Functional contextualism is a scientific philosophy proposed by Steven Hayes and that has been developed fundamentally in the field of psychology, particularly in its behavioural aspect. In turn, it is closely related to the theory of relational frameworks and acceptance and commitment therapy, both of which are works by Hayes.

To understand the approaches of functional contextualism it is important to become familiar with its most direct background: the pragmatic and contextualist philosophical traditions and the radical behaviorism of Burrhus F. Skinner, one of the key figures in the history of behavioral orientation and scientific psychology in general.

Pragmatism, contextualism and radical behaviorism

Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that dates back to the late 19th century and proposes that the best way to analyze and understand most facts is to focus on their functions, that is, on their 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 first used by Steven C. Pepper in 1942 to refer to the proposals of pragmatic philosophers. However, this author placed greater emphasis on the relevance of analyzing acts in relation to the context in which they take place.

Pepper also said 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 about effective action.

Finally, it is worth talking about Skinner’s radical behaviourism, a philosophy that is very close to his proposals on operant conditioning. Without denying the key influence of biology, radical behaviorism focuses on the role of context in observable behavior and works with mental contents in an equivalent way to the rest of behavior.

Hayes’ functional contextualism

Steven C. Hayes is one of today’s leading psychologists. Functional contextualism is the scientific philosophy behind his two main contributions to the social sciences: the theory of relational frameworks and acceptance and commitment therapy .

In a very brief way, Hayes and the rest of the functional contextualists defend the relevance of focusing on the precise and deep manipulation of variables that can be modified when predicting or changing the behaviours and mental contents of a person in a given context.

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

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

In this way, functional contextualism seeks to understand the laws (of a verbal nature) that govern behavior through the use of inductive methods in order to modify behaviors that are not very adaptive. For this purpose , the manipulation of contingencies is used above all, that is to say, of the relations between a behaviour and the appearance of reinforcers.

Other contributions by Hayes

Hayes explains the development of language, and consequently of cognition, through his theory of relational frameworks. According to this author, people acquire these functions by forming mental links between two or more aspects of reality, which happens from the beginning of life and leads to a growing 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 fulfil similar functions.

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

Hayes developed acceptance and commitment therapy as an intervention for this type of emotional disorder. This third generation therapy is based on the confrontation with and the naturalization of negative emotions and on promoting value-oriented activity independently of life difficulties, such as one’s own psychological discomfort.

Bibliographic references:

  • Hayes, S. C. (1993). Analytic goals and the varieties of scientific contextualism. In S. C. Hayes, L. J. 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.