Original post to angelacathey.com June, 2016

I’m going to start this post off by telling you a little secret.

I get a little obsessive with ideas.

Give me something interesting to think about and I’m a kid with a Rubik’s cube all over again. When I immersed myself in RFT I turned that Rubik’s cube so many times I dreamt in RFT. (Yes, I know that’s weird.)

While you’re adjusting to that information, let me show you why I will probably never get tired of playing with this toy.

RFT: a ‘thing’ of infinite beauty and utility.

I’m going to show you several metaphorical, philosophical, and sometimes down right fun, ways to understand RFT. Then will pin those down onto logical and high utility ways of using RFT.

This will include:

  • Understanding ‘constructs’ vs. the relations described by RFT.
  • Understanding RFT ‘properties’.
  • Doing an RFT guided Functional Analysis (FA), and how that allows you to bring FA into therapy room with a client (see next post instead).
  • And, finally how to use experiential knowledge and empirical logic to explicate process, and then, measure it (because pure theorizing is fairy dust for an applied researcher/clinician) (Also, see next posts).


First, let’s loosen your frames a bit and help you connect.

I’m going to go Karl Sagan for a moment and teach you some astrophysics and RFT.

Imagine the earth and planets swirling about in space. They all have this rhythm and dance to how they move about each other. Imagine now that those planets are constructs (e.g., “psychological flexibility”, “courage”, “love”, “present-moment-focus”, “mindfulness”, “habituation”, “transference”… out to infinity in verbally symbolic influenced constructs).

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Media: hqwide.com

Now looking out on the planets we are like the astronomers once were… seeing these celestial bodies in awe but not understanding their rhythms. We can see them dancing around each other but we can’t tell why. Most of our scientific method in psychology is based around this level of mystery… we assume we know very little and that every hypothesis is a bit like glancing in the telescope and hoping we see planets crash together. If we see it, and we haven’t spent all day looking through the telescope… then that’s an important finding! And, because we can’t all watch the whole universe we each pick a few planets (constructs) to watch intensely.

Now let go of your favorite planets for a moment and zoom back… look at the big picture. See the planets moving across time…

Now drop to a different level of analysis.  In this picture we see what we later understood about the planets and their orbits.

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Media: boainformacao.com.br

What we understood that gave us infinite and useful knowledge about space (even beyond the planets we could see) was as Karl Sagan put it “gravity is geometry.”

Gravity is a distortion in space-time that forms a kind of net that allows the weight of the planets to pull against each other. This is what gives them their lovely dances in relation to each other.

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Media: www.realclearscience.com

RFT is the gravity and geometry. It shows us how the constructs influenced by human verbal/symbolic behavior dance together.

This is ‘true’ in many ways:

Gravity is a very ‘real’ force to be reckoned with and yet you can’t ‘prove’ it in most contexts. We just trust that it’s there because it is useful to do so. The construct of gravity is a description of relation. It’s a useful explanation in daily life for why it would be stupid to hold the DSM-5 over your foot and drop it. Sure, you could go ask Karl Sagan for the formula and proof but in the mean time… you should probably still move your foot out of the way of the DSM.

In the same way, RFT relations can’t be ‘proven’ in the moment. That’s not the point in applied work though. Like the web you see below the planets, what RFT gives us is far more powerful than a view of the actual planets. It gives a way to predict and intervene in the moment in nearly anything influenced by human thought. (If that doesn’t inspire awe like looking out into the stars… go back and read again.)

Planets collide…

On another level, what it does is let use see the planets in a new light. They are no longer separate planets dancing unpredictably in space. They are a tiny visible piece of the universe dancing an understandable rhythm influenced by the interlocking distortion of space-time that holds in relation to each other.

And just like this conception of gravity as space-time distortion… RFT allows us to come up with some amazing ways of understanding our universe.

Time Travel: Theories, paradoxes, and possibilities



Now that we’ve talked space-time distortion let’s blow you’re mind a bit more by learning to understand the properties of RFT and what RFT is really speaking to in a very different way than your used to (aka sans algebra).

You’ve all seen the diagrams explaining how the letters in the word “cat” = a picture of a cat = the sound of “cat” spoken. You may have also seen the complex ‘algebra’ that formulaically explains properties of RFT like transformation of stimulus function.

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See: https://contextualscience.org/transformation_of_stimulus_functions

Yikes! So, that formula is sheer genius but not particularly functional for people who don’t understand RFT pretty well already. Explaining RFT in these terms to those who are learning is a bit like explaining gravity as a formula. In some way it is ‘true’ but if you want someone to understand the meaning of gravity, you’re better off dropping the DSM on their foot.

Let’s understand the meaning of RFT at a deeper more experiential level.

RFT explains the inter-relations of different elements of our behavior and context.

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Cathey (2016)

This is a functional diagram of the way properties of RFT and operant/classical conditioning tell us our behaviors are inter-related.

It’s not perfect. Anyone can tell you these aren’t entirely separate…

Our experience is actually much more like this.

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Picture: indulgy.com

Let’s dig a little deeper…

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Diagram: Cathey (2016)

So, in some way we are this relational signal that we experience as a whole, which isn’t entirely separate from our experience of our external context (blurry line). What we perceive in the world is viewed through our internal context (if you’re inside that bubble looking out everything will be tinted blue). This is why we can all react different ways to the ‘same’ ‘external’ stimuli and why we may act differently in different contexts. All is through the filter of our experience and through relation, after we become old enough to have a symbolic world. This symbolic world is in some respect verbal but more importantly highly symbolic. Words/language are one important network that forms the scaffolding of our internal experience, and which we can somewhat efficiently use to show others our world.

That ‘sticky’ scaffolding gives words power.

So, RFT is not just a theory of language. It is a theory of symbolism.

‘Anything can become anything’ because it is nearly all symbolic at some level.

Sensation, perception, visual stimuli, auditory stimuli, words, actions… they are all symbolic soup of experience and your own relational history makes some of those cues more salient than others.

For example… listen to just a seconds of this music… close your eyes. Notice the feelings and thoughts.

Mystery Music

Now, what you all experienced was the same stimuli but how it affected you is through relation, in a very deep way.

My experience is not yours, in great part, because of my distinct relational history with this stimuli.

For me, that song is chills, tears in my eyes, the taste of a tequila shot (hey… I was nervous that day), and a visual of walking down the isle to my husband. It will never again be separate from those moments and the love I feel for my husband BECAUSE of the RELATIONS it obtained when I chose it for that defining moment in our relationship.

For you, maybe it was just squeaky violin music or something pretty. This is RFT. The song had no words and yet it is still symbolic and influenced by what I say. Now, if you meet me you will have the words above as a scaffolding between our worlds.

As you read them you were likely able, in some part, to experience part of my experience but even still through your relational history. For those of you who know me… the experience of learning this information might have been more intense if I’m close to you or if you experience me as like you. This is predictable based on RFT, a frame of coordination (she is like me) or (I like her) will increase your experience of my description. A frame of distinction (I am not like her) or (this is crap, etc.) will decrease intensity of the experience (transformation of stimulus functions) evoked by reading my experience.

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Cathey (2016)

Thus our experiences are tinted, amplified, and de-amplified by the frames in which we hold ourselves, those we are exposed to, and many other contextual variables that influence our experience.

Isn’t it lovely? We’re are all connected, through relation. (Imagine: You can totally win 6 degrees to Kevin Bacon now. 😉

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Media: www.mangowed.com

Further, your actual perceptual, emotional, behavioral, and verbal experience is predicable based on RFT and the significance or depth of the learning you have related to the the stimuli (REC Model; Hughes, Barnes-Holmes, Vahey, 2012Barnes-Holmes, Barnes-Holmes, Stewart, & Boles (2010)).

So, let’s switch frames a bit to get ready for clinical/social applications:

Let’s look at the REC Model of some things we could cause us to feel fear or disgust…. This is a functional example (its not perfect… but let’s hope it gets the job done).

Look at the items in the REC Model below and note your emotional response.

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Cathey (2016)

What I’m willing to bet is that even though you likely have some very rich sensory experiences (high connectivity) of food poisoning, unless you’ve had one recently you probably didn’t have much of a response to that stimuli. As a US resident, few of us will have a strong visceral response to Ebola as its not connected to most things in our daily worlds. Few of us will have had direct experience with it.

Now here’s the curious part… What was your response to the gun woman? What was your response to Hitler?

If you had a more intense emotional response to Hitler that is understandable based on REC, but few other theories would predict this or allow for testing of it. We could say that we have “habituated” to gun violence. Or, perhaps we’ve now heard so many derivations of this occurring that we can now control the response to it, as it is sunken into the rich networks of other relations.

Hitler on the other hand… I’m guessing no one reading this met him. Yet you may have felt a lurch of disgust even stronger than the food poisoning picture.

Without RFT and personal experience with this it is difficult to make sense of your response to Hitler, vs food poisoning, vs. mass shootings, vs. Ebola.

Stay with me here. A low complexity network with high derivation is a bit like all the relations flowing through this single point of symbolic ‘evil’.  If he is a single point of relation through which all we know about the Holocaust and those horrors is filtered there is a lot of derivation through repeated understanding but little complexity (as everything is history, etc compared to actual experience). This kind of highly derived but not complex network of emotional learning lends itself to strong/rigid/somewhat two dimensional responses.

Otherwise it’s a little difficult to explain why we’d have such a strong response to someone none of us have ever met AND yet have a have a much more moderated response to gun violence.

Now, let’s switch gears with this new experiential understanding of RFT. I’ll show you how you can use this kind of understanding to better inform Functional Analysis (FA) and bring FA into the therapy room in the present moment.


Copyright 2016 © Angela Cathey. All Rights Reserved.

Angela Cathey, MA

Angela Cathey, MA

Founder, Partner, Consultant, Data Scientist

Angela is experienced in leading and coordinating the operations of research and intervention teams. She has a master’s in Clinical Psychology from the University of Houston – Clear Lake. She has specialty training in measurement, intervention, People Analytics, natural language processing, and data science. Angela was the entrepreneurial lead in the National Science Foundation i-Corps customer validation program for Enso’s key products. She has a background in innovative technology problem solving, technology development, and resulting market-ready product development.

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