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ACT & Functional Contextualism


 

Functional What?


Functional contextualism, the philosophy behind the ACT model, focuses on how behavior works in various situations. Instead of just looking at what people do, it examines why they do it and what purpose it serves. For example, if we had 5 different people in 5 different situations, each having social anxiety, we can come up with at least 5 possible reasons for their behavior.


Some possibilities include:

  • Past negative experiences

  • Learned behavior from family or peers

  • Low self esteem

  • Fear of rejection

  • Lack of social skills.


In all of these scenarios, the form of the behavior is all the same - having social anxiety - but the function / reason for the behavior, or the effect, is different.


Now, here's another scenario: you want to get your friends attention, but they seem lost in thought. 5 different ways we could get their attention would be:


  • To wave at them.

  • Shout "Hello, anyone home?"

  • Splash some water on their face.

  • Clap loudly.

  • Ask, "Can I have your attention for a bit, please?"



In this example, we observe that various behaviors serve the same purpose: grabbing attention in a given situation. Functional contextualism focuses more on why a behavior occurs and its impact rather than its specific form. For instance, when using the choice point, we continuously assess why someone behaves a certain way within their life circumstances. We categorize behavior as either moving towards or away from goals. This approach allows us to avoid judgment of whether behavior is good or bad and instead consider its effectiveness. Simply put, if a behavior helps construct the desired life, it's considered workable; if not, it's deemed unworkable.


Now that we know what "function" means, we can move on to...


 

Context


Every behavior occurs within a context, where "context" includes everything influencing ones behavior. This may include:


  • Emotions, feelings, and moods

  • Cognitive events, such as thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, assumptions, and schemas

  • Cognitive processes, including attention and memory

  • Interpersonal factors, like who else is present and past relationship history

  • Social and cultural events, such as public holidays, traditions, and rituals

  • Physical environment, encompassing location, furnishings, weather, time of day, temperature, and smell

  • Genetic and epigenetic factors

  • Physiological states like thirst, hunger, and fatigue

  • Consumption of drugs, alcohol, or food

  • Physical health or illness

  • Social and cultural status, including social class, position, rank, and peer groups

  • Developmental and learning history, including attachment style



Our behavior happens amidst a vast and ever-changing mix of influences. It's impossible to know everything affecting our actions at any given moment. We call this mix of influences the "context" of our behavior. We can split this context into two main parts: antecedents and consequences.


Antecedents are what trigger our behavior. They come right before and prompt it. In therapy, we focus on situations, thoughts, and feelings as key antecedents. In diagrams like the choice point, antecedents are always shown at the bottom. For example, behaviors like withdrawing socially can have many different triggers, as shown in the diagram.




In simple terms, every behavior we engage in has both benefits (payoffs) and drawbacks (costs). When the drawbacks of a behavior lead to its reduction or cessation over time, we call them punishing consequences. For example, if a client cancels a social event but then feels intensely lonely and miserable afterward, and as a result, starts canceling social events less often, we label this as a punishing consequence.


On the other hand, when the benefits of a behavior lead to its continuation or increase over time, we call them reinforcing consequences. For instance, if someone cancels a social event and experiences a significant sense of relief from doing so, leading them to cancel even more events in the future, this is a reinforcing consequence.


Including costs and benefits in diagrams like the choice point can be helpful. For example, by adding payoffs at the top of the diagram, therapists can help clients understand why they continue

engaging in problematic behaviors (i.e., what is reinforcing those behaviors).



Mapping out the triggers (antecedents) and outcomes (consequences) of a behavior in this way, often called functional analysis or function spotting, can be incredibly helpful, especially when someone is puzzled by their own actions. It quickly raises awareness and provides valuable insights into why the behavior persists.


Moreover, it serves as a great starting point for clinical interventions. For instance, by identifying specific thoughts for defusion, emotions for acceptance, and challenging situations for values-guided problem solving and goal setting, therapists can tailor interventions effectively. This may also include addressing any deficits in social skills if relevant.


Functional contextualism encompasses much more than just this, but understanding these basics provides a solid foundation for therapeutic work.


 

Takeaway


By identifying what triggers behaviors and what results from them, therapists can help clients understand why they act as they do. This insight is crucial for guiding targeted interventions to bring about positive change. Functional contextualism provides a roadmap for this process, making therapy more effective.

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