Rule-governed behavior: An ongoing RFT-based operant analysis
Rule-governed behavior is broadly defined as verbal antecedent stimuli that specify dependence relations between stimuli and events. Since its conception, this definition has supported a relatively rich program of research within the experimental analysis of behavior. Specifically, researchers have sought to explore the extent to which verbal rules are involved in operant behavior, both in the basic and applied domains. However, some have highlighted the need for a more complete understanding of what “specification” means in the context of rule-following and behavior analysis. The current article aims to present an operant account of what it means to understand and follow verbal rules, drawing largely on stimulus equivalence, and focusing in particular on a relational frame theory (RFT) perspective. To this end, we provide an overview of an RFT-based operant account of rule-following as it currently stands, and outline a recent program of experimental research that has utilized this approach to explore the complexities involved in rule-following in the face of competing reinforcement contingencies, a phenomenon typically linked to human psychological suffering. Implications for going forward in developing a more complete operant account of rule-governed behavior in both the basic and applied domains are considered.