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.

Get Me Out of This Research Silo! Recent Developments in Relational Frame Theory and Their Implications for Connecting, Collaborating and Cooperating With Fellow Travelers in Behavior Analysis

Dermot Barnes-Holmes (Ulster University)

Invited Paper



Biography:Dr. Dermot Barnes-Holmes graduated from the University of Ulster in 1985 with a B.Sc. in Psychology and in 1990 with a D.Phil. in behavior analysis. His first tenured position was in the Department of Applied Psychology at University College Cork, where he founded and led the Behavior Analysis and Cognitive Science unit. In 1999 he accepted the foundation professorship in psychology and head-of-department position at the National University of Ireland Maynooth. In 2015 he accepted a life-time senior professorship at Ghent University in Belgium. In 2020 he returned to his alma mater on a fractional contract as a full professor at Ulster University. Dr. Barnes-Holmes is known internationally for the analysis of human language and cognition through the development of Relational Frame Theory with Steven C. Hayes, and its application in various psychological settings. He was the world's most prolific author in the experimental analysis of human behavior between the years 1980 and 1999. He was awarded the Don Hake Translational Research Award in 2012 by the American Psychological Association, is a past president and fellow of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, and a fellow of the Association for Behavior Analysis, International. He is also a recipient of the Quad-L Lecture Award from the University of New Mexico and became an Odysseus laureate in 2015 when he received an Odysseus Type 1 award from the Flemish Science Foundation in Belgium.


Abstract: In reflecting upon behavior-analytic research and practice in the study of human language and cognitive development there appears to be much to be proud of, and also to be excited about going forward. But at the same time, a worrying trend appears to have emerged within the field. Specifically, a certain “silo” mentality has taken hold. As just one example, individuals working in relational frame theory (RFT) appear to have created a sub-field in which they cite mainly their own work and have developed their own (some argue, impenetrable) technical-ese. In making this claim, I certainly stand guilty as charged! The current presentation marks one attempt to break out of the research silo mentality and connect with fellow travelers in behavior analysis (i.e., those working on human language and thought). In doing so it seems useful to suggest a common idea or assumption around which we can build our efforts. One option in this respect could be the idea that humans are essentially unique as a symbolic species (Deacon, 1998). If we add to this the modern evolutionary science argument that evolution operates across multiple levels, one of which is the symbolic inheritance stream (e.g., Sloan-Wilson et al., 2014), this may help to bring some clarity to our collaborative research efforts. In RFT there has been a recent emphasis on a hyper-dimensional multi-level framework that aims to identify the units of symbolic behavior that vary, get selected, and are retained within the symbolic inheritance stream. Similarly, Verbal Behavior Development Theory (VBDT; Greer & Speckman, 2009), has placed the account within the wider context of evolution science and identified behavioral cusps, such as unidirectional naming, bi-directional naming, and incidental naming, that could be seen as involving variation, selection, and retention. Although the foci and technical details of RFT and VBDT differ in many ways, the overarching concern with identifying the units of symbolic behavior (which vary, are selected, and retained) highlights a shared ground of interest that may serve to facilitate cooperation and collaboration among currently separate research silos. The current presentation will present some examples of how working within this broader evolutionary science context may help us to escape our respective silos and build a stronger and more viable behavior-analytic science of human language and cognition.


Modifed by Eddie Soh