Relationally Framing a Pandemic

In this month’s blog I am thrilled to have Siri Ming one of my favourite researchers and authors in the area of relational frame theory. We had originally discussed Siri blogging about her incredible work in RFT, EIBI with children diagnosed with autism, however, it seemed too strange at this time to ignore the current global pandemic. Therefore, in line with the times Siri has written a thought provoking blog on symbolic language and thought and the COVID-19 pandemic. Thank you Siri for joining the ABAI Symbolic Language and Thought Blog series. -Dr. Louise McHugh, University College Dublin, ABAI Symbolic Language and Thought Blog series host 2020

Siri Ming: I am a behavior analyst with over 20 years of experience in the field, and my current research and clinical focus is on applications of RFT to EIBI programs for children with autism. In addition to my private practice, I teach and act as subject matter expert for graduate level classes on Verbal Behavior for The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and I am an associate editor for The Analysis of Verbal Behavior. With a different (and much fancier) hat on, I am the project and volunteer manager/intergalactic cruise director for the collaborative light art group Formstone Castle Collective, a role that provides much joy and balance, and that tests the limits of my psychological flexibility on a regular basis.

As I write this post, during the COVID-19 pandemic, my verbal world—my social media feed, news stories on the radio and in my inbox, my conversations with friends and colleagues—is filled with discussion of the necessity of and ways to “defeat” the virus wreaking havoc. The UN Secretary General opened his recent remarks to the General Assembly with the statement, “We are at war.” New York Governor Cuomo repeatedly refers to health care professionals as being “the troops who are fighting this battle”. The metaphor of war looms large in the discourse about the pandemic, all over the world, as leaders seek to increase the impact of their statements, the effectiveness of their messages and directives.

However, I am also beginning to hear more and more calls for new metaphors by both writers and academics, who worry that military metaphors may evoke counter-productive and even dangerous behaviors in the context of the pandemic. Eula Biss, who has written extensively on metaphor in medicine, recently suggested that framing a virus as an “enemy” is part of what invites xenophobia, and that a better metaphor for illness in general is that of an education. In fact, this is the metaphor used in general in immunology—immunologists speak of immune systems as being “naive” and of pathogens “informing” the immune system. Words have powerful functions as verbal stimuli, and so, in this moment, it seems important for a blog on symbolic language to discuss the importance of metaphor and how we can analyze metaphor as verbal behavior.

Skinner recognized the importance of metaphor in influencing both individual and community behavior, noting that, “verbal behavior would be much less effective if metaphorical extension were not possible” [1]. Conceptualizations of metaphor from a Relational Frame Theory perspective [2] suggest that this influence and effectiveness is due to the transformation of stimulus functions that occurs when relational networks are related to one another. Metaphor involves four elements (and analogy shares these first two). There must be two sets of relations, which are related as having the same pattern as one another—in saying that nurses are the soldiers in a battle against the virus, we relate nurse:illness as soldier:enemy. A shared property can be discriminated—both soldiers and nurses must act in the face of danger to eliminate a threat. Relating these two networks results in the transformation of functions—nurses are seen as brave heroes, and people of action in this time of crisis, an apt metaphor for inspiring additional appreciation and support.

As a therapeutic tool, metaphors are only effective in transforming functions of stimuli when they match the relevant relational networks for clients; for example, relating struggling with anxiety to struggling with quicksand (a classic ACT metaphor) will be less effective if a client’s physical experience of anxiety is not similar to the imagined experience of struggling to breathe while drowning in quicksand [3]. This metaphor will not help them to see “struggling” as part of the problem. The same is true of metaphor as a tool for public messaging. What is the right metaphor to inspire people to stay home, or to engage in social distancing (rather than hand-to-hand combat!)? What is the right metaphor to help direct public policy? There are actually few shared properties between a virus and a traditional wartime “enemy”, and this metaphor may not result in transformations of function that would evoke more effective action—viruses do not have intention, and countries cannot negotiate with a virus.

Within medicine and public health, the use of metaphor has been studied for decades with respect to influencing individual patient behavior as well as large scale behavior change, along with researching the question of what metaphors may be most effective for what purposes. Like the current pandemic messaging, health information provided to cancer patients has been dominated by military metaphors, and that metaphor has long been called into question. As an example that is particularly pertinent to the current context, the metaphor of cancer as an “enemy” can be counterproductive when self-limiting behavior such as rest and isolation is the required patient action, since self-limitation is not associated with fighting enemies.

In analyzing metaphors, we can see the importance and power of identifying relational networks that fit the context and result in the transformation of stimulus functions in ways that are likely to influence the most important behaviors for the situation. Consistent with this observation, linguists on the project “Metaphor, Cancer, and the End of Life” created a “metaphor menu to help physicians choose metaphors that better match patients’ individual contexts and required behaviors. This group is now spearheading a project to crowdsource a menu of metaphors under the hashtag, #reframecovid, seeking alternatives to the use of war metaphors in messages about COVID-19.

A careful analysis of the functions of the stimuli being related through metaphor, and the likely behaviors evoked as those functions are transformed, will help us provide more contextually-sensitive messaging whether for our clients, ourselves, or in public statements. Such an analysis is important not only for the current pandemic, but for the many other global crises we face today and in the future.

For more on RFT and complex language, check out our symposium on Assessing and Training Complex Behaviour (Classification and Analogy) Using Relational Frame Theory at ABAI discussing recent work by Dr. Ian Stewart’s lab.


For more on how RFT can be applied to climate change communication (another critical global need), be sure to attend Dr. Julia Fiebig’s talk on A Strategic Plan for Expanding Behavioral Science Research on Climate Change and Multi-Level Community Action at ABAI.


[1] Skinner, B. F. F. (1957). Verbal Behavior. New York: Appleton Century Crofts. p 97.

[2] Stewart, I., & Barnes-Holmes, D. (2001). Understanding metaphor: A relational frame perspective. The Behavior Analyst, 24(2), 191-199.

[3] McEnteggart, C. (2018). A Brief Tutorial on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as Seen Through the Lens of Derived Stimulus Relations. Perspectives on Behavioral Science, 41(1), 215-227.

Photo credit 1 (barbed wire globe): OJO Images

Photo credit 2 (cleaner): Aleksandar Pasaric

Photo credit 3 (woman on mountain): Anna Shvets