Coming back to our roots: The need for behavior-behavior relations and Relational Frame Theory (RFT) to unify the behavioral sciences.

By Angela Cathey, M.A.

bSci21 Contributing Writer

It’s long since time for those in the behavioral traditions to come back to principles. Coming from a clinical psychology training background I feel that I, and many others, are coming full circle.

Behavior analysis split with cognitive-behavioral traditions mid last century. This was due, in part, by the need to explain behaviors that frequently occur in clinical populations and yet did not appear to be well accounted for environmental contingencies, were resistant to direct influence, or were not considered ethical to influence directly.

The result of this was an explosion of constructs (i.e., anxiety, depression, personality disorders, etc.) meant to describe clinical issues based on their appearance. This allowed us to continue developing behavioral methods with the addition of cognitive constructs and methods. A great deal of good did come from this; however, in the process, methods that were adapted to constructs become the modus operandi. As the field has continued to evolve, psychology has begun to find itself more and more in a crisis.

Researchers in the behavioral sciences that use methods developed around assumptions of normal distributions and stability as a measure of validity are now facing a ‘failure to replicate’ crisis. As we have continued to refine measurement and statistics in the behavioral sciences we have experienced more, rather than less, conflicting findings. A review of the literature on nearly any topic will yield conflicting findings – “self-esteem is good”, “self-esteem is bad”, etc., etc. The issue is that “self-esteem” is not a behavior. The assumption is that “self-esteem” which is arguably multiple behaviors, intertwined with context, will exist on a normative continuum across contexts.

Human behavior is dynamic – context and contingencies are intertwined and inseparable. We know it, you know it, and great swaths of the behavioral sciences are coming back to it.

So, where does this leave us?

This leaves behavior analysts, and functional contextualists alike, at the front of the pack. We are now at a point where even the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), one of the largest funders of psychological research, has begun to insist that the behavioral sciences use a standard metric and work towards integration.

Behavior-behavior relations, including generalized operants and their relations (i.e., Relational Frame Theory) provide a collective way forward. As a level of analysis that does not oppose higher level constructs – behavior analysts speak a language that may be able to unify the behavioral sciences.

For behavior analysts, and those in the behavioral sciences more generally, I have the following tips for promoting, and benefiting from, this movement towards our roots.

1) Learn to speak the language of other specialties in the behavioral sciences. Understand what relations are generally referred to by frequently used mid-level terms and other constructs.

2) Learn to understand methodological differences and what drives the use or slow adoption of technologies and interventions that can move the field. Technological innovations like Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA) and Ecological Momentary Interventions (EMI) have expanded the reach of behavior analysis and our ability to utilize single-case study designs and contextualized data. EMA and EMI typically utilize auto collection of data by mobile phone or other devices across contexts. These methods have been touted as the way forward for years, but have been slow to adopt due mostly to the perception that they are difficult to learn. Importantly, these technologies allow for a steady stream of contextualized data and interventions – allowing us to move towards measurement of behavior-behavior relations across contexts without appealing to higher level constructs.

3) Learn new skills that set you apart (like EMA/EMI) and learn to market yourself in the entrepreneurial space. See bSciEntreprenurial for one source of consultants who can help you take advantage of these changes in the field.

4) Gain a deep understanding of Relational Frame Theory and its relationship to ‘direct contingencies’ across applied settings. A good understanding of frameworks that simplify the integration of ABA principles and RFT, for example Functional Relational Analysis or Dynamic Relational Analysis can help you best position yourself for maximum value as the behavioral sciences begin to move towards integration. For more on Functional Relational Analysis and its development see my blog and upcoming Continuing Education events through bSci21.

If you are interested in learning more about some of the issues mentioned above, check out the links below:

On failure to replicate in psychology:

Understanding statistical assumptions:

Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA) and single-case study designs:

NIMH initiatives regarding behavioral sciences funding:

NIH – Integrating group and individual level experience:


Angela Cathey, M.A. is a writer, consultant, entrepreneur, and Owner, Director, and Team/Leadership Development Consultant of Enso Group. Her background is in processes of change and intervention development. She has trained with experts in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Functional Analytic Psychotherapy (FAP), cognitive-behavioral exposure-based treatments, and Relational Frame Theory (RFT). Her interests are in process, innovation, and development of solutions for sustainable large-scale change. She has published in numerous academic journals on process, measurement, and intervention development. Enso-driven analytics systems are used to inform leadership and team building interventions, as well as research in the behavioral sciences. Angela can be reached at [email protected]. Stay up-to-date with Enso Group at or see Angela’s personal website at

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1 Comment on "Coming back to our roots: The need for behavior-behavior relations and Relational Frame Theory (RFT) to unify the behavioral sciences."

  1. Marie-France Akinrolabu | January 21, 2017 at 8:47 pm | Reply

    Great enlightening post! To put things in perspective, in my view, the post-Skinnerian Relational Frame Theory pushes the frontier of Verbal Behavior and Behavior Analysis. In fact, it does stand accused of possibly being “a foreign intrusion into behavioral psychology” (Hayes, Dermot Barnes-Holmes, Roche, 2001, p.vii). RFT perhaps sets the stage for the industry to move towards a middle ground between classical behavioral traditions and “an explosion of constructs” Skinner himself acknowledged as, we al know, as “private events” (i.e. “self-esteem), he explained, can no longer be ignored.
    The difficulty in dealing with them, he recognizes, is that they are under the control of “private stimuli” (1957, p. 130) to which only the speaker has access. In short, over 60 years ago, Skinner did clairvoyantly already identify these private events as potential problems to behavior analysis because they cannot be predicted nor controlled since they cannot be seen.

    Where does this leave us?
    While Skinner did hypothesize various solutions, he did admit, disquietly, that the control over these behaviors were no match to responses/reinforcement to external stimuli that can be manipulated because the stimulus control over private events at best varies from speaker to speaker.

    The heuristic you propose to “unify the behavioral sciences” in dealing with this vexing issue, is, in my view, an excellent first step towards assisting the industry in grappling and harnessing these “higher level constructs”, we cannot conspire to ignore.

    Hayes, S.C., Dermot Barnes-Holmes, Roche, R.(2001). Relational Frame Theory. A Post-Skinnerian Account of Human Language and Cognition. Plenum Publishers. New York, NY

    Skinner, B.F. (1957). Verbal Behavior. Prentice Hall, MA

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