A functional approach to the study of human emotion The centrality of relational processes Dermot Barnes-HoLmes anD sean HugHes
Relational frame theory and maladaptive human emotional responding According to RFT, equivalence is the most common and fundamental way stimuli can be related-but only one of a large number of different types of stimulus relations. Just as people can respond to stimuli as being equivalent, they may also relate them as opposite, different, greater, or less than one another. Critically, when increasingly complex relations between and among stimuli are involved, psychological or emotional functions are not simply transferred but rather transformed according to the way in which stimuli are related. For example, if A is opposite to B and A is then paired with shock, the fear arousing functions of A will not necessarily transfer to B. Rather the emotional functions of B may come to be transformed in-line with the relation-in this instance by acquiring
reinforcing functions. As such, humans can find stimuli directly paired with unpleasant events as pleasurable or reinforcing when the relation established is one of opposition (Whelan and Barnes-Holmes, 2004) or more/less than (Whelan, Barnes-Holmes and Dymond, 2006)2. To date, the transformation of functions has been replicated for both fear and sexual responses. To demonstrate the former, Dougher et al. (2007) provided half of their participants with training to establish three nonsense symbols (A, B, C) as meaning “smallest”, “middle”, and “largest” (the other half did not receive such training). Thereafter, the B stimulus was paired with an electric shock for all participants. Results showed that for those who received relational training, the fear established for the B stimulus was indirectly acquired by both A and Cbut in a non-equivalent way. Specifically, the A stimulus elicited a smaller fear response than B whereas C (despite having never been associated with shock) elicited a larger fear response than either A or B. Participants who did not receive any relational training showed higher skin conductance changes to B relative to A and C. These findings suggest that when stimuli are related in increasingly complex ways humans can come to fear relatively harmless stimuli more than those that were directly associated with aversive events. As noted above, human sexual arousal functions have also been shown to transform based on complex stimulus relations involving “same” and “opposite” (Roche and Barnes, 1997). The derived transformation of functions also has a number of theoretical and clinical implications relevant to the study of maladaptive emotions. On the one hand, many associative learning accounts frame emotional disorders as a product of direct aversive conditioning with treatments based on the assumption that extinction (i.e., repeatedly non-reinforced exposure to the feared object or event) will successfully alleviate these problematic behaviors (for a discussion see Mineka and Zinbarg, 2006). Yet many people suffering from emotional problems do not necessarily have a history of direct conditioning with respect to the stimuli that they are anxious about. Derived stimulus relating may offer one explanation for how maladaptive emotional responses may emerge for stimuli that have never been directly associated with emotional events in the past. On the other hand, “the clinical significance of a stimulus is not always its particular emotional function (e.g., fear) but rather the extent to which it engenders
avoidance behaviour” (Auguston and Dougher, 1997, p.183). For instance, people often do not seek treatment for phobias because they are afraid of a particular object/event but rather due to the deleterious effects that avoiding such stimuli/ situations has on their everyday life (see Hayes, Strosahl, and Wilson, 1999). According to RFT, if emotional functions can be indirectly acquired by stimuli then people may also attempt to avoid those stimuli even though they have never previously been associated with aversive events. Consistent with this assumption, avoidance responding-like emotional functions-has been found to transfer through stimulus relations. Recall that in the Auguston and Dougher (1997) study two equivalence relations were established (A1-B1-C1-D1 and A2-B2-C2-D2). Thereafter, B1 was paired with an electrical shock while B2 was presented in the absence of a shock. In a second study the same procedure was employed, but participants were also taught they could avoid being shocked by repeatedly pressing a button in the presence of B. Following training, participants pressed the key in the presence of not only B but also the A and C stimuli from the first relation, but did not press the button for any of stimuli from the second relation. Dymond et al. (2008) demonstrated similar results for the derived transformation of avoidance through “same-opposite” relations using picture stimuli. Finally, derived stimulus relating not only allows for the transformation of emotional functions from stimulus to stimulus but also for their extinction. A number of studies have now shown that when the emotional functions of one stimulus are extinguished, the emotional properties of related stimuli are typically extinguished as well (e.g., Dougher et al., 1994; Roche and Barnes, 1997). Interestingly however, in a recent study, Luciano et al. (2011) failed to report evidence for the direct or derived extinction of fear (measured using skin conductance) or avoidance functions in two separate experiments. In a third experiment, however, while no extinction or reduction of fear was obtained, avoidance of the feared stimuli was eliminated following an analogue protocol based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Given that fear, avoidance, and behavioral extinction play an important role in the aetiology and maintenance of psychopathology, it is to this functionally based psychotherapy that we now turn.