ROE-M’ing Our Way Toward a Preferred and Probable Future: How might we understand Prosocial from a behaviour-analytic perspective? (Part 2)

How might we understand Prosocial from a behaviour-analytic perspective?

(For part 1 of this blog series click here)

Having shared some of the content of our deliberations with you, let’s take a step back and consider what we have discussed in terms of Relational Frame Theory (Barnes‐Holmes & Harte 2022; Zettle et al. 2016), a behaviour-analytic account of human language and cognition.

What was it about our question/s that elicited the insights, discourse, and consequent actions? Equally, notice how what you have read to this point has evoked an array of responses within you (well, at least we hope it has!). Why did it emerge this way?

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Such worlds of words, or symbolic niches rendered socially and in the privacy of our own minds, have us performing one way or the other and consequently we have got the world we have got. This observation begs another question, “How does language and cognition function to regulate healthy values-directed behaviour at multiple levels?” For us, this is a more fundamentally important question because if we understood this, we might not have created the enigmatic world where ‘bargain hunting’ is equated with ‘wellbeing’. This isn’t a world that is working for all!

The A-B-C of human behaviour

For us to take a behaviour-analytic account of our deliberations, first we need to introduce you to some fundamentals of behaviour analysis, beginning with operant behaviour. Operant behaviour is “voluntary” behaviour that is sensitive to, or controlled by its consequences. If doing something works, or not, you will be more, or less, likely to do it again. Specifically, operant conditioning refers to a three-term contingency that uses stimulus control, particularly the antecedent discriminative stimulus (SD), that influences the likelihood of a behaviour occurring because of the strength of possible appetitive or aversive consequence. This is known as the A-B-C (Antecedent-Behaviour-Consequence) of behaviour (Chance 1998).

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This is about learning by doing. For example, if you are hungry, a bowl of fresh fruit will function as an SD. This antecedent will prompt you to go over to the bowl and choose a piece of fruit. You behave. Now, just say there is a slice of bitter melon in the bowl, fruit you have never tasted. The consequence of eating something bitter will determine whether you will choose to eat it again. If you like it, the appetitive experience will function as a reinforcer, and you will likely do it again. Seeing a bitter melon will function as a SD in the future; it will signal the availability of a nice taste and satiation. Unlike other animals, however, we humans respond not only to the direct experience of eating fruit, but we also begin to tell ourselves stories about such experiences that also will influence our subsequent behaviour. We will have more to say about this in a moment (that is, we will tell a story about this story via RFT).

In the A-B-C three-term contingency, behaviour is operant, meaning it changes the environment, with volition we operate on the environment in some way. The appetitive or aversive nature of the consequence of acting will increase or decrease the likelihood of the behaviour reoccurring. In this way, the perceived value of the consequence will perform a motivating function. The hungrier you are the more valuable a piece of bitter melon will be. And should you master this operant you will become a connoisseur of melons.

How does language work?

We have just taken an account of non-verbal motivators and reinforcers. But what if we are hungry for a new future? This is where human language and cognition comes in, and an introduction to some of the fundamentals of RFT is called for. So, how does it work?

As children we are taught to name and respond to objects and events in our world. Initially in terms of equivalence. For example, we learn the word “mum” or “dad” = that special person who looks after me, and when asked we might say, “This (pointing to that special person) is ‘mum’.” In this statement, the word “is” acts as a contextual cue to control a coordination relation between ‘this special person’ and the word “mum”. “Is” means that the two are hypothetically the same. In RFT terms this is known as a frame of coordination, which is one class amongst many of a generalised operant, referred to as relational frames (Hayes et al. 2001; Hughes & Barnes-Holmes 2016b). As time goes on, we learn to name and respond to all manner of events in our world in accordance with many other relational frames such as difference, opposition, comparison, and so on. These patterns of emergent or derived relational responses provide the behaviour-analytic account of the complexities involved in human language and cognition that we are interested in.

More specifically, relational frames are comprised of three properties: (i) mutual entailment, (ii) combinatorial entailment, and (iii) the transformation of stimulus functions.

Mutual entailment refers to the relations between two stimuli. For example, if you are told that “mum” = ‘that cuddly person’, you will derive that ‘that cuddly person’ = “mum”. That if A = B, therefore B = A. Combinatorial entailment refers to the relations among three or more stimuli. For example, if you learn that “dad” is taller than “mum”, and “mum” is taller than “my sister”, then you will derive, without direct learning, that “dad” is taller than “my sister”, and “my sister” is shorter than “dad”. That is, if A > B and B > C, therefore A > C and C < A. The A-B and B-C relations combinatorially entail the derived A-C and C-A relations.

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Transformation of stimulus functions refers to the psychological content, or consequent meaning, of derived relations. For example, if a ‘little dog’ bit you, then the presence or thought of a ‘big dog’ will be scarier than the little dog even though it hasn’t bitten you or may not even be present. That is, if A > B, and a reinforcing (appetitive or aversive) function is attached to B, then A will acquire an even greater reinforcing function than B, even if the function was not directly attached to A (Hayes et al. 2001; Hughes & Barnes-Holmes 2016b). This outcome is understood to be the transformation of the reinforcing function through the comparative relation between A and B, the ‘little’ and ‘big’ dogs in this case. Specifically, the aversive reinforcing function of A, ‘big dogs’, is transformed by virtue of its comparative (more-than) relation with B, ‘little dogs’, hence the functions attached to B will be stronger with A.

The distinction between the transformation of stimulus functions and relational entailment is an important one in RFT. This distinction delineates the act of abstractly relating stimuli in the myriad of complex ways that we do from the impact of that relating on the functions of those stimuli. RFT specifies that these properties (entailment and transformation of functions) are under different classes of contextual control. Specifically, contextual cues control both the type of relation (Crel; e.g., coordination, comparison, difference, etc.), which determine the entailment properties, and the behavioural functions (Cfunc; i.e., the appetitive through aversive responses) produced during this relating, thus determining the transformation of function properties. This entire process is formally known as arbitrarily applicable relational responding (AARR).

Putting all this together gives us an analytic unit which is captured in the acronym ROE-M (Barnes‐Holmes & Harte 2022). Very briefly, Relating refers to AARR as defined within RFT (outlined above); Orienting refers to the extent to which a stimulating event is noticed or “stands out” in the wider context; Evoking refers to the extent to which a stimulating event is deemed to be appetitive versus aversive; and Motivating refers to the putative strength of motivational variables, which interact with orienting and/or evoking functions, and indeed relating, in a dynamical manner.

Image adapted from Harte & Barnes-Holmes blog found here.

Conceptually, an evaluation framework designed to capture the strength of the ROE-M dimensions is illustrated below (Barnes‐Holmes & Harte 2022). Orienting is seen as lying on a continuum, on the vertical axis, from complete absence (0) to strongest orienting response possible (1). Evoking which refers to the extent to which a stimulating event is deemed to be appetitive versus aversive is also seen as lying on a continuum, on the horizontal axis, from the strongest aversive response possible (-1) to the strongest appetitive response possible (+1) with 0 representing the absence of either an aversive or appetitive reaction. Motivating is represented with the broken line, which is scaled from 0 to 1, indicating the putative strength of motivational variables.

In this way, the ROE-M framework is the most basic unit of analysis in the behaviour-analytic methods informing the approach we have adopted. But as mentioned, verbal communities abstractly relate stimuli in an almost countless number of complex ways. How can we understand this complex behaviour from a behaviour-analytic perspective?

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Increasingly complex relational networking

For RFT, more complex aspects of symbolic language and cognition are accounted for through the combination of relational frames into increasingly complex networks. This extends from simple instructions or rules, such as recipes for a meal, and the GPS directions that guide you to the shop where you buy the ingredients, to more sophisticated levels of symbolic language and thought such as analogical and metaphorical reasoning, to the relating of entire relational networks to other entire relational networks, as for example, when we extract common themes from different narratives or undertake multi-disciplinary approaches to change within the healthcare sector.

To account for the development and evolution of these increasingly complex forms of relational responding theorists have recently formalized the hyper-dimensional, multilevel (HDML) framework (Barnes-Holmes et al. 2017; Barnes-Holmes et al. 2018; Barnes‐Holmes & Harte 2022). At present, the HDML specifies five levels of relational development: (i) mutually entailing, (ii) combinatorial entailing, (iii) relational networking, (iv) relating relations, and (v) relating relational networks. The framework also emphasizes the dynamic nature and strength of the relating activity that may occur along four dimensions – coherence, complexity, derivation, and flexibility (see below).

Briefly, Coherence refers to the extent to which a pattern of AARR is consistent (coheres) with previously established patterns. In natural language, a coherent statement is ‘True’, it is what I have learned, that A = B for example. Complexity refers to the density or detail involved in a particular pattern of AARR, such as types and/or number of relations involved. Derivation refers to the extent to which a particular pattern of AARR has been emitted previously, either derived from our continuously growing source of prior learning (history of operant learning), or where our derived relational responding involves “arriving at a conclusion” based on a relation, subset of relations, or multiple exemplars of such relations, that is, through “reasoning,” “inference,” or “deduction” from a limited source of prior learning (Barnes‐Holmes & Harte 2022; Hughes & Barnes-Holmes 2016a). Flexibility refers to the extent to which a given pattern of AARR may be modified by current contextual variables. Each level in this framework intersects with each dimension giving rise to 20 functional analytic-extractive units of analysis.

Image from Harte & Barnes-Holmes blog on the verbal self in this series found here.

This concept of the ROE-M has been designed to capture the constant, dynamical, and nonlinear nature of the core unit of responding that characterises human psychological events. From an RFT perspective, the set of relational abilities, and associated orienting and evoking functions interacting with motivational variables contained within the ROE-M, as a unit of analysis, appear to be core defining characteristics of the human species, which allow us to navigate and react within our physical and social environments in increasingly sophisticated and powerful ways.

But you ask, how can we evolve our capacity to ROE-M in increasingly sophisticated and powerful ways? Good question!

For our purposes the ROE-M provides a unit of analysis for conceptualizing the ‘response’ pattern that characterises any instance of relational networking. There are no antecedents or consequences inside the ROE-M because it is the ‘response’ pattern that needs to be explained (predicted-and-influenced with precision, scope, and depth) by manipulating the context ‘outside’ of the ROE-M (i.e., current/historical antecedent and consequential variables). These variables are to be found in the four dimensions of the HDML. Essentially, the ROE-M can’t be extracted from the HDML because the framework orients the analyst toward the types of variables that need to be manipulated to predict-and-influence the ROE-M itself.

As a case-in-point, notice how you have responded to each of the sections in this article to this point. We suspect the first section was quite engaging. Hopefully, it was an appetitive experience because it cohered with your history of prior learning, of having talked or read about the kind of things we wrote about – value-based governance, bargain hunting, desired change, trusting and collaborative relationships between individuals and groups, power and authority, mobilising resources to meet fundamental needs that sustain life.

The next section, we imagine, was not quite as accessible. It was likely a struggle to get your head around. An aversive experience. That being the case (we assume) would have had you deriving relational responses to the symbols on the page for the first time. Because you have no history with RFT you had to piece things together, to “reason,” “infer,” and “deduce” what it “means” and “arrive at a conclusion”. We hope you got there!

Image by Tom Staziker from Pixabay

Notice the different ways you ROE-M’ed through these sections. But also notice how we manipulated the independent variables, the four dimensions of the HDML, to elicit your different ROE-M’ing responses. If we were having a conversation it could occur like this:

  • Coherence… possibly enhancing your ROE-Ming by having your ‘life stories’ increasingly cohere with previously established bodies of evidence that have been learned and shown to enhance functional responses in similar contexts. 
  • Complexity… possibly enhancing how ROE-Ming is functioning as your evolving elaborations and narratives about the world and your strivings entail more adequately with the prevailing contexts – past present & future – though perspective taking processes like strategic agenda setting.
  • Derivation… possibly having you ROE-Ming more functionally as a consequence of well facilitated deliberative processes that probe for the fundamental needs that sustain your community’s life and the way you all uniquely value striving to live that quality of life.
  • Flexibility… possibly changing the function of your individual and collective ROE-Ming by de-literalizing the world of words, the symbolic niche/s, that are currently being inhabited.

That’s how language works. The symbols in this article are functioning to elicit the responses you are experiencing.

Okay, having explored how language functions generally, the next question we would like to consider is, “What is the role of language when it comes to the construction of a sense of self?” Please stick with it. It will be worth it!

Constructing a verbal sense of self and other

A sizable body of research, both conceptual and empirical, has been conducted within RFT on a class of AARR referred to as deictic relational responding, a pattern of AARR considered critical for the emergence of the “symbolic self.” According to RFT, there are three key relations involved in deictic relational responding: the interpersonal (I-You) relation, the spatial (Here-There) relation, and the temporal (Now-Then) relation. These three core deictic relations combine to form the most basic deictic relational frame. Responding in accordance with this frame thus involves locating oneself in space and time (e.g., I-Here-Now) relative to someone else (e.g., You-There-Then). Similar ongoing refinement of the three deictic relations thus shapes our capacity to respond appropriately to questions about our own behaviour relative to others in the context of specific times and places (Barnes-Holmes et al. 2001a; McHugh et al. 2019).

Photo by Josh Willink:

The concept of deictic relations highlights that a verbal human’s sense of self is, in a sense, socially constructed. The construction of this self begins with the cooperative acts involved in mutually entailed orienting, evoking, and motivating that occurs in the context of a cooperative act involving a caregiver and an infant. Of course, mutually entailed orienting clearly involves “basic” orienting responses such as eye gaze, joint attention, and social referencing, but the critical point here is that they occur as part of a human cooperative act between two or more people. Consequently, over time we derive a verbal sense of self in relation to the others we are cooperating with.

When considered in this way, the symbolic self is another term for having a perspective, as experienced by a verbal human. In a technical RFT sense, therefore, it is not possible for a verbal human to experience or know the world non-symbolically, at least in a pure sense of ‘non-symbolic’, once a history of mutually entailed orienting/evoking/motivating has begun to establish arbitrary relations with I-You, Here-There, and Now-Then.

The non-symbolic self

The distinction between our ‘non-symbolic’ sensory perception and our ‘knowing verbally’ of ourselves in the world is an important one. As sentient beings we perceive, we take perspective. The perspective-taking self is the context from which we become conscious of the objects of our experience. Like consciousness, perspective is not thing-like. Taking perspective on things means becoming conscious of the limits of those things. We cannot be conscious of the limits of our own consciousness, it is not thing like, it is no-thing and everything (Barnes-Holmes et al. 2001a). This sense of perspective is the locus from which things occur to us and it does not change. You, as the context of your experience, have been everywhere you have ever been. Wherever you go, there you are looking out at the world. This sense of a point-of-view or perspective is critical when working on adaptive change as it is the one stable, unchangeable, immutable fact about who we are that is experienced directly. Self-as-perspective is not a belief, hope or idea, it is the conscious experience of an ongoing perspective on life itself.

Our nonverbal self is the biological locus of our behavioural activities; and, knowing nonverbally can be thought of as contacting direct experience as a behavioural stream (Hayes 1997). Verbal knowing augments nonverbal knowing. As we become verbal our behavioural and experiential stream as a biological organism becomes the object of our attention and our sense of self within the context of space and time emerges. From a behavioural point of view, this kind of self-awareness is responding to ones’ own responding. Most nonhuman animals see, but we humans also see and know that we see.

Central to both our verbal and nonverbal knowing is our experience as the locus of both biological and verbal behaviour. To function effectively as a species we need to increasingly organise our statements about ourselves as whole organisms interacting with our historical and current environments in order to predict and influence our social enterprises with precision, scope, and depth (Hayes et al. 2012a). In order to enhance the ability to report events verbally, it is necessary to develop a sense of perspective or point of view as we have been discussing.

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An evolutionary account

The distinctions between our verbal and non-verbal processes of perceiving and knowing ourselves in the world based on RFT suggest that human cooperation was the initial driver of the evolution of symbolic language and cognition (Hayes & Sanford 2014; Wilson et al. 2014), a view that is consistent with some recent lines of thinking in evolutionary science itself (Wilson & Wilson 2007). Our unique human ability to learn to relate stimuli in an arbitrarily applicable manner with increasing levels of complexity appears to have emerged from the evolution of highly cooperative behaviours within the human species, beginning with the mutually entailed orienting behaviours between caregivers and infants (Hayes & Sanford 2014).

How might we understand all this in a practical sense? A recasting of previous RFT accounts of moral development (Barnes-Holmes et al. 2001b) through the lens of the HDML framework might provide a practical insight. Broadly, the evolution of moral behaviour is understood to be controlled by increasingly complex classes of verbal behaviour that begins with learning to verbally regulate our own behaviour through to establishing systems that help others learn to regulate their own behaviour. Below is a summary of this progression with examples of more complex forms of relational responding at each level of the HDML. Notice each statement’s putative motivational strength toward establishing a socio-cultural normative context within which “kindness” is expressed and/or experienced.


HDML Framework with examples of relational responding

LevelsExamples of relational responding
Mutual Entailing·       “mum” = ‘that cuddly person’


·       ‘Being cuddly in all the ways it is experienced’ = “kindness”

Relational Framing
·       Mum is kind to dad, and dad is kind to mum… I can be kind too! (Coordination)


·       My family strives to be kind and honest… I will too! (Hierarchy)

Relational Networking·       I want to be a good person, like my mum and many others I have come to know.


·       Given all I have experienced, kindness and honesty are virtues I want to live by.

Relating Relations
·       How might living the values of kindness and honesty transcend the need for laws to govern our behaviour?


·       Redressing self-destructive behaviour by developing psychological flexibility is like tending kindly to the wounded child within.

Relating Relational Networks·       How can we establish a multi-cultural society that seeks truth and goodness through all its endeavours?


·       How do we adopt deliberative approaches that leverage collective wisdom on the practice of kindness and honesty?


This progression reflects an evolutionary account of how our individual and collective ROE-M’ing establishes increasingly sophisticated forms of verbally regulated responding to our own responding. Appreciating how language functions as an evolutionary driver in this way provides an insight into how we can consciously evolve a world that works for all. Constructing a verbal sense of future self, other, and environment, as a reinforcer will not only strengthen the operant behaviour of cooperation, it will also select and direct it (Baum 2018). Such a history of reinforcement will exert both prospective and retrospective control over behaviour (Cowie 2018).

Well, if you are still with us, good-on-you for sticking with it! We do hope it was worth it! In our third and final blog we will return to considering the implications of RFT for Strategic Agenda Setting and for Prosocial. Click here for the final part of the journey!

Author Bios

Dr Robert Styles initially trained in music then, in a later chapter of his life, went on to become an academic doing applied research in the field of Contextual Behavioural Science through the Australian National University. Over the last couple of decades, this stream of activity has had Robert working with communities, organisations, and governments across the Australian, Pacific, African, Asian, European, and American regions. Presently, he is working with Prosocial World, an organisation that has developed a change method based on behavioural and evolutionary science that enhances cooperation and collaboration for groups of all types and sizes that is potentially effective at a global scale. When engaged, for Robert, this means co-designing behavioural and evolutionary approaches to realising environmental and socio-cultural resilience and wellbeing for those he is working with.

Stuart Libman, M.D. is a Board Certified Child, Adolescent and Family Psychiatrist, with further sub-specialization in Sports Psychiatry. After graduating from Ohio University and the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University, he completed training in Pediatrics, General Psychiatry, and Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Libman serves as a Peer Reviewed ACT Trainer for the Association of Contextual Behavioral Science, as a Prosocial Facilitator, and as the Medical Director of the PLEA School Based Partial Hospital Program that provides behavior analytically based education and treatment to a referred population of children and youth with diagnoses on the Autistic Spectrum.

Gretchen Kelly is the Executive Director of PLEA, an agency that provides services to children, adults and families dealing with developmental and/or behavioral health difficulties. This role provides Gretchen with opportunities to focus on community partnerships and to help individuals and their families feel empowered through meaningful relationships.  After training in both ACT and Prosocial, she has integrated these concepts into her work at PLEA and with other community associations as a board member or in an advisory capacity.  Gretchen has a degree in Public Relations from Westminster College.

Aaron Libman is the Clinical and Program Director for the PLEA School Based Partial Hospital Program.  In his role he oversees the education and behavioral health treatment of 40 students, ages 3-21 years, in a specialized program that places an emphasis on behavior analytic interventions to promote adaptive functioning, language and communication development, and academic progress.  He has received formal training in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Relational Frame Theory (RFT), and Prosocial, which all inform the day-to-day treatment conversations at PLEA as well as broader organizational planning.  Aaron received his Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Denison University and his Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Pittsburgh. He currently is a Pennsylvania Licensed Behavior Specialist and a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.


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