FC to RFT to Evolution to ACT to Matrix

Functional Contextualism

Functional Contextualism is a scientific point of view that seeks to increase the frequency and variety of behaviors that work to improve the human condition. It looks at the behavior in context, and in that regard the whole human is the action. There is no separation of mind and body in FC. For example, when a human uses language it's the whole human behaving, head to toe. Using FC we hope to predict and influence behavior with precision (the fewest symbols), scope (across contexts like home, school and work) and depth (psychological, sociological, and anthropological).

Relational Frame Theory (RFT) is a theory of how humans learn language and cognition that uses the functional contextual world view of finding workable behaviors in context. The whole human (not a mind/body split) participates in languaging toward healthy functioning or away from it. RFT looks at the function of words, not what words represent. For example, most people might agree on what a tree looks like and what a bush looks like. You could show them pictures of trees and bushes and they could sort the pictures into two piles: trees and bushes. The sorting works almost all the time, until you find a picture of a tree that looks like a bush, or a bush that looks like a tree. Now the plant scientists get involved and give us technical language to sort out trees and bushes. However, there are still a few pictures left that don't quite fit in either category. The scientists argue through history about perfect trees and perfect bushes. Don't think this really happens? Take a look at a duck-billed platypus.

RFT does not give one whit about categorizing things into categories like trees, bushes, animals, vegetables, etc. It looks at the function of words and language. The question becomes, "Is this languaging working to move us in the direction we want to go?" On an individual level, "Is my languaging moving me toward my values?" On a societal level, "Is this languaging moving us toward peace or destruction?"

Why is this categorizing versus functioning so important? Because people get into huge "I'm right and you're wrong" arguments about categories like trees versus bushes, or my religion versus your religion. From a functioning view of language, we instead ask, "Is this languaging working to move us toward our values?"

Language is Social

Language probably evolved in humans for social functions. One was to help protect us and others, e.g., "Watch out!" Another was to make babies, "Hey good looking, want to hang out tonight?"

While languaging is social, it's done from the Me point of view. As in, "Me over here and you over there." Once the 'me' showed up as language, people could talk to others (me to you) and to themselves (me to me). Since language is great (to a point) for symbolically dividing things up into categories such as trees, shrubs, tigers, rocks, etc., eventually the self was divided up into the categories of Me and Mind. From an outsiders perspective, that's just silly; it looks like one person behaving. From inside the skin, the separate selves make sense because according to social language they make sense. Said another way, to use language you need someone else to talk to, so one part of me talks to another part of me; 'me to me.'


Evolution needs three ingredients: variability, consequences and heritability. Language has all of that in spades. It's infinitely variable, there are consequences (even life and death), and it's easily passed down through generations. The problem is that language is much, much faster than genetic variability, consequences and heritability. Using language in just a few hundred years humans have created really helpful stuff for humanity and really hurtful stuff for humanity. We now have enough nuclear weapons to destroy several earths. We are polluting our environment (the stuff our bodies live within) at an extinctive rate. Language is indeed very powerful and very fast.

If you look at the three components of evolution: variability, consequences and heritability the one to focus on for change is consequences. The other two are out of our control. Language is infinitely variable and it is easily heritable (passed down through generations). What we can do now is pay close attention to the consequences of our languaging before we language ourselves into extinction.

Acceptance and Commitment Training and Therapy (ACT)

Language turned inward (me talking to me) is the stuff of ACT. The basic idea is that functional reactions to the physical world, like fear, pain, happiness and love get transformed into the sounds of language within a person. Since language is social, we can now have conversations about the world and ourselves with others. We can also have 'me to me' conversations. ACT is about the problems that arise due to 'me to me' conversations.

In general humans want to move away from fear and pain. That makes evolutionary sense; moving away from fear and pain keeps one alive for the self, the group, and making babies.

In general humans want to move toward stuff like joy, love and happiness. We can find some of those feelings on our own, but we can find lots more with other people. We are a social species and we are drawn to the good feelings with get with others.

With 'me to me' language we can escape from danger and pain or move toward joy and love within 'me to me' conversations. Life inside of 'me to me' conversations requires little contact with the physical world. A human can practically live out life inside of it, however...

Getting stuck in your head is a problem because it removes you from contact with consequences.

Since being out of touch with consequences is a problem, ACT strives to get us out of our heads and back to paying closer attention to consequences. Hence the title of Steve Haye's book Get out of your mind and into your life.

Putting Functional Contextualism, Relational Frame Theory, Evolution and ACT together we have...

  • ACT strives to find succinct language to influence individuals and groups out of their minds and paying closer attention to the consequences of languaging.

There are many ways of influencing people out of their minds and paying attention to consequences. This Blog, however, is about the Matrix...

How does the matrix work?

Frist we have people categorize into the Matrix. We can have them sort on the Sensory/Mental line or the Toward/Away line. We can also have them sort into the four quadrants. Sorting is languaging that humans like to do it. Notice that the Away/Toward sort is also a function of behavior sort. Isn't that neat? We start with the usual "into categories" sorting and switch it to functionality sorting in the same thought. Each Toward and Away sort/functional analysis creates a bit of distance from language, "lifting" attention from the mind (lower part of the diagram) toward real world consequences (upper part of the diagram).

We can hope that with increasing awareness of consequences we will increase behaviors toward taking care of each other.

Be well,


Kevin L. Polk, Ph.D.


dan said...

Many words, but little content that I can wrap my head around. Perhaps seeing the concepts in some action context will make it more clear.I'll look forward to seeing that in your later posts.

Rob Purssey said...

IMHO very few words for a beautiful written, disarmingly deep, clear and functional linking of empirically observed ("proven") evolutionary and behavioral processes - but then I play with The Matrix daily, personally and professionally, and "get" FC via ACT work and basic phil science readings. This brief screed lays it out simply, functionally - onya Kevin!

Kevin Polk said...

Thanks for both comments. Let's me know at least a few people read this stuff :-)

Randy Burgess said...

Holy moly, I'm blown away by this. Not kidding.

Kevin Polk said...

Thanks, Randy.

I hope you are "blown away" in workable way :-)



silverskid said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
silverskid said...

I find ACT to be very helpful personally, but I have a few questions about the concept of workability as used here.Is it really possible to consider workability in the absence of questions of truth/rightness(e.g.provisionally correct and erroneous statements)? If we say avoidance does not "work" but moves us away from chosen values, is that not contingent on a provisional assessment of relevant facts (e.g. "S has tried avoidance over and over and has only suffered as a consequence")? Doesn't such a putatively true statement become an important factor in determining what does or doesn't work in a variety of contexts? In short, is workability not contingent on provisionally true descriptions of situations and/or events?

Dr. Kevin Polk said...

Thanks so much for commenting,

It's been a couple (or more) years since I wrote that post. It's very similar to the final chapter of The ACT Matrix book that I edited with Benji Schoendorff.

If one "considers" workability, then one is using language, and whenever possible, I try to go for an additional experiential view of workability rather than just a language-based view. Of course the experiential view is fleeting while language hangs in there.

So I would agree that it is difficult to look at workability this way, but it does seem to come into focus sometimes.

The whole point of ACT is to get out of your head (language) and into directly experiencing the world, so that's the spirit of this post.

Be well,


silverskid said...

Thanks for your response. As someone who practices mindfulness, I certainly appreciate the limits of concepts/language, and the ability to see thoughts as thoughts without getting involved in evaluating them. It just seems to me that when one says that some behavior is “workable” in terms of moving towards chosen values, one is necessarily making a discriminative judgment and relying on conceptual categories (maybe not “tree” and “bush” but rather “toward behaviors” and “away behaviors” or something similar). To say that something works, it seems, is to make a pragmatic evaluation, and I’m not sure just how workability might be directly (non-conceptually) experienced however fleetingly. When behaviors are workable, when I’m in the moment ("out of my head") doing the things that “work” (are conducive to valued living), I don’t typically have the thought “this is workable." If I do have such a thought I know that it is a thought and not the workable behavior itself (“the map is not the terrain”). Maybe there’s something I’m missing here, but for now I don’t see how we can distinguish workable and non-workable behaviors without employing some conceptual criteria. At any rate, I really do benefit from ACT personally, and appreciate your role in making it so readily available to people online and in books. I will certainly read the book you recommended. Happy New Year!--Paul

Dr. Kevin Polk said...


I sometimes talk about using the learning that we used to learn language to learn workability. I guess that's the "pre-conceptual" spot. In language we keep trying to conceptualize that non-language learning. Getting at that nonverbal learning that results in verbal learning keeps me working on this stuff. It seems to be the psychological flexibility we seek.

Again, thanks so much for commenting.