RFT: Show me the Money!

Relational Frame Theory (RFT), an instructional framework, focuses on the explicit teaching of a few specific skills and the emergence of novel responding (Hayes et al., 2001). There is a growing literature describing instructional strategies based on fundamental and applied research on derived relational responding that can inform professionals working with individuals with developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (Rehfeldt, & Barnes-Holmes, 2009). The idea behind RFT instruction is that the language and cognitive skill deficits of individuals with ASD are because they can not make derived relations and that teaching derived relations as early as possible is crucial for improving these skill areas.

Relational Frame Theory (RFT) attempts to explain how human language and cognition develop by relating concepts to each other through three properties (Cooper et al., 2019):

1) Mutual entailment: The feature in which a unidirectional relation from stimulus A to stimulus B entails a second unidirectional relation from B to A.

Example: Lily is shown two coin and told that coin A is worth more than coin; she derives that coin B is less than coin A.

2) Combinatorial entailment: The feature whereby two stimulus relations can be combined to derive a third relation.

Example: Lily is shown three coins and told that coin A is worth more than coin B and coin B is worth more than coin C, she derives that A is worth more than C and C is worth less than A.

3) Transformation of stimulus functions means that when stimuli are involved in a relational frame, any function attached to one of those stimuli transfers through the frame to any or all of the other stimuli involved.

Example: Lily derives an equivalence relation consisting of the spoken word "coin," a picture of a coin, and a coin. She is taught that the spoken word “coin” means to pay for an item. Subsequently, a picture of a coin, and a coin evokes similar paying behavior (Dymond & Rehfeldt, 2000; Smyth et al., 2006).

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Examples of Frames:

Patterns of relational responding are referred to as relational frames. Some examples of relational frames include (Törneke et al., 2010):

Sameness or coordination

Example: Quarter = $0.25


Example: Dimes are smaller than Quarters


Example: Cost is the opposite of free


Example: Dimes are not the same as nickels


Example: a coin is a type of token


Example: Penny is to 1 as nickel is to 5

Deixis or deictic

Example: I am rich, you are poor

What is AARR??

A relational frame is any type of arbitrary applicable relational responding (AARR).

Arbitrary relations are stimuli that “go together” not because they are physically

identical, but because social-verbal reinforcement contingencies teach people to relate to them in a certain way.

Example: Lily is taught that it’s better to be rich than poor. Since having more money is better, she relates that having less money is worse.

Arbitrarily applicable relational responding (AARR) refers to responding based on relations that are arbitrarily applied between the stimuli; forming new stimulus classes with little or no reinforced practice.

Example: Lily learns that it’s better to be rich than poor. She also learns that if you are rich you wear a tophat. Subsequently, she relates that tophats are great!

Suggested Resource

Foxy Learning Open Access- Relational frame Theory (Free!)


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2020). Applied behavior analysis. Hoboken, NJ: Pearson Education Limited.

Dymond, S., & Rehfeldt, R. A. (2000). Understanding complex behavior: the transformation of stimulus functions. The Behavior analyst, 23(2), 239–254. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03392013

Hayes, S.C, Barnes-Holmes, D. & Roche, B. (2001). Relational frame theory: A post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. New York: Klewer/Plenum

Rehfeldt, & Barnes-Holmes, Y. (2009). Derived relational responding [electronic resource] : applications for learners with autism and other developmental disabilities : a progressive guide to change/edited by Ruth Anne Rehfeldt & Yvonne Barnes-Holmes ; [foreword by Steven C. Hayes]. Context Press.

Smyth, S., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Forsyth, J. P. (2006). A derived transfer of simple discrimination and self-reported arousal functions in spider fearful and non-spider fearful participants. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 85(2), 223-246.

Törneke Niklas, Barnes-Holmes, D., & Hayes, S. C. (2010). Learning RFT: An introduction to relational frame theory and its clinical applications. Context Press.

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