Philosophy: Functional Contextualism

Psychology, unlike other sciences whose objects and methods are physicists, has  observable variables (eg behavior, verbal behavior, language and  responses) and non observable variables (emotions, thoughts, beliefs, past individual history, self conception). Due to these non observable objects of study,  psychology had to discover its own method in order to approach and  get to know the reality of our non observable world.

Functional contextualism  is a philosophy of science (Biglan, 1995Gifford & Hayes, 1999Hayes, 1993b) that  took the tradition of behavior analysis, its  empirical perspective to discover the natural laws that explain and predict human behaviour in order to  influence it with precision, scope and depth. The goals of this philosophy is therefore as in any other science, to  predict  and  to influence human behaviours or contents (emotions, thought, beliefs, responses, self-concept, our concept of our world.…) 

Psychology create hope emotionally

Human “behavior” is understood under the functional contextualism as a whole: thoughts, beliefs, self-conception and emotions  interact with each other and occur  in temporal chains (a thought evokes a reaction, an emotion a behavior, or a behavior make us reflect and think and this is antecedent for a new reaction or chain of behaviours etc. )All them are the  objects  of our study, and  we aim to approach to their reality, to know how they influence each other, our life and our suffering… But most importantly, to prevent or  to provoke changes towards a more adaptive behavior in the particular world in which the individual lives,  to build a greater personal satisfaction with one´s choices,  not necessarily changes that will eliminate the suffering but that will heal in some way…as much as this knowledge would  allow us.

Private or non observable events (thought, way to think, to believe, language and emotions) are fundamental variables that influence human behavior constantly in time, that explains our suffering…, without forgetting the environment that also influences and even conforms our way to think, to see ourselves….


About Science:

Science is not advocated by functional contextualists as the only valid form of knowledge (it is not indeed). Science still fails in revealing  the true nature of  the universe  but  it is useful, useful for the purposes of humanity. Rather, scientific practice—characterized by careful observation, opened analysis, experimentation, theorizing, and the free exchange of ideas. Such knowledge, in the form of general laws or principles or rules, has proven to be  successful in allowing humans to interact with their world more effectively (Skinner, 1953).

The success of scientists is due in large part to their quest to develop rules and principles that probe to be  applied successfully  to real events ,but finally,  construct knowledge that is general, abstract, and spatio-temporally, restricted: knowledge that is applicable to  specific people, places, objects, events, or times.

Functional contextualists simply assert that the history of human civilization shows that scientific knowledge is a valuableuseful  form of knowing (Hayes, 1998), but then.. could be other ways?

Another essential characteristic of contextual psychology is that the theory is followed always by experimentation and not in the opposite  way , but in some branches of psychology theory comes before  experimentation,  and  after, only those data that could be in accordance with the concrete theory are selected, but in doing this other potential relevant data might be discarded. Proceeding in that way  might  not be along the science´s purpose of  discovering or approaching the reality.
The only assumption of the experimental  psychology is that men’s contents and behavior (including the private events: thoughts, language and emotions) are subject to laws, and discovering them (not to theorizing them or inventing them) ,  involves an arduous effort.


Other models and theories

We could classify the different branches-theories that have been and are within psychology according to the way they see and use the” internal or non observable “variables of study”: thought-cognition, language and emotions. Some theories or models within psychology have either been excluded them from the object of study, focusing only on the observable ones ( e.g the methodological behaviorism); other branches within the psychology  have been considered the internal variables as the only  single causal variables  of  human suffering or behavior (as occurs within the  cognitive psychology). The problem with the first approach is that leaves a large part of the human condition, (thinking, believing, self and feelings)  aside,  without being able to explain many forms of human behavior. For example, why a boy well educated in  following rules is now skipping traffic lights in red when this is counterproductive for his safety and his social adaptation? why  a girl continues consuming  drugs  despite the negative experiences and results in the long term, despite having lost even many loved things, despite being helped… could her behaviour be based then on non observable things  that are there in her history, in her beliefs, her rules, the things she tells about herself  even connected to her values…rules that come from a particular past story?

The problem with the second approach is that cognitive theories give to the “internal” or non observable variables a different phenomenological dimension: treating “thoughts” “feelings” etc. as closed constructs, as “independent living things” not related either to life or to the external variables neither to the environment of the individual, neither to our learning or past stories. Instead they consider the internal variables “thoughts” “emotions”, as different independent things with a life of their own   as if they were real physical events,  and believe they have also a physical location in the head    of the individual (where it has never been possible to probe  their existence inside the human mind). Other problem that stems  from this conception is that more and more abstract concepts born “self-steem”, “latent attention”, “cognitive dissonance” etc.  in the effort to explain human observable phenomena.To understand this better: a person labeled as “having low self-steem” is from the cognitive perspective, a  person who has in her mind or inside, or even inside her “self-steem” “a low level”: the person is seen therefore as a machine or model with different compartments (in this case here the are the  compartment of “self-steem”) and the cause for her behaviour “behaving with “low-self steem” is explained  because inside her this variable or compartment exists and is “low”. This is a redundant and circular explanation that does not really explain why again she “behaves as such” in comparison with other person in that situation or in a bunch of circumstances

From the functional contextualism what would make a person behave, think, hope and feel in the way he/she does is a final product of a past story of learning: not only environmental learning (as operant or classical conditioning laws) but also linguistic-relational learn from her environment, for her culture, from her parents, school, friends… from the expectations and ways the culture, family and background  shape this particular person and all that in time-with constant changes in due time. In the example given above, this person could have  learnt messages about her self from outside: parents, careers, culture… even from direct experiences (perhaps she was not treated well in aspects related to her value, talents, effort…) in due time she also can deduce-think or develop her own linguistic rules “if i have receiving all these..then . i am not worthwhile… people will see that i…” but even more: she can begin to behave mostly based on these rules:  avoiding any possibility of  failure or rejection to avoid at the bottom feeling again  “not worthwhile” or in another extreme by reacting mostly  “fighting or trying to receive value from the others, by working too hard or by being too nice etc. That particular story she has lived: with real external messages, external consequences for particular behaviours, but of course in interaction with how she learnt to see her world and herself, how she  re-think and  interprets these events she lived, which rules or conclusion she did, how she reacts to all the above, and why or what she wants to get by reacting in the way she does to all that; will explain why now she behaves “like if she would not value herself” without having to recur to an hypothetical internal variable or inner place on her that would remain ignorant of all the above past story and causal variables that will be necessary and useful to grasp to produce the change to intervene effectively.

“Where is the melody when one is not playing the piano?” The melody is necessarily in our recent and past story where there was indeed music, it is not necessary therefore to hypothesize an internal variable as a “musical internal passion area” specially when it leads to the consequent intervention: “change the internal variable and the individual will change” and this does not produce any change.

This is why behavior analysts’ prefer not to use mentalistic  explanations or abstract constructs that can´t explain (and therefore can not provoke)  human behavior-change or its roots. So then what does the analytic behavior do to study human behavior, which is the unit of study? There is no single, true unit of analysis in contextualism, only   the current and historical context of the person. Gifford and Hayes (1999) wrote that “in a contextual approach we start with whole, situated actions and break them into pieces,  for pragmatic purposes only . .”

In contrast with the cognitive perspective contextualists consider the internal variables or private events  not as abstract entities that live inside our heads and act independently from the world and environment  but  considering thoughts and emotions as variables born from our previous story, language rules (and therefore how we learnt to see ourselves and the world) , our environment, and to the immediate or  long-term consequences that we experience after  our reactions-behaviours   (and that will influence our  future responses).

These “internal” variables:

1)are not observed in the present as they come   from the past story of each individual

2) although they are private,  non observable, they are not different phenomena from the observable external variables,  they are governed by the same laws as the  observable external variables: they were part of the environment of the individual in his past history. For example today the rule “if you want to keep a job work hard” that influence nowadays my behavior without anyone being able to realize or “see this”, was before an external variable in my past: said by my mum, or by some teachers… and I was reinforced (socially or in many ways) when also I behaved following the rule.

3) they definitely influence the way we behave. If i run  might be not  because of an external present stimuli but because in my history i have learnt what i can get if i do that: the results in the long term: what i have been told “making exercise is good, healthy…”(what i know about it) and/or my past experience after running in the long term (better health, better shape etc.) all that are non observable variables  at this present moment that are influencing me or causing  the actual observable behaviour “running”

 Human behaviour change constantly in time and context:

Man changes in time because his circumstances change, what he  lives is different from time to time, but as well because once we have language we think, reflect and interpret everything we perceive and live..constantly too. This  differs from the natural sciences in that their  object   is mediate, that is, stable in  Time: the laws of a chemical phenomena for example,  are the same even if time and place change, they are free from “context”.

Whilst in  psychology our object of study   the individual does not behave, thinks or feels the same at all times, what we  live influence us transforming us, making us  actdifferently  in time Even only after a course of music one is no longer the same as before, not exactly the same. This means that the knowledge we will have about the individual in a concrete moment is subjective: influenced by the immediate context in which he is now and partially  by his/her past story, and  will change.

Individuality can not be explained objectively: it depends on the moment, place, circumstance or context.

This is why the  core unit of our analysis is the act in context: the ongoing action in time (Hayes, 1993Pepper, 1942). All actions are considered to be whole events. Thoughts , emotions and behaviours do not occur independently of each other but in connection in interaction with the changes in the environment, the present context and in interaction with the past story, with who we have become until now. They have a  meaning in their context where they occur. thought-behavior or emotion-behavior relations (or thought-emotion-behaviour and even behaviour-thought-behaviour) are still incomplete within the chain of analyses  until we  identify their functionality or meaning from the  historical and actual context where they arise (Biglan & Hayes, 1996),

Contextualism determine the meaning of a behavior (thoughts, emotions related in a particular way and in a context), not in the apparent form (topography) of the behavior, so for the purpose of the intervention  it is not important to know whether  the problematic behavior is  “pulling out her hair” (trichotillomania) or if it is “consuming certain substance”, but the function or utility of the behavior/ pattern: for what the person is doing that and lingering in doing the problematic behavior, what he/she pursues in doing it

In the above examples, although both behaviors are different in appearance they can be exerted  for  the same function or  purpose or  consequence, e.g to get rid off pain or get rid of  “i am not worthwhile”. If these different behaviours have the same function or purpose, e-g avoiding a painful thought/believe about one-self (that was learnt)  it will be not effective to focus on the appearance or topography  of the behaviour (pulling hair, consuming) What it will matters is why they do that, for what, because it will not only give us an understanding about why the behavior or problem is being maintained, but also because the effective intervention will be the one that works with the person focusing in that “functionality” in “why/for what” they are doing what they are doing: therefore helping them to pursue the same thing in a different more adaptive ways or  helping  them to re-learn if they can really pursue that thing they are chasing so much, if it is under their control and what are the costs of pursuing that thing so much, in that way…

There is two different kind of causal variables in human act:  the natural contingencies (environment, context, situation, different stimuli. consequences experienced after we act…) and on the other hand, the social or verbal contingencies. This  leads to distinguishing the natural (environmental) antecedents and consequences  that govern human or animal behavior (whose laws were discovered between the 40´s and the  70´s decades) , and the socially constructed verbal variables that govern exclusively  human behavior, but not animal behavior, (language, beliefs  and cognition) which research started since the 80´s.

The natural contingencies or variables that influence animal and human behavior are explained by external observable stimuli or changes in the environment. Changes in the environment provokes different behaviors or reactions even in the same person. Also  changes in the environment after  or due to a  exerted behavior (=consequences) can make   the person to behave differently and accordingly in the future in that  context. At the same time  changes in the environment before any exerted behavior r independently of any behavior exerted (antecedents) (e.g lack of resources to find a job) can provoke changes in a person but not in another person: why? (Here the second type of causes (language, cognition, believes) would enter to complete the equation): they are different person, with different stories and learning stories, different self-concepts, ways of interpret or different ways of “telling different rules or conclusions” to themselves,  and therefore with different  ways of reacting before same events

• The second type of causes that conforms who we are,  our behavior, joy or suffering: language, beliefs  and cognition. The  rules and the cost of following them rigidly:

Our language or rules we learn  tell us what to do, what no to do, how to manage or control the world in order to obtain things we want, improvements, a better job, more leisure time, that person… how to obtain what we dream about and what we love. Many of them are useful for practical purposes, at work etc.

We learn “rules” from our environment, parents, teachers, friends, culture… the rules we learn can make us see the world, others, ourselves…too  in a rigid way. We also  follow them or behave (consciously or not)  basing on the content of these rules e.g “if I put much effort in this I´ll obtain the position so I have to be punctual, hardworking and… do all the work they ask for, don´t  take holidays….”  “as she would refuse me if I  am opened with her or show her my feelings I won´t show my feelings…” How many times we have elaborated rules in this and  other ways in order to obtain what we want or to have the sensations that we will get them?

Sometimes these rules help  us to gain what we want “if  I work well and hard I´ll have more probabilities to…” “if you want to keep a  friend there are a myriad of actions that will probabilize so: e.g  show interest in doing activities, listening to him, being helpful…. So “if I do..all that… then…”

But other times… it seems like if they weren´t functioning, we just don´t gain what we want… and even so we persist in repeating the same behaviors, convinced by the rule we follow that we will eventually get it

Some times… maybe… reality and experience are telling us another very different thing to   what the rule or thoughts are  saying to us

Do we listen to our experience? or we listen more to the rule?

Can the human being become blind and thumb of what reality and experience is showing up?

Do we believe so much in the rule or our thoughts that they become the main leaders of our actions even when following the rule has made us loose important valued things? What is the cost when  these rules -thoughts become the main leaders of our actions of  our life

Is it more pain? Is loosing or not getting what we really want, is not being the person we dreamed one day we would be?

see the consequences of child psychology

Some times we  learn from our environment, friends, or  culture: “ controlling the pain is good, if you feel well then you will be able to do this and….” that rule develops its opposite rule too “if you don´t feel well… you can´t deal ….” which means ultimately “if feeling bad then no life”

And even when we put many effort in feeling well and avoid pain or suffering we still suffer…

Why ? Suffering is a condition  of having language, thoughts and rules.

As we learn to love things at the same time the fear for loosing them or for the possibility of loosing them appears as the other side of the coinour capacity to have language gives us the capacity to re-think things as they are and the possibility of loosing them (someone we love and want, or even the idea of who we want to be, our dreams and the possibility of not getting them appears too…. This hurts. The capacity of grasping dreams is attached to the capacity of grasping their loss. 

Tell me if happiness lasts always, if you,

dear lector,

basing  yourself solely  on your own experience,




of the thoughts or feelings you did or do  not want to feel…

And if you did, if you can, tell me how…


Barnes-Holmes, 2000

Biglan, 1995

Hayes, 1993

Hayes, Barnes-Holmes,&Roche, 2001


Hayes, Levin,Plumb,Boulanger,&Pistorello,in press

Hayes, Strosahl,&Wilson,1999, 2011

Gifford & Hayes, 1999 

Lee, 1988

Levin & Hayes, 2009

 Morris, 1988

 Odom & Haring, 1994

 Roche, 1999

Pepper, 1942

Vilaradaga, Hayes,Levin, & Muto,2009