Connecting Relational Frames to Human Suffering

woman and toddler with toys

Acceptance and commitment therapy is based on Relational Frame Theory (RFT). The basic premise of RFT is that human behavior is governed largely through networks of mutual relations called relational frames. These relations form the core of human language and cognition, and allow us to learn without requiring direct experience. For example, a cat won’t touch a hot stove twice, but it needs to touch it at least once to get the hint. A human child need never touch a hot stove to be taught verbally that it can burn. In the outside world, this ability is a tool beyond compare. But in terms of our inner lives, verbal rules can restrict our lives in fundamental ways.

Humans think relationally; nonhumans apparently do not. Humans are able to arbitrarily relate objects in our environment, thoughts, feelings, behavioral predispositions, actions (basically anything) to other objects in our environment, thoughts, feelings (basically anything else) in virtually any possible way (e.g., same as, similar to, better than, opposite of, part of, cause of, and so on). This characteristic is essential to the way the human mind functions because it is our key evolutionary asset and has permitted the human species a dominant role in the animal kingdom. The ability to think relationally allows us to consciously analyze our environment, develop tools, build fires, create art, make computers, and even do our taxes. This same ability creates suffering.

Even Babies Can Think Relationally

RFT figure 1Even young human babies use these relational sets quite naturally, but nonhumans arguably do not. In this area, even the so-called “language-trained” chimpanzees fail the tests a human infant would easily pass. For example, suppose a baby learned that a particular imaginary animal had a name, and that this animal made a sound. We might show the baby a drawing of our imaginary creature and say, “This is a gub-gub. Can you say ‘gub-gub’?” After the baby learns this, we might show the same picture to her and say, “This goes ‘wooo.’ Can you go ‘wooo’?” In this example, we have three pieces of a relational network: the picture, the name of the animal the picture represents (gub-gub), and the sound that animal makes (“wooo”). The relationships between the fictional creature, its sound, and the picture could be mapped inside a triangle (see figure at right). At this point in the lesson, we have only trained two relationships: the one between the picture and the name of the creature and the one between the picture and the sound the creature makes. Any complex organism—including human babies and chimpanzees alike—can learn this. But this is the point where humans start to differ from other animals. At age fourteen to sixteen months (perhaps even earlier; scientists are still trying to pinpoint exactly when this ability is activated), humans will reverse the direction of what they learned. When presented with an assortment of pictures of imaginary creatures and asked, “Which one is the gub-gub?” they will point to the picture they were trained to call a gub-gub and not to another imaginary creature they also learned to name. Human children do this without training. They realize not only that the picture refers to the word “gub-gub,” but that the word “gub-gub” also refers to the picture.

RFT figure 2This seems so obvious that it may seem unimportant. But research suggests this process is at the very core not only of how humans think, but why they suffer. (We will expand on this shortly.) This ability to reverse relationships holds true for the references between the picture and the sound the creature makes as well. If you ask a child of this age, “Which one goes ‘wooo’?” the child will again point to the picture of the gub-gub and not to a drawing of another creature. At this point, we have developed four relationships from two trained relations. Following the example above, these are as follows: the picture to the word “gub-gub,” the word “gub-gub” to the picture, the picture to the sound “wooo,” and the sound “wooo” to the picture (see figure at left). Then, from around twenty-two to twenty-seven months, human children will combine all these reversible relations. When asked, “What does the gub-gub say?” the child will say “wooo.” When asked, “Who says ‘wooo’?” the response will be “gub-gub.”

RFT figure 3Note that the child not only retains the previous four relationships we’ve explored, she creates two new relationships in our triangle that she had no prior training in whatsoever. She has seen a picture that we have taught her is a gub-gub, and she has been taught that the picture this fictional creature represents makes the sound “wooo.” She has never been distinctly trained in any relationship between the word “gub-gub” and the sound “wooo.” Nonetheless, she can derive the connections between these various parts of this relational network. Now the triangle is completely filled in. Out of two trained relationships we have developed six (see figure at right).

Furthermore, if one of these events becomes associated either with something frightening, or pleasing, all other related events are likely to be scary or pleasant. For example, if the baby is accidentally stuck with a diaper pin while you say “wooo,” the baby might cry whenever you mention a gub-gub or the gub-gub’s picture is seen. On the other hand, if the baby is given a sweet when you first say “wooo,” the baby might expect a goodie whenever the sound of “wooo” is heard.

Why Language Causes Suffering

In normal problem-solving situations, when there is something we don’t like, we figure out how to get rid of it and we take actions to do that. If we don’t like dirt on the floor, we get out the vacuum cleaner. If we don’t like a leaky roof, we fix it. The human approach to solving problems can be stated as, “If you don’t like something, figure out how get rid of it, and then get rid of it.” That’s exactly why the linguistic and cognitive processes we’ve just described are useful. But when we apply this strategy to our own inner suffering, it often backfires.

Suppressing Your Thoughts

Suppose you have a thought you don’t like. You’ll apply your verbal problem-solving strategies to it. For example, when the thought comes up, you may try to stop thinking it. There is extensive literature on what is likely to happen as a result. Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner (1994) has shown that the frequency of the thought that you try not to think may go down for a short while, but it soon appears more often than ever. The thought becomes even more central to your thinking, and it is even more likely to evoke a response. Thought suppression only makes the situation worse.

Want to know more about how language causes human suffering? Attend an ACT II workshop with Steve Hayes.

This article was adapted from Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life by Steven Hayes, PhD, and Spencer Smith.