Introduction to Relational Frame Theory

Relational Frame Theory (RFT) is a psychological theory of human language and cognition. Developed within the behavioral tradition, it posits that the ability to relate events mutually and in combination is the building block of human language and higher cognition. RFT is often associated with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) as it provides the underlying theory of language that supports ACT’s therapeutic approach.

The Basics of Relational Frame Theory

RFT focuses on how humans learn language through interactions with the environment. It suggests that the core of understanding language and cognition is ‘relational framing,’ an ability to relate things in systematic ways that are not based on their physical properties but rather on their symbolic relations.

Core Processes in RFT

  1. Mutual Entailment: Understanding the bidirectional relationship between stimuli (if A is related to B, then B is related to A).
  2. Combinatorial Entailment: Understanding the relationship between multiple stimuli (if A is related to B, and B is related to C, then A is related to C).
  3. Transformation of Functions: How the function of one stimulus changes based on its relation to another (if A makes you happy and A is related to B, then B might also make you happy).

The Significance of Relational Frame Theory

RFT is significant in understanding and treating psychological difficulties. It provides insight into how language can contribute to suffering, such as how words and thoughts can evoke painful emotions or unhelpful behaviors. By understanding these processes, therapists can better help individuals change their relationships with their thoughts and feelings.

Applying Relational Frame Theory

In Therapy

Therapists use RFT principles to help clients understand the traps of language and thought. They may focus on de-fusing from harmful thoughts, looking at the way individuals relate to their experiences, and using language to create new, more helpful perspectives.

In Education and Learning

RFT also has applications in education, providing a framework for understanding how students learn and relate to new information. It can inform teaching methods and curricular development.

In Research

Researchers use RFT to explore various aspects of language and cognition, from basic relational skills to complex behavioral phenomena.

Techniques and Strategies in RFT

While RFT is more a theory than a therapeutic approach, its principles inform various techniques used in therapies like ACT:

Cognitive Defusion

Helping clients to see thoughts as just thoughts, not as what they say they are.

Metaphor Use

Employing metaphors to shift perspectives and illustrate complex psychological concepts.


Promoting present-moment awareness and non-judgmental acceptance of thoughts and feelings.

Challenges and Considerations in RFT

RFT is a complex theory and requires a significant shift in understanding language and thought. Practitioners need to be well-versed in its principles to effectively apply them. Moreover, as a theory rooted in behaviorism, it may contrast with more traditional cognitive theories.


Relational Frame Theory provides a rich, nuanced understanding of human language and cognition, offering valuable insights for therapy, education, and understanding the human mind. As research continues, RFT’s applications and influence are likely to expand, further unlocking the secrets of language and thought and enhancing our ability to foster psychological well-being.

To delve deeper into the realms of cognitive and behavioral therapies and understand their application in various contexts, explore resources on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, Narrative Therapy, and Humanistic Therapy.