Relational Frame Theory: Background, Science, and Implications

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Relational Frame Theory: Background, Science, and Implications

THC Editorial Team February 25, 2023
Landscape, 1892, Edgar Degas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (article on RFT)
Landscape, 1892, Edgar Degas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Humans have the unique ability to make associations between words, objects, ideas, and events that other species can’t make. While some species do make associations, they tend to be simple. By contrast, humans can make complex associations that allow them to grasp complex ideas and learn large amounts of information. Relational frame theory is a psychological theory that analyzes the associations people make between words, objects, ideas, and events to gain insight into how cognition develops.

What Is Relational Frame Theory?

Relational frame theory (RFT) is a psychological theory of human language that looks at how people relate words and concepts to others. According to RFT, humans create connections between images, words, and concepts, forming a critical foundation for developing higher cognition and the ability to form associations. RFT is based on the idea that human communication comes from the human capacity to connect disparate stimuli and concepts through their relationships with each other. For example, people can connect different events, such as hearing the word “breakfast” and associating it with the event involved with preparing and eating the first meal of the day.

Relational frame theorists believe that children develop relational frames in early childhood by associating images with words and then developing an understanding of what the words mean. For example, a child might associate a picture of a balloon in a picture book with the word “balloon” and understand what a balloon is. If the child later sees a balloon in a different shape or color than the picture, they will still recognize it as a balloon based on the relational frame they have created.

According to this theory, specific relational frames developed in early childhood affect how people relate and react to stimuli throughout their lives. This can lead to an increased understanding and analysis of one’s thoughts and perceptions during therapy.

History of Relational Frame Theory

Steven Hayes, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and a faculty member in the University of Nevada’s behavior analysis program, developed RFT during the late 1980s to explain and describe how human language and cognition developed. Through his study of the work of B. F. Skinner, Hayes recognized shortcomings in applying operant conditioning to human language and cognition. He wanted to expand on Skinner’s behavioral theory by adding a language theory from a behavioral perspective. Based on a contextual behavioral science approach, Hayes developed a theory about language and relational framing that more adequately explains the human condition.1 He later developed a type of therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), through which the theories of RFT are applied to behavioral and cognitive therapy. ACT uses acceptancemindfulness, commitment, and behavioral strategies to improve a person’s flexibility in response to life’s challenges.

Applications and Implications of Relational Frame Theory

Since RFT focuses on language development through relational framing, it has been applied in the treatment of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Many children with ASD have delays in verbal and social functioning that appear at early ages, including delays in the development of language and gestures, trouble with reciprocal communication, stereotyped or repetitive language, absence of make-believe play and social imitation, and others. Children with ASD have difficulty with perspective taking and understanding contextual clues, which can result in trouble with building interpersonal relationships.2

Relational frame theorists believe that children experiencing these symptoms of ASD have difficulty learning the relational frames that neurotypical children learn automatically. When children with ASD develop frames, they are typically overly rigid and are not able to be applied to other contexts. Researchers have found that by applying RFT techniques, children with ASD can learn some of the associations and relationships that neurotypical children do to build their perspective-taking ability and empathy.3 RFT helps children with ASD learn how to develop “deictic frames,” which allow them to distinguish between locations, individuals, and times. These concepts are believed to be crucial for building interpersonal relationships through perspective taking.4

Scientific Support for Relational Frame Theory

An analysis of the literature conducted by researchers found 288 empirical studies completed between 2009 and 2016 that supported the concepts of RFT.5 An earlier citation analysis found 62 empirical studies supporting RFT between 1991 and 2008, indicating that the body of research supporting the theory has been prolific and continues to grow.6 Despite the voluminous body of research on RFT, however, controversies have surrounded it within the field of Skinnerian behavior analysis.

Challenges and Criticisms Pertaining to Relational Frame Theory

RFT can be used with many different client populations and offers several benefits, but it has also been controversial. In describing the controversy surrounding RFT within the field of behavior analysis, researchers have pointed to two primary sources: First, RFT’s view of human language differs from B. F. Skinner’s approach as described in 1957, which some supporters of Skinner’s foundational work take issue with.

The second area that has driven controversy is the implication RFT has for the future in terms of human behavioral science. RFT’s focus on relating verbal expressions with other concepts and events does not take into account other stimuli that can help predict and influence verbal people’s behavioral choices.7 While RFT generally applies behavior analytic techniques to understand verbal communication and how it facilitates cognition, it includes concepts that call into question multiple concepts underlying the field of behavioral psychology.

Summary and Key Takeaways

Relational frame theory is a psychological theory developed to inform our understanding of how verbal skill acquisition facilitates the development of higher human cognition. While it is not a therapy in and of itself, its concepts have strong empirical support and are directly observable. The concepts underpinning RFT have been incorporated into acceptance and commitment therapy. Relational framing has also been incorporated successfully into treatment programs for children with autism spectrum disorders and could have broad applications among others with communication disorders. Although it is considered controversial among behavior analysts because of some of its apparent conflicts with Skinner’s approach, RFT could change how the science surrounding human behavior is conceptualized and approached.


  1. Hayes, S. C. (1991). A relational control theory of stimulus equivalence. In L. J. Hayes & P. N. Chase (Eds.), Dialogues on verbal behavior: The First International Institute on Verbal Relations (pp. 19–40). Context Press.
  2. Davidson, M. M., & Ellis Weismer, S. (2017). A discrepancy in comprehension and production in early language development in ASD: Is it clinically relevant? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47(7), 2163–2175.
  3. Haase, L. (2016). Relational frame theory: Implications for training perspective-taking and empathy in children with high functioning autism. Graduate School of Professional Psychology: Doctoral Papers and Masters Projects. 207.
  4. Jackson, M. L., Mendoza, D. R., & Adams, A. N. (2014). Teaching a deictic relational repertoire to children with autism. The Psychological Record, 64(4), 791–802.
  5. O’Connor, M., Farrell, L., Munnelly, A., & McHugh, L. (2017). Citation analysis of relational frame theory: 2009–2016. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 6(2), 152–158.
  6. Dymond, S., May, R. J., Munnelly, A., & Hoon, A. E. (2010). Evaluating the evidence base for relational frame theory: A citation analysis. The Behavior Analyst, 33(1), 97–117.
  7. Gross, A. C., & Fox, E. J. (2009). Relational frame theory: An overview of the controversy. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 25(1), 87–98.

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