Steve Hayes decided to be a psychologist in high school because it combined art and science, and he’s spent his entire career as a psychologist continuing to combine things that are sometimes superficially improbable. A child of the 1960’s who lived on a commune, explored the human potential movement, and disrupted Chamber of Commerce meetings as an environmental activist, he studied animal learning and became a clinical behavior analyst because he sought a science-based way to pursue personal and social change. Despite his behaviorist credentials, he developed one of the most pragmatically useful modern approaches to human language and cognition, Relational Frame Theory (RFT), launching this point of view in the mid-80’s with an improbable article that did a deep dive into making sense of spirituality … published in the journal Behaviorism … go figure. He initiated the development of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a widely used and fast growing evidence-based based therapy based on acceptance, mindfulness, and values; and he established a related knowledge development community, the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, that is now nearly 8,200 members strong, with 27 chapters around the world. An author of over 40 books and nearly 600 scientific articles, with a Google Scholar H-index that puts him among the most cited scientists in the world, he’s now pursuing the biggest combination of all: nesting contextual behavioral science under the umbrella of evolution science. With his colleague David Sloan Wilson, and others, he is helping to develop PROSOCIAL, which combines ACT with Elinor Ostrom’s core design principles, as a method to develop prosocial groups.

Clinical psychologists are human tea bags, steeping in the hot water of human misery. It never happens that someone calls a clinical psychologist, makes an appointment, comes in, sits down, and says “Hi doc. I just thought I’d drop by to tell you how great I’m doing.”

People instead talk about their misery and the myriad experiences they want to subtract or eliminate –  anxiety, depression, or urges or the like – but you only have to ask “and then what?” to find that these are envisioned as means, not ends. People think that it is only when pain goes away that the real goal can be pursued: to live a vital, connected human life.

It turns out that is wrong. Terribly, stunningly, fearfully wrong. Efforts to subtract, build, and not in the areas you hope for. Meanwhile, putting your life on hold has an enormous cost. We all are pulled toward that error and for a simple reason: its built into human problem solving itself.

The human mind allows us to reason, plan, and problem-solve, and subtraction seems very reasonable inside human problem solving. If you have a pile of dirt on the floor, your vacuum cleaner will happily subtract it. Without training, the mind can’t tell the difference between “don’t like dirt, subtract it” and “don’t like anxiety, subtract it.”

But the human nervous system does not have a minus button, or a delete button. There is no mental vacuum cleaner. Once something is experienced, the human organism is changed. There is no going back. Unless we learn how to pivot in a different mental direction, we will experience the frightful evolutionary mismatch between human cognition and psychological peace of mind.

Language is not associative: its relational. RFT research has found that disabled children will not acquire normal language unless they can derive relationships that were not directly trained and are not based on the form of related events, and can then put them into networks of relations. We can do that as human beings (and after decades of trying no one has yet seen this same performance in non-humans) because language is an evolved extension of human cooperative relationships themselves.

A 12-month-old baby knows that if an object has a name, that name refers to the object. That second relationship is not based on form (names need not sound like objects), and they do not need to be trained one word at a time: we are evolutionarily prepared to learn how to derive relationship regardless of the form of related events and to apply that skill as kind of “relational frame.” Once children acquire a few basic forms (e.g., goes with; difference) they are off into the “language explosion” that every parent has witnessed in their normally developing children.

Derivation of relationships regardless of form likely started as a social process. Given high levels of cooperation, and basic theory of mind, social referencing and joint attentional skills, in the history of humankind any socially characteristic sound or sign emitted the presence of an object (a “name”) would have likely yielded prevision of that object by a motivated listener when it was emitted. If we but know as a speaker to see object à say name then others around us could hear name à provide object, enormously extending cooperation as a result of this socially derived relation. As the group-level advantage grew, we became speakers and listeners in our same skin, and relational learning accelerated. Symbols became psychologically derived.

If someone asked you to talk about “your relations” you’d likely talk about your family – which gives a glimpse into how the initial relation of a speaker and listener soon extended to symbolic reasoning and the myriad types of non-associative relations it contains. Imagine a picture of a very large multi-generational family. If you know who they are you could say how every single one is related to any other one. What people look like could be a weak guide. An aunt can be younger than a niece; George could be married to Frank; any race or ethnicity could by marriage be part of the family; the ones who live in the same town can be distant cousins; marriage partners can maintain long distance relationships. These aren’t “associations” based on overlaps linked to appearance, location, or time. These are relations.

Operant and classical condition are half a billion years old; human language and cognition is likely measured in the hundreds of thousands. The social benefit of a simple extension of cooperation (e.g., “Apples?” leading to provision of apples) has, with the addition of many kinds of derived relations (opposition, hierarchy, time, comparison, cause and effect, perspective taking), led to the social benefit of problem solving (“if we do this we will get that which is better”) but also the tendency to turn our own lives from a process to be experienced, into a problem to be solved. Avoidance and excessive rule-following, the two most repertoire-restricting processes known in psychology, are simple extensions of human problem-solving gone awry. Fortunately, behavioral science has identified ways of reestablishing healthy variability (through open attention, acceptance, and mindfulness) and establishing selection by consequences of importance (such as by deeply held human values).

The modern psychotherapist is an applied evolutionist, helping people learn to solve this evolutionary mismatch. It is a mismatch that gets worse every year as our media feds us constant supplies of fear, anger, and disgust, complete with the supposed solutions of judgment and avoidance. We will need to be far wiser to develop modern minds for this modern world. Only the consilience provided by evolutionary theory provides us much hope that we can learn as a human culture how to do so.

For more on Steve Hayes:
For information on ACT and RFT see www.contextualscience.org
For information on Steve see www.stevenchayes.com
For more about how RFT informs ACT see Steve’s two TEDx talks: www.bit.ly/StevesFirstTED and www.bit.ly/StevesSecondTED
For a more extended version of the analysis outlined in this essay see doi: 10.1002/jeab.64

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Published On: February 11, 2017


  • Rory Short says:

    “Only the consilience provided by evolutionary theory provides us much hope that we can learn as a human culture how to do so.”


  • Jim bledsoe says:


    In our quest to step into a fresh understanding of our relationship to nature and humanities’s place on in the continuum, our language and its inherent reflections can be part of the very conditions we are trying to remedy.
    Are TLA s and the unclear, exclusive and imperial conundrums we are left to wrestle and ponder part of our problem? Key underlying meaning is often muted by, alphabet soup. Three Letter Acronyms are mutations which create ambiguities and obscure meaning.
    Simply by spelling out the words we can, gracefully achieve clarity.

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