Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.


49th Annual Convention; Denver, CO; 2023

Event Details

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Symposium #139
Relational Frame Theory and Rule-Governed Behavior: An Updated Perspective
Sunday, May 28, 2023
8:00 AM–9:50 AM
Hyatt Regency, Centennial Ballroom B
Area: EAB; Domain: Translational
Chair: Joao Henrique de Almeida (São Paulo State University )
Discussant: Julian C. Leslie (Ulster University)
Abstract: The roots of RFT can be traced back to an early conference paper on rule-governed behaviour in 1984. The study of rule-governed behavior in RFT has tended to be overshadowed by the study of relational frames in and of themselves. Analyses of rule-governed behavior, however, require the study of relational networks and that work has begun to emerge more frequently in recent years. This work has been underpinned, to some extent, by the emergence of a new hyper-dimensional, multi-level (HDML) framework for conceptualising research in RFT generally. The four papers in this symposium will consider some of this work. Specifically, the four papers will consider (1) the impact of relational coherence vs incoherence in establishing rule-following and speaker preferences; (2) recent attempts to explore the impact of relative differences in relational coherence on rule-following and speaker preferences; (3) the relationship between persistence in rule-following and measures of psychological distress using a relatively large dataset [approx. N=750]; (4) how the new RFT framework may encourage analyses that do not dissolve into a simple dichotomy between contingency-shaped versus rule-governed behavior, and thus facilitate a rapprochement between behavior analysts studying and human and non-human behavior.
Instruction Level: Intermediate
Keyword(s): Coherence, HDML, RFT, Rule-Governed Behavior
Initial Experimental Analyses of the Impact of Coherence on Speaker Preference and Rule-Following
(Basic Research)
Paulo Bianchi (Paradigma – Centro de Ciências e Tecnologia do Comportamento, Brazil; IPEN - Instituto de Pesquisas Energéticas e Nucleares, Brazil ), WILLIAM FERREIRA PEREZ (Paradigma - Centro de Ciências e Tecnologia do Comportamento), Colin Harte (Federal University of São Carlos ), Dermot Barnes-Holmes (Ulster University)
Abstract: Rule-following is affected by multiple variables. A relevant aspect of rules regards whether they “make sense”, that is, the extent to which the instruction coheres with previously reinforced patterns of relational responding. This research aimed to evaluate the influence of relational coherence upon rule-following. After mastering a particular set of conditional relations (e.g., A1B1, A2B2), the participants (verbally-competent adults) were exposed to two speakers, one of which would “state” relations that cohered (e.g., A1B1, A2B2) with the participant’s previous relational training and the other that would present relations that were incoherent (e.g., A1B2, A2B1). Then, rule-following was measured in a preference test in which the participant would have to choose which of the two speakers would provide instructions in each test trial. After the preference test, an IRAP was implemented to evaluate the credibility of each speaker using positive (e.g., reliable) and negative words (e.g., unreliable). Results show that the participants preferred the coherent speaker to provide instructions and followed the rules presented by that speaker throughout the test. The coherent speaker was also more positively evaluated during the IRAP compared to the incoherent speaker. Coherence is discussed as a critical aspect of rule following and preference for particular narratives.
Levels of Speaker Relational Coherence and Rule-Following Behavior: A Pilot Study
(Basic Research)
JESÚS ALONSO-VEGA (Universidad Europea de Madrid), Colin Harte (Federal University of São Carlos ), Dermot Barnes-Holmes (Ulster University)
Abstract: Rule-following behaviors can be affected by different variables (i.e., coherence, complexity, derivation, and flexibility). In this pilot study, our purpose was to analyze the effects of three different levels of speakers’ relational coherence on participant rule-following behaviors. In the first of two experiments, participants were initially taught a simple discrimination before being exposed to a task that established a rule-following learning history for three different speakers: Speaker 1 (S1; 100% coherent); Speaker 2 (S2; 50% coherent); Speaker 3 (S3; 0% coherent). Once participants reached experimental learning criteria, the effects of speaker relational coherence was tested using a rule-following generalization test, a speaker preference test, and a maintenance test of the initial trained simple discrimination. A second experiment partially replicated the first but levels of speaker relational coherence were adjusted such that S1 was 80% coherent, S2 was 50% coherent, and S3 was 20% coherent. The results of both experiments found a rule-following generalization with all speakers. In addition, speaker preference was differentially affected by the percentage level of relational coherence of the speaker. Implications, limitations and further experiments will be discussed in the context of recent updates in relational frame theory.

Exploring the Relationship Between Persistent Derived Rule-Following and Measures of Psychological Distress: A Large Sample Analysis

(Basic Research)
COLIN HARTE (Federal University of São Carlos ), Dermot Barnes-Holmes (Ulster University), Yvonne Barnes-Holmes (Perspectives Ireland Consulting Psychologists Ltd.), Ciara McEnteggart (Perspectives Ireland )

The human capacity to follow complex rules has been suggested as a critical variable in psychological suffering. Specifically, it has been argued that an excessive reliance on verbal rules may undermine sensitivity to direct contingencies of reinforcement. However, little direct experimental evidence is available to support this assertion in the context of psychological suffering. The current paper analyses the data from a series of experiments (N = approx. 750) that explored the extent to which derived rules controlled participant responding in the face of reversed reinforcement contingencies and whether persistent rule-following correlated with a measure of psychological distress (depression, anxiety and stress scale [DASS]). Specifically, all participants completed a contingency-switching matching-to-sample (MTS) task in which the task contingencies initially supported a rule given to or partially derived by participants. After 100 trials, an un-cued contingency reversal occurred such that responding in accordance with the initial rule was now punished. A series of analyses explored the extent to which persistent rule-following after the contingency reversal correlated with the DASS. The results suggest that the link between rule-persistence and psychological distress is more complex than perhaps initially thought. Findings are discussed in the context of updates in relational frame theory (RFT).


Recent Conceptual Advances in Relational Frame Theory (RFT) Call for a Non-Dichotomous Distinction Between Contingency-Shaped and Rule-Governed Behavior

DERMOT BARNES-HOLMES (Ulster University), Colin Harte (Federal University of São Carlos )

A core postulate of relational frame theory (RFT) is that “relational framing alters the functions of behavioral processes” (Hayes et al., 2001, p.45). This postulate is central to explaining behaviors frequently observed with verbally-able humans that are rarely, if ever, seen in non-humans and are difficult to explain using traditional behavioral processes. For example, when an equivalence frame is established between three stimuli (A, B and C), and a specific function is established for A, a similar function may emerge for C in the absence of direct reinforcement. In effect, the process of relational framing extends the direct function training for the A stimulus to the derived C stimulus. Arguing that relational framing alters other behavioral processes raises two possibilities: (1) RFT involves a type of dual-process theory involving the interaction between verbal and non-verbal processes or (2) a single process theory in which all human behavior with a verbal history is best analysed as involving verbal functions. The current paper will argue, paradoxically, that the latter theoretical stance may facilitate a rapprochement between behavior analysts studying human and non-human behavior because it focuses analyses on multiple dimensions along which human behavior may differ or, critically, overlap with non-human behavior.




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