior. In this approach a "language" is a conventional set of words and rules for combining them. "Words" are stimuli that function within relational frames, and the "rules" for combining them are contextual cues that disambiguate derived relational responses and the transformation of stimulus functions. So "cognition" becomes relating and is, therefore, a behavioral event (Hayes et al., 2001, p. 145). Verbal behavior, therefore, is a specific set of behaviors derived from the larger class of relational responding that comprises all cognition.

Behavior analytic explanations of language have been criticized and ignored because of the common assumption that principles derived largely from rats and pigeons are insufficient to explain anything as complex as human language and cognition (Hayes et al. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.