Relational frame theory (RFT) is a psychological theory of human language, cognition, and behavior. It was developed originally by Steven C. Hayes of the University of Nevada, Reno and has been extended in research, notably by Dermot Barnes-Holmes and colleagues of Ghent University.
Relational frame theory argues that the building block of human language and higher cognition is relating, i.e. the human ability to create bidirectional links between things. It can be contrasted with associative learning, which discusses how animals form links between stimuli in the form of the strength of associations in memory. However, relational frame theory argues that natural human language typically specifies not just the strength of a link between stimuli but also the type of relationship as well as the dimension along which they are to be related. For example, a tennis ball could be associated with orange, by virtue of having the same shape, but it is different because it is not edible, and is perhaps a different color. In the preceding sentence, ‘same’, ‘different’ and ‘not’ are cues in the environment that specify the type of relation between the stimuli, and ‘shape’, ‘color’ and ‘edible’ specify the dimension along which each relation is to be made. Relational frame theory argues that while there are an arbitrary number of types of relations and number of dimensions along which stimuli can be related, the core unit of relating is an essential building block for much of what is commonly referred to as human language or higher cognition.
Several hundred studies have explored many testable aspects and implications of the theory such as the emergence of specific frames in childhood, how individual frames can be combined to create verbally complex phenomena such as metaphors and analogies, and how the rigidity or automaticity of relating within certain domains is related to psychopathology. In attempting to describe a fundamental building block of human language and higher cognition, RFT explicitly states that its goal is to provide a general theory of psychology that can provide a bedrock for multiple domains and levels of analysis.
Relational frame theory focuses on how humans learn the language (i.e., communication) through interactions with the environment and is based on a philosophical approach referred to as functional contextualism.
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