Updating RFT (More Field than Frame) and its Implications for Process-based Therapy


The current article presents a response to the recent call for a focus on psychological processes of change in psychotherapy. In addressing the need for a more process-based focus, the need for clarity in defining psychological processes per se becomes apparent, before it is possible to develop process-based therapy. In grappling with this challenge, the current article is divided into two parts. In Part I, we present a modern view of behavioral processes as they apply specifically to verbally sophisticated humans. The view we offer is based on one of the main approaches to human language and cognition within behavioral science, relational frame theory (RFT), which has been updated in recent years. In Part 2, the view of behavioral processes, as seen through the lens of an updated RFT, is used to begin to develop a process-based approach to the assessment and treatment of human psychological suffering. The article ends with two case summaries and a series of brief take-home messages that aim to capture the core elements of the RFT-driven process-based therapy we are currently developing.

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  1. 1.

    The use of the term “updated” is employed here to reflect the fact that the current article proposes a number of new concepts for RFT that do not appear in the seminal volume by Hayes et al. (2001). It is also worth noting that the authors of the current article are not alone in “updating” RFT. For example, Hayes, Sanford, and Chin (2017) have recently proposed an up-dated view of how RFT connects with evolutionary science, with a focus on the role of cooperation in the evolution of human language itself (Hayes & Sanford, 2014). Furthermore, a number of new RFT-based concepts have also been proposed in a recent volume on the clinical application of RFT (Villatte, Villatte, & Hayes, 2015).

  2. 2.

    Relational frames have been defined as consisting of three properties: mutual entailment, combinatorial entailment, and the transformation of functions, which we are not challenging here. As will become apparent, however, the MDML framework is focused on arbitrarily applicable relational responding in general, not relational frames in particular. In the context of the MDML framework, therefore, it seems wise to refer to two general properties of AARRing: entailment and transformation of functions.

  3. 3.

    According to RFT, it is the exemplar training that is critical in establishing derived relational responding, not naming per se (see Luciano, Gomez Becerra, & Rodriguez-Valverde, 2007); naming is seen as just one way in which multiple-exemplar training may occur in the natural verbal environment.

  4. 4.

    The reader should note that within RFT Crel and Cfunc properties are not separable units of analysis but separate properties of the single unit (i.e., the relational frame). In the scientific act of any given experimental, applied, or conceptual analysis, a greater or lesser focus may be targeted on the Crel or Cfunc properties of a particular pattern of AARRing. However, it would be a mistake to think that a Cfunc property may be isolated meaningfully from a Crel property, or vice versa. Indeed, as pointed out by Dymond and Barnes (1994, p. 264) a quarter of a century ago, “the relational-frame account . . . views . . . equivalence responding and derived transfer of function . . . as products of the single behavioral process of arbitrarily applicable relational responding. . . . In effect, the observed pattern of a transfer of functions defines the entailed relations, and thus the entailed relations . . . do not exist as a behavioral event until a specific transfer of functions has occurred.” Or to put it another way, whenever a Cfunc property of a stimulus is identified in a particular analysis it must be defined in terms of a particular Crel property. That is, virtually all psychological acts for verbal humans involve the process of entailment. We shall return to this issue below.

  5. 5.

    The term “deictic” is used here to refer to verbal relations that specify an individual as located in a particular space (e.g., “here” rather than “there”) and time (e.g., “now” rather than “then”).

  6. 6.

    Relational complexity (and indeed the other dimensions) may be defined along more than one dimension, such as number of relata, and/or frames, and/or contextual cues in a network. In some cases, therefore, identifying a single continuum of relational complexity (or some other dimension) may require appropriate multidimensional scaling (e.g., Borg & Groenen, 2005).

  7. 7.

    The participants in the studies reported by Leech et al. (2016, 2017) were recruited randomly from normative samples and thus were not formally categorized as high and low in levels of self-reported fear of spiders or in their tendency to approach actual spiders. Nevertheless, self-reported fear, and performance on a behavioral approach task, were found to vary within the sample, and thus at least some evidence of a correlation between the IRAP performances and behavioral approach might be expected.

  8. 8.

    It is important to note that the DAARRE model remains a work in progress, and as such is being used to interpret a range of effects that have been observed in IRAP performances (e.g., Kavanagh, Matthyssen, Barnes-Holmes, Barnes-Holmes, McEnteggart, & Vastano, 2019). We have not covered this work here, however, because the key point has been made—the AARRing involved in relatively simple relational networks, even when responses must occur within relatively brief periods of time (i.e., in an IRAP), typically involves a complex cluster of controlling variables.

  9. 9.

    The ROE is a new and relatively broad conceptual unit of analysis within RFT. For example, the ROE is clearly broader than the concept of a relational frame, in that it aims to capture the most basic to the most complex patterns of AARRing from mutual entailing, to framing, to complex relational networking, to relating relations, and finally to relating relational networks. The concept of the ROE may thus encourage conceptual analyses that extend beyond the level of the frame and also encourage analyses that explicitly consider the role played by the Crel and Cfunc properties of the stimuli or events that participate in any given instance of AARRing. The potential benefits of encouraging these broader types of conceptual analyses, while remaining closely linked to experimental and applied analyses, will be illustrated in Part 2 of the current article.

  10. 10.

    In suggesting that the relational networks involving stomach tightening and feelings of inadequacy are appetitive, we mean this in a purely functional-analytic way. That is, Sarah is quite willing to use these terms to describe her struggle, but as we shall see subsequently there are other terms that she is far less willing to use in this context, which would be more appropriately described as aversive.

  11. 11.

    The reader should note that orienting functions may arise from complex relational responses, which is why the ROE is presented earlier as a nonlinear, dynamical system that is constantly in motion as human beings navigate their internal and external psychological worlds.

  12. 12.

    We suspect that establishing a new, coherent narrative around the deictic-I is a key aim in many therapeutic regimes.


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Correspondence to Ciara McEnteggart.

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Barnes-Holmes, D., Barnes-Holmes, Y. & McEnteggart, C. Updating RFT (More Field than Frame) and its Implications for Process-based Therapy. Psychol Rec (2020).

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  • RFT
  • Process-based therapy
  • HDML framework
  • ROE