Functional Contextualism


Functional contextualism (FC) is a modern philosophy of science rooted in philosophical  pragmatism  and contextualism. Functional contextualism (FC) in it’s simplest form means that the ‘glasses we put on’ to view humans endeavours focuses us on ‘behaviour in its context’. From this view, we assume all behaviour occurs in a context and has purpose. Our goal is to predict and influence that behaviour by considering why the behaviour occurs in that specific context.

We then adopt a pragmatic truth criterion. In other words, there is no ‘right’ behaviour, no truth, only what will work for an individual (Hayes, Luoma, Bond, Masudam, & Lillis, 2004). Successful working means that this individual is able to performs valued actions (Bach & Moran, 2008). A contrasting example of world views can make this clearer. So let’s contrast FC with elemental realism (some might know this as mechanism) and look a the topic of thoughts.

From a functional contextualist worldview, any thought can be either normal or problematic, depending on the context in which it occurs. We simply assume it is a behaviour that has some function. With our FC glasses on, thoughts are not viewed as faulty, nor are they viewed as causes of emotions (Ciarrochi, Robb, & Godsell, 2005). So the thought, “I am a loser” is neither incorrect nor correct. Thoughts are merely behaviour that serves some purpose and our job is to work out what this is. The target of change from this worldview is the function – the thoughts themselves may or may not change. For example, I can have the thought, “I am a loser” and it can pop up but not influence me at all and keep doing what I care about, or I can get all tangled in it and stop doing what I care about. The thought doesn’t change, but the function has.

From this philosophical stance, no thought, feeling or memory is inherently problematic, dysfunctional, or pathological- it all depends on the context of the private experience. In a context which includes cognitive fusion and experiential avoidance, thoughts, feelings and memories often function in a manner that is toxic, harmful or life-distorting. However, in a context which includes defusion and acceptance, those same thoughts, feelings and memories function very differently: they have much less impact and influence over living vitally and taking committed action.

Be way of contrast, from an elemental realist view, healthy functioning is seen when there is an absence of pathological thinking. In this worldview, cognitions are equated with the metaphor of a computer or machine and when a person is suffering there is a ‘part’ to be fixed in order to correct the problem. This view is clearly evident in depression theories and treatments. For example, Beck postulated that schema were “cognitive structures within the mind” (Beck, 1995, p. 166) and argued that depression occurs because people hold negative schemas of the self, world and future (Weersing & Brent, 2006). According to this view, thoughts are causes of feelings or behaviours, with irrational thoughts leading to negatively evaluated feelings and dysfunctional behaviour. When thoughts are ‘corrected’ it is presumed that feelings and behaviour will also improve. So in this view, a thought, “I am a loser” might be considered faulty thinking.

CBS uses functional contextualism to view the world, to help describe, predict, and influence behaviour as it occurs, within a historical and situational context.


Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K.D. & Wilson, K. G. (2011). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Second Edition: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change. The Guilford Press.
Pepper, Stephen C. (1942). World hypotheses: A study in evidence. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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