Relational Frame Theory 101

12 Jul 2018

A few years back I came across the intriguing notion that language is responsible for rather a lot of our problems. In 487 words I'll be honest: it's not an area of expertise so this is just my dim understanding and I'd welcome any thoughts. I also suspect some might be thinking, "My wretched childhood/relationships/brain chemicals/genetics etc. are responsible — not language!" Some of those at least might be significant in how personal language rules developed.

No other animal does language to the extent we do. Furthermore, humans have a repertoire of self-destructive behaviour which is extensive. There may be a link. Language is more than just words. It's the entire symbolic system that allows thought to be created internally.

A lot of observable behaviour is rule-governed. You see this clearly with animals. Rats will press levers for food and learn to avoid pain. Rats are clever and they learn rules quickly. They assess situations too: is this situation like that other situation where the rule applied? (Maybe it's a trap?) We also learn fast, e.g. If I do this then he won't love me. Is this situation the same or different? Rule following is really quick: you judge the situation and you follow the rule. If it's different, you might slow down and evaluate or quickly apply another rule. If you can't tell then you will have to deal with uncertainty (which is uncomfortable).

The connecting thought is that language follows deep rules and therefore is part of our behaviour. These are not rules of grammar that we were taught in school. These are simple relationships between concepts which allow infinite combinations of ideas. Take the relationship of "opposition" for example. Say a child gets placed with a foster family because his mum is having problems with addiction. His real mum and foster mum are radically different in some obvious ways so the child frames the relationship between his mum and foster mum primarily in terms of opposition. Because he loves his real mum he rejects the kindness of the foster mum. He's applying the rule of opposition which frames how he behaves with them.

Language/ thinking is far from transparent and the relationships and categorisations which we think with are more like the operating system of a computer — you can't see it but it's how the machine works. Similarly, our operating systems drive a lot of our behaviours. Some operating systems are buggier than others! (Windows 95 anyone?)

The basic thought is that rule-following behaviour is quick and efficient but by definition it is inflexible. Inflexible behaviour/ thinking/ rumination drives a fair share of our problems.

I know this may be fairly esoteric, or seem like nonsense, (or poorly explained/understood!), but there are some nice studies on it and I thought I'd share this notion of a small number of relationships within our language that drive rule-based behaviour.


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