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The functional contextualism of Steven C. Hayes

The functional contextualism of Steven C. Hayes

September 12, 2022

Functional contextualism is a scientific philosophy proposed by Steven Hayes and that has developed fundamentally in the field of psychology, particularly in its behavioral side. At the same time, it is closely related to the theory of relational frames and the therapy of acceptance and commitment, both Hayes' work.

To understand the approaches of functional contextualism, it is important to familiarize yourself with its most direct antecedents: Pragmatist and contextualist philosophical traditions and radical behaviorism by Burrhus F. Skinner, one of the key figures in the history of behavioral guidance and of scientific psychology in general.


  • Related article: "B. F. Skinner: life and work of a radical behaviorist"

Pragmatism, contextualism and radical behaviorism

Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that dates back to the end of the 19th century and proposes that the best way to analyze and understand most facts is to focus on its functions, that is, on its effects, consequences or results. Some of the classic theorists of this tradition are Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey.

On the other hand, the term "contextualism" was used for the first time by Steven C. Pepper in 1942 to refer to the proposals of pragmatic philosophers. However, this author emphasized to a greater extent the relevance of analyzing the acts in relation to the context in which they take place.


Pepper also stated that people have "hypotheses about the world" consisting of a series of interrelated approaches shared by other members of our cultural group. These perspectives determine different ways of understanding reality and defining the truth, which for Pepper is all that entails an effective action.

Finally we can talk about the radical behaviorism of Skinner, a philosophy very close to his proposals around operant conditioning. Without denying the key influence of biology, radical behaviorism focuses on the role of context in observable behavior and works with the mental contents in a way equivalent to the rest of the behavior.

  • Related article: "Behaviorism: history, concepts and main authors"

The functional contextualism of Hayes

Steven C. Hayes is one of the most important psychologists today. Functional contextualism is the scientific philosophy that supports its two main contributions to the social sciences: the theory of relational frames and acceptance and commitment therapy .


In a very summarized way, Hayes and the rest of functional contextualists defend the importance of focusing on the precise and profound manipulation of variables that can be modified when predicting or changing the behaviors and mental contents of a person in a specific context.

Unlike the descriptive variant of contextualism, associated with constructionism, narrativism or hermeneutics, functional contextualism aims to formulating general laws through the empirical or inductive method , that is, studying observable phenomena to define rules and check to what degree they can be extrapolated to other facts.

In recent years, the application of functional contextualism has become popular as a philosophical basis for applied behavioral analysis. This psychological discipline, which is based on research on operant conditioning, studies the relationships between behavior and environmental variables that may be relevant in it.

In this way, functional contextualism seeks to understand the laws (of a verbal nature) that govern behavior through the use of inductive methods to modify non-adaptive behaviors. For this the manipulation of contingencies is used above all , that is, the relationships between a behavior and the emergence of reinforcers.

Other contributions by Hayes

Hayes explains the development of language, and consequently of cognition, through his theory of relational frames. According to this author, people acquire these functions by forming mental bonds between two or more aspects of reality, which happens from the beginning of life and gives rise to an increasing accumulation of relationships.

These relational frameworks do not depend only on learning by association , but also include information about the characteristics of the relationship. Thus, as children we establish links between objects such as plates, forks and spoons because we interact with them simultaneously but also because they fulfill similar functions.

The mental associations that we make become increasingly complex and explain the internalization of behavioral norms, the formation of a sense of identity and many other verbal phenomena.The rigidity or impracticality of relational frames are very frequent causes of psychopathology, for example in cases of depression and anxiety.

Hayes developed acceptance and commitment therapy as intervention for this type of emotional disorders. This third-generation therapy is based on the confrontation with and naturalization of negative emotions and on promoting value-oriented activity independently of life's difficulties, such as psychological distress itself.

Bibliographic references:

  • Hayes, S. C. (1993). Analytic goals and the varieties of scientific contextualism. In S. C. Hayes, L. Hayes, H. W. Reese & T. R. Sarbin (Eds.), Varieties of scientific contextualism (pp. 11-27). Reno, Nevada: Context Press.
  • Hayes, S.C .; Strosahl, K. & Wilson, K.G. (1999). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Hayes, S.C .; Barnes-Holmes, D. & Roche, B. (Eds.). (2001). Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. New York: Plenum Press.

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