When Things are Not the Same: An Interview with Dr. Ian Stewart

When Things are Not the Same: An Interview with Dr. Ian Stewart
Dr. Ian Stewart has done some of the most innovative research on Relational Frame Theory to date. His research has focused on some of the most highly complex behavioral repertoires studied in the laboratory, and has also had pretty clear implications for those hoping to apply RFT to education. For this blog I decided to interview Ian with hopes of sharing further insights on what is just so important about RFT, as well as what resources may be most beneficial for those hoping to get up to speed. I hope you will enjoy! (Special thanks once again to Natalia Baires and Sebastian Garcia for their support with this blog.)
Ruth Anne Rehfeldt (RAR) For behavior analysts who may be new to understanding Relational Frame Theory, why do you think RFT is so important for those studying behavior analysis?

Ian Stewart (IS): Getting to grips with generative symbolic language as a key repertoire implicated in all the truly complex things that we humans do is critical to understanding human psychology. RFT shows us the way to do this. Just like behavior analysis itself, RFT is a simple yet powerful idea. The simple but powerful idea of behavior analysis is the operant. The simple but powerful idea of RFT is the relational operant. We learn to derive relations between events under contextual control and thereafter can relate things in multiple complex ways and radically change the stimulus functions of our environment, and this is the key process involved in generative language and cognition. There is now extensive empirical support for RFT and its potential application in understanding and training various important forms of complex behavior (e.g., analogy, metaphor, rule-following, problem-solving, categorization, evaluation, mindfulness) in various populations and new strands of RFT-based research and practical application are emerging all the time. This is exciting and I believe is giving a new and very important boost to behavior analytic theory and research.

RAR: Are there particular articles or books you would highly recommend for those wanting to get a grasp on RFT but may be intimidated by the terminology?

IS: This is a good starter:
Torneke, N. (2010). Learning RFT. Oakland, CA: Context Press.

I would also suggest some of the articles I list in answer to the next question.

RAR: What are some of your favorite publications by you and your colleagues that you would recommend to others? Why do you think these particular articles may be useful in advancing the study of language and cognition?


  • Stewart, I. (2015). Fruits of a functional approach for psychological science. International Journal of Psychology, 51, 1, 15-27.
    • This article provides a reasonably recent overview of empirical research. It’s useful as a compact introduction of behavior analysis, RFT and RFT research on various important areas of language and cognition.
  • Stewart, I. & McElwee, J. (2009). Relational responding and conditional discrimination procedures: An apparent inconsistency and clarification. The Behavior Analyst, 32, 2, 309-317.
    • I like this as what I hope is a helpful introduction to key concepts in RFT such as non-arbitrary and arbitrarily applicable relational responding.
  • Stewart, I., McElwee, J. & Ming, S. (2013). Language generativity, response generalization and derived relational responding. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 29, 1. 137-155.
    • This one introduces the importance of derived relations as a key to understanding generative language. I hope it allows some insight as to why RFT/derived relations is a better approach to take towards complex behavior than the concept of generalization.
  • Ming, S. & Stewart, I. (2017). When things are not the same: A review of research into relations of difference. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 50, 2, 429-455.
    • This fourth and most recent article goes over a lot of work done on teaching same and different relations both within behavior analysis and elsewhere. It was very interesting and informative for us to write and I hope it might act as a stimulus to both practitioners and researchers interested in the acquisition/training of these two critical complementary patterns of relational responding.

RAR: My students and I love your recent book with Louise McHugh, “The Self and Perspective-Taking.” What do you hope that people will get out of this book?

IS: That book is six years old now so maybe not that recent! As regards what people get out of it, it depends on who they are and what their background is. For example, for behavior analytic researchers, practitioner and students, I hope they would get yet another (hopefully persuasive or at least intriguing) exemplar of the potential of RFT as a theoretically and empirically productive paradigm for getting to grips with complex human behaviour. The domains of self and perspective-taking obviously both command a lot of interest within psychology more broadly and the book touches on a range of phenomena from self-control to mindfulness and from self-discrimination to empathy. For non-behavioral psychologists including theorists or researchers within some of these domains, I would hope it teaches them about the sophistication and practical utility of behavior analysis in general as well as RFT specifically as means of approaching these areas.

RAR: Do you have upcoming conference presentations that will be showcasing your recent research?

IS: I’ve just (last weekend) presented a workshop and keynote address at the Psychological Society of Ireland Division of Behavior Analysis annual conference. The main theme of both was the use of RFT to teach key generative /linguistic/cognitive repertoires in young children. This was a showcase of work from over the last few years. I hope to present a 2 day workshop on the same theme along with colleagues at the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS) in Montreal in July of this year.

RAR: What do you hope to do in the future?

IS: I want to continue to advance my work on various areas that involve training relational framing in young children as a means of boosting linguistic and cognitive repertoires. One more overarching goal that can provide a way of doing this is to develop an effective and efficient general protocol/curriculum for assessing and training both non arbitrary (formal) and arbitrary (abstract) relations in very young children. I’m currently working on creating this with colleagues and I’d like to see the product of this work used widely in research and education. I’d like to continue to promote my research within behavior analysis so as to continue to attract potential research students and colleagues to this work.

Huge thanks to Ian for his willingness to contribute! I hope to share further commentary from him in future blogs!