ACTing Compassionately

The purpose of this blog is to disseminate research and commentary on Relational Frame Theory (RFT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy/Training (ACT). Both are exciting research topics for behavior analysts right now, but many people are not clear on how the two interrelate. My doctoral student Sebastian Garcia Zambrano and I will be using this blog to provide some focus on how RFT informs research and practice related to ACT. In addition, we will be promoting recent work in RFT to help us understand how RFT allows for the explanation of many forms of complex human behavior, and may also provide a framework for constructing repertoires in practical settings. Finally, ACT is of growing interest to the behavior analytic community right now. We will use this forum to share ideas as to how ACT can be best implemented and adopted by behavior analysts within the context of the definition and scope of our field.

For this very first blog, I wanted to focus on a term that I hear picking up more and more in popularity these days, that being “compassion;” more specifically, the science of compassion. The term is receiving more attention by scientists in a number of fields. For example, James R. Doty, M.D., elaborated on the link between social connectedness and physical health. This 2012 article from the New York Times describes work by experimental psychologists David DeSteno and Paul Condon on the relationship between compassion and overt behavior. It may be a useful reminder that B. F. Skinner also discussed the conditions under which individuals engage in compassionate, prosocial behavior. For example, in this a lesser-known video from 1983 entitled, “It is possible to change the way people treat each other,” Skinner describes how environments can be set up to encourage prosocial behavior. (We acknowledge Quest for Peace for the video).

Skinner (1999) also elaborated upon the contingencies supporting the behavior of caregivers in his seminal paper, “Compassion and Ethics in the Care of the Retardate,” (published in Cumulative Record), in which Skinner suggests that cultures in which all “lead the fullest life of which he or she is capable can be designed,” but it will take more than compassion. The design of such a culture requires a “highly developed science of behavior” (p. 336-337).

One of the applications of RFT and ACT that I am most excited about concerns the challenging issues of human service agency staff, who may struggle with burnout and low job satisfaction. Gray-Stanley et al. (2013) provide a timely discussion. Exciting research by Singh and colleagues suggests that by engaging in mindful practices, staff interactions with their clients may substantially change, possibly leading to improved indices of happiness in clients. One of the topics we will focus upon in upcoming blogs is the Relational Frame Theory conceptualization of staff-members’ own experiential avoidance in their work with clients. We suggest that by adopting components of ACT in such settings, we may be able to increase compassionate behavior among staff, hopefully leading to meaningful changes in interactions with the individuals who they serve.

We hope you will enjoy our focused discussion on ACTing and Relating. Visit this blog again as we share interviews, articles, and guest blogs from leading experts and scholars from the RFT and ACT community, and give some thought to ACTing with compassion!