Technical Notation as a Tool for Basic Research in Relational Frame Theory

  • Shane McLoughlin
  • Ian TyndallEmail author
  • Teresa Mulhern
  • Sam Ashcroft
Theoretical Article


A core overarching aim of Relational Frame Theory (RFT) research on language and cognition is the prediction and influence of human behavior with precision, scope, and depth. However, the conceptualization and delineation of empirical investigations of higher-order language and cognition from a relational framing theoretical standpoint is a challenging task that requires a high degree of abstract reasoning and creativity. To that end, we propose using symbolic notation as seen in early RFT experimental literature as a possible functional-analytical tool to aid in the articulation of hypotheses and design of such experiments. In this article, we provide examples of aspects of cognition previously identified in RFT literature and how they can be articulated rather more concisely using technical notation than in-text illustration. We then provide a brief demonstration of the utility of notation by offering examples of several novel experiments and hypotheses in notation format. In two tables, we provide a “key” for understanding the technical notation written herein, which other basic-science researchers may decide to draw on in future. To conclude, this article is intended to be a useful resource to those who wish to carry out basic RFT research on complex language and cognition with greater technical clarity, precision, and broad scope.


Relational frame theory Basic research Notation Experimentation Precision Future research 



The study was not supported by any grant funding from any institution or organization.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflicts of Interest

On behalf of all the authors the corresponding author confirms that no author has a conflict of interest to declare.

Ethical Approval

Not applicable as not an empirical study paper.


  1. Alonso-Álvarez, B., & Pérez-González, L. A. (2017). Contextual control over equivalence and nonequivalence explains apparent arbitrarily applicable relational responding in accordance with sameness and opposition. Learning & Behavior, 45, 228–242. Scholar
  2. Barnes-Holmes, D., Regan, D., Barnes-Holmes, Y., Commins, S., Walsh, D., Stewart, I., et al. (2005). Relating derived relations as a model of analogical reasoning: Reaction times and event-related potentials. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 84, 435–451.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Barnes-Holmes, Y., Hussey, I., McEnteggart, C., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Foody, M. (2016). Scientific ambition: The relationship between relational frame theory and middle- level terms in acceptance and commitment therapy. In R. D. Zettle, S. C. Hayes, D. Barnes-Holmes, & A. Biglan (Eds.), The Wiley handbook of contextual behavioral science (pp. 365–382). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  4. Barnes-Holmes, Y., Kavanagh, D., Barnes-Holmes, D., Finn, M., Harte, C., Leech, A., & McEnteggart. (2018). Review: Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention by M. Villatte, J. L. Villatte, & S. C. Hayes. The psychological record. doi:
  5. Binder, C., Haughton, E., & Bateman, B. (2002). Fluency: Achieving true mastery in the learning process. In Professional papers in special education (pp. 2–20). Charlottesville: University of Virginia Curry School of Special Education.Google Scholar
  6. Blackledge, J. T., & Drake, C. E. (2013). Acceptance and commitment therapy: Empirical and theoretical considerations. In S. Dymond & B. Roche (Eds.), Advances in relational frame theory: Research and application (pp. 219–252). Oakland: New Harbinger.Google Scholar
  7. Cassidy, S., Roche, B., Colbert, D., Stewart, I., & Grey, I. (2016). A relational frame skills training intervention to increase general intelligence and scholastic aptitude. Learning & Individual Differences, 47, 222–235. Scholar
  8. Cassidy, S., Roche, B., & Hayes, S. C. (2011). A relational frame training intervention to raise intelligence quotients: A pilot study. The Psychological Record, 61, 173–198.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Devany, J. M., Hayes, S. C., & Nelson, R. O. (1986). Equivalence class formation in language-able and language-disabled children. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 46, 243–257. 10.1901%2Fjeab.1986.46-243.Google Scholar
  10. Dickins, D. W., Singh, K. D., Roberts, N., Burns, P., Downes, J. J., Jimmieson, P., & Bentall, R. P. (2001). An fMRI study of stimulus equivalence. NeuroReport, 12, 405–411.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Dymond, S., & Barnes, D. (1995). A transformation of self-discrimination response functions in accordance with the arbitrarily applicable relations of sameness, more-than, and less-than. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 64, 163–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dymond, S., & Roche, B. (2013). Advances in relational frame theory: Research and application. Oakland: New Harbinger.Google Scholar
  13. Dymond, S., Roche, B., & Bennett, M. (2013). Relational frame theory and experimental psychopathology. In S. Dymond & B. Roche (Eds.), Advances in relational frame theory & contextual behavioral science: Research and application (pp. 199–218). Oakland: New Harbinger.Google Scholar
  14. Dymond, S., Roche, B., Forsyth, J. P., Whelan, R., & Rhoden, J. (2007). Transformation of avoidance response functions in accordance with same and opposite relational frames. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 88, 249–262. Scholar
  15. Garcia, A. M. (2015). A connectionist approach to functional-cognitive linguistics: Spanish pronominal clitics and verb endings in relational-network terms. Revista Signos. Estudios de Lingüística, 48, 197–222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Guinther, P. M. (2018). Contextual influence over deriving another's false beliefs using a relational triangulation perspective taking protocol (RT-PTP-M2). Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 110, 500–521.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Guinther, P. M., & Dougher, M. J. (2015). The clinical relevance of stimulus equivalence and relational frame theory in influencing the behavior of verbally competent adults. Current Opinion in Psychology, 2, 21–25. Scholar
  18. Halford, G. S., Wilson, W. H., & Phillips, S. (2010). Relational knowledge: The foundation of higher cognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14, 497–505. Scholar
  19. Hayes, J., & Stewart, I. (2016). Comparing the effects of derived relational training and computer coding on intellectual potential in school-age children. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 86(3), 397–411. Scholar
  20. Hayes, S. C., & Barnes, D. (1997). Analyzing derived stimulus relations requires more than the concept of stimulus class. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 68, 235–270.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hayes, S. C., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Roche, B. (Eds.). (2001). Relational frame theory: A post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. New York: Plenum Press.Google Scholar
  22. Hayes, S. C., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Wilson, K. G. (2012). Contextual behavioral science: Creating a science more adequate to the challenge of the human condition. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 1, 1–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  24. Johnson-Laird, P. N. (2010). Mental models and human reasoning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107, 18243–28250.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Leisner, M., Bleris, L., Lohmueller, J., Xie, Z., & Benenson, Y. (2010). Rationally designed logic integration of regulatory signals in mammalian cells. Nature Nanotechnology, 5, 666–670.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Malott, R. W. (2003). Behavior analysis and linguistic productivity. Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 19, 11–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. McLoughlin, S., & Stewart, I. (2017). Empirical advances in studying relational networks. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 6, 329–342. Scholar
  28. McLoughlin, S., Tyndall, I., & Pereira, A. (2018). Piloting a brief relational operant training program: Analyses of response latencies and intelligence test performance. European Journal of Behavior Analysis, 1–19.
  29. McTiernan, A., Holloway, J., Healy, O., & Hogan, M. (2015). A randomized controlled trial of the Morningside math facts curriculum on fluency, stability, endurance, and application outcomes. Journal of Behavioral Education, 25, 49–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Moran, L., Walsh, L., Stewart, I., McElwee, J., & Ming, S. (2015). Correlating derived relational responding with linguistic and cognitive ability in children with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 19, 32–43. Scholar
  31. O’Hora, D., Barnes-Holmes, D., Roche, B., & Smeets, P. (2004). Derived relational networks as novel instructions: A possible model of generative verbal control. The Psychological Record, 54, 437–460.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. O’Hora, D., Pelaez, M., Barnes-Holmes, D., Rae, G., Robinson, K., & Chaudhary, T. (2008). Temporal relations and intelligence: Correlating relational performance with performance on the WAIS-III. The Psychological Record, 58, 569–584.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Paternò, F., Mancini, C., & Meniconi, S. (1997). ConcurTaskTrees: A diagrammatic notation for specifying task models. In Human-computer interaction INTERACT’97 (pp. 362–369). New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  34. Peltomäki, M., & Salakoski, T. (2004). Strict logical notation is not a part of the problem but a part of the solution for teaching high-school mathematics. Proceedings of Koli Calling, 116–120.Google Scholar
  35. Perez, W. F., Fidalgo, A. P., Kovac, R., & Nico, Y. C. (2015). The transfer of Cfunc contextual control through equivalence relations. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 103, 511–523. Scholar
  36. Quinones, J. L., & Hayes, S. C. (2014). Relational coherence in ambiguous and unambiguous relational networks. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 101, 76–93. Scholar
  37. Ramey, D., Lydon, S., Healy, O., McCoy, A., Holloway, J., & Mulhern, T. (2016). A systematic review of the effectiveness of precision teaching for individuals with developmental disabilities. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 3, 179–195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Sidman, M. (1971). Reading and auditory-visual equivalences. Journal of Speech & Hearing Research, 14, 5–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Sidman, M. (1994). Equivalence relations and behaviour: A research story. Boston: Authors Cooperative.Google Scholar
  40. Slattery, B., & Stewart, I. (2014). Hierarchical classification as relational framing. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 101, 61–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Slattery, B., Stewart, I., & O’Hora, D. (2011). Testing for transitive class containment as a feature of hierarchical classification. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 96, 243–260. Scholar
  42. Steele, D. L., & Hayes, S. C. (1991). Stimulus equivalence and arbitrarily applicable relational responding. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 56, 519–555. Scholar
  43. Stewart, C., Stewart, I., & Hughes, S. (2016). A contextual behavioral approach to the study of (persecutory) delusions. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 5, 235–246. Scholar
  44. Stewart, I., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Roche, B. (2004). A functional-analytic model of analogy using the relational evaluation procedure. The Psychological Record, 54, 531–552.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Stewart, I., McElwee, J., & Ming, S. (2013). Language generativity, response generalization, and derived relational responding. Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 29, 137–155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Törneke, N. (2010). Learning RFT: An introduction to relational frame theory and its clinical application. Oakland: New Harbinger.Google Scholar
  47. Villatte, M., Villatte, J. L., & Hayes, S. C. (2015). Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  48. Whelan, R., & Barnes-Holmes, D. (2004). The transformation of consequential functions in accordance with the relational frames of same and opposite. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 82(2), 177–195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Association for Behavior Analysis International 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of ChesterChesterUK
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of ChichesterChichesterUK

Personalised recommendations