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Psychology of Men & Masculinity © 2010 American Psychological Association

2010, Vol. 11, No. 2, 91–97 1524-9220/10/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0019132


Unpacking Masculinity as a Construct:

Ontology, Pragmatism, and an Analysis of Language
Merry Sylvester and Steven C. Hayes
University of Nevada
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.

Understanding the target article requires clarity about the foundational assumptions of
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functional contextualism. In this article, we explain why adoption of a pragmatic truth

criterion necessarily implies abandonment of any interest in the relationship between
knowledge claims and the preanalytic organization of reality. If that is correct, pragmatism
can be either incoherent or a-ontological. The problems and possibilities of an a-ontological
perspective are discussed. Among other benefits, an a-ontological perspective in principle
allows researchers to better coordinate knowledge about gendered social learning and the
practical ethics of such knowledge. Application of a functional contextual theory of
cognition to gender bias is also discussed, and cognitive defusion is suggested as a way to
deal with both with the verbal results of a history of gender bias and to help researchers
avoid the ontological error built into common sense language as they construction func-
tional pragmatic alternative to mainstream approaches.

Keywords: functional contextualism, relational frame theory, acceptance and commit-

ment therapy, masculinity

Unpacking Masculinity as a Construct In several recent articles we have discussed

Ontology, Pragmatism and the how a pragmatic and functional approach similar
Analysis of Masculinity to the one Addis et al. put forth might be built into
a more comprehensive contextual approach to be-
In the article, “Is “masculinity” a problem?: havioral science (e.g., Hayes, Levin, Plumb, Bou-
Framing the effects of gendered social learning in langer, & Pistorello, in press; Levin & Hayes,
men,” Addis, Mansfield, and Syzdek provide a 2009; Vilardaga, Hayes, Levin, & Muto, 2009).
compelling argument for the importance of a prag- While we are not researchers or scholars in the
matic and functional approach to the study of
area of the psychology of men, we have applied a
masculinity as a psychological construct. This is a
functional perspective to an analysis of cognition,
subtle article that will be difficult for some readers
to understand, because it is boldly attempting to Relational Frame Theory (RFT; Hayes, Barnes-
do some work while at the same time commenting Holmes, & Roche, 2001) and to an applied exten-
on the psychological and philosophical aspects of sion of that analysis, Acceptance and Commit-
doing that work. Doing some work about gen- ment Therapy (ACT; Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson,
dered learning requires speaking about it, for ex- 1999). These approaches in turn have been ap-
ample, but the authors also try to catch in flight the plied to the understanding and modification of
fact that how one speaks about gendered learning human stereotyping in several areas (e.g., Kohlen-
has powerful consequences. berg, Hayes, & Hayes, 1991; Lillis & Hayes,
2007; Masuda et al., 2007). In this brief commen-
tary, we plan to expand on a philosophical issue
that is central to Addis and colleague’s treatment
Merry Sylvester and Steven C. Hayes, Department of of the issue of masculinity: avoiding the perni-
Psychology, University of Nevada, Reno. cious and needless insertion of ontology into psy-
Correspondence concerning this article should be ad-
dressed to Steven C. Hayes, Department of Psychology/298,
chological accounts. We will also describe some
University of Nevada, Reno, Reno, NV 89557. E-mail: ways that RFT and ACT may apply to the issue of masculinity.

The Ontological Assumptions of conceptualized as in-born or taught—is as a trait

Mainstream Behavioral Science which men possess. The authors bring to light
the limitations of the conceptualization of mas-
Early in the article, Addis and colleagues culinity as a trait, especially in terms of provid-
argue that progressive science needs to be based ing insight into how to influence these behav-
on coherent and compatible perspectives on on- iors in order to affect personal and/or societal
tology (e.g., what is gendered social learning), change. The authors attempt to refocus the sci-
epistemology (e.g., how do we understand its ence on the enactment of gendered behaviors in
effects), and practical ethics (toward what ends context, because this level of analysis allows for
should we be working). In part, the authors are the identification of manipulable variables and,
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just arguing that a thoroughgoing philosophy of indeed, the actual manipulation of those variables.
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science is needed to do behavioral science well, The reader who has not been systematically
and indeed the authors then rightly lay out their exposed to contextualistic thinking might incor-
own functional pragmatic assumptions. But we rectly believe that the authors are arguing in an
are concerned that readers will think that the ontological sense that masculinity is not a trait,
authors are going to attempt to speak within this but rather that it is a socially learned and con-
structure in a literal sense and thus eventually textually situated gendered behavior. This arti-
will attempt to say what gendered social learn- cle is actually making a set of different points,
ing is. Once that issue is confused, the later both of which are orthogonal to mainstream
discussion of a social learning perspective on scientific assumptions, not just in the area of the
gendered behaviors is likely to be misunder- psychology of men, but in revised form in all
stood as the fulfillment of that promise and the areas of behavioral science. Firstly, it is not
authors will be taken to be addressing the on- helpful to gender equity and other important
tological level in their analysis. In fact, these goals to view masculinity in an ontological
authors cannot say anything about what gen- sense. Secondly, if you view masculinity more
dered social learning is. They cannot, because pragmatically, it is not useful to view it as a
although it is true that any research program trait. The authors show their concern over need-
requires a coherent and compatible perspective less ontology when they argue, for example,
on ontology, the perspective of a functional that contextual analysis of gendered social
pragmatic, or what we call a “functional con- learning may be useful in part because it can
textual” approach, is that ontological claims help undermine the essentialist qualities of pub-
must be abandoned. lic discourse about gendered behavior. Essen-
A functional pragmatic or contextualistic ap- tialism can only live inside ontological systems
proach is inherently a-ontological because on- of thought and reducing essentialism (needless
tological terms can add nothing to pragmatic ontology) is beneficial in many ways. We agree.
science as measures against its own goals. We Doing science a-ontologically requires some
know that the authors realize this. They argue, care about analytic assumptions. As the article
e.g., that “terms like “masculinity” do not refer argues, habits of mind that are established by the
to things in the world . . . [and that] . . . like all culture tend to dominate, including habits of mind
psychological and social constructs, their utility on the part of scientists. While that point was
can be evaluated by the degree to which they originally being made about the psychology of
allow for successful working in the field.” We men, it applies with equal force to the habits of
are concerned that readers may view this idea mind that needed to ontological claims. Thus, we
too narrowly, however. The nature of the point would like to do some of that heavy lifting around
being made might thus be clearer if the quali- the issue of ontology, so that this interesting article
fiers are removed: “terms do not refer to things can be better understood.
in the world . . . like all constructs, their utility
can be evaluated by the degree to which they Why Contextualistic Perspectives Must
allow for successful working.” That bolder Eschew Ontology
statement is indeed the pragmatic view.
The pervasive view of masculinity within The authors correctly characterized a contextu-
psychology, according to Addis and colleagues, alistic perspective, and they note that the various
has been that masculinity’s ontology—whether stakeholders to these issues are all also behaving

organisms. Any attempt at identifying ontology includes no independent variables. Many, many
itself involves the behavior of the researcher act- theories in psychology are of this kind. Trait-
ing within a sociocultural context and personal based theories of masculinity are a good exam-
history. Thus, the interpretations of a scientist are ple.
as much influenced by the researcher’s history of Other forms of behavioral science test the
social learning as the participant being studied. truth of their theories by achieving the goal of
From a contextual and pragmatic view of knowl- both predicting and influencing psychological
edge, the scientist making claims about ontologi- events. If that is the goal, however, theories
cal reality has seemingly taken “some special must specify events other than dependent vari-
point of vantage, ‘perched on the epicycle of Mer- ables. Thoughts and feelings can no longer be
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.

cury’” (Skinner, 1974, p. 234), that is, outside the viewed as initiating “causes” of behavior, be-
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sociocultural and political contexts in which dis- cause you cannot manipulate such dependent
cussions of masculinity (or anything else) neces- variables directly to test their role in influencing
sarily occur. Addis and colleagues are careful psychological outcomes. The independent vari-
throughout the article to consider the role of sci- ables one can manipulate are aspects of the
ence as situated within the scientific context and context of psychological events and thus ade-
should be applauded for encouraging the re- quate psychological theories must include con-
searcher to consider his or her effect not only on textual variables if prediction and influence
the field of psychology but also the larger socio- is the scientific goal (Hayes & Brownstein,
cultural environment. They ask the researcher to 1986). The perspective on masculinity pre-
carefully consider how his or her behavior is part sented in the target article is an example. This
and parcel of the entire scientific enterprise from exemplifies how a theory that might be “true”
study design through dissemination. It is far more given one goal, can be false given another.
difficult to be mindful of the consequences of Multiple truths and even contradictory truths
scientific talk within an ontological system, how- are, thus, simultaneously possible within a func-
ever, because scientists can always avoid respon- tional pragmatic approach to science. This
sibility by hiding behind “reality.” One real ben- makes no sense if you take a traditional corre-
efit of pragmatism is that it explodes the “reality spondence-based view of truth (i.e., that true
made me do it” defense of socially ineffective statements correspond with reality). Reality, in
science by dismantling ontological claims. The the traditional view, is already organized into
way it does that is as follows. part, relations, and forces—it is merely our job
The truth criterion of pragmatic perspectives as scientists to map them accurately. Reality
is “successful working” and that requires the does not change. In a pragmatic view, however,
statement of an a priori goal so that the question there can indeed be multiple truths and even
can be answered: working toward what? The contradictory truths because truth is a matter of
authors have done so. The need to state goals achieving a goal, and that achievement says
clearly in order to mount a pragmatic approach nothing about “reality.” In other words, “suc-
to truth, however, makes sense only if other cessful working” is not merely a different test of
goals could serve as a different analytic context, whether statements correspond with what is
and thus that there may be other truths pragmat- real; it is the end point of an entirely different
ically speaking. Nothing in principle prevents set of ontological and epistemological assump-
these different truths from contradicting them- tions.
selves. Let us provide an extended example of Workability cannot be reduced to correspon-
exactly that kind of situation in behavioral sci- dence-based truth because the inference of cor-
ence. respondence would have to be made after some
Many forms of behavioral science test the degree of workability has been achieved. That
truth of their theories by achieving the goal of final act of inference would add nothing other
prediction alone. If that is the goal, thoughts or than a gratuitous reality claim to the experience
emotions can be viewed as “causes” of behav- of workability itself. From a pragmatic perspec-
ior. Overt behavior, thoughts, and emotions are tive it is dangerous and empty rhetoric to say
all dependent variables in psychology but they “and furthermore the reason this works is be-
relate in orderly ways in some contexts, and cause reality is organized in that exact way.”
prediction can be achieved even if the analysis What would be the truth criterion for such an

additional claim? It cannot be workability per se an in an argument about reality: “Men are like
since that was already achieved to the degree this.” “No they aren’t.” Yes, they are.” This
that it was before the claim was made. kind of interchange is as entangling as it is
Permitting ontological claims would leave ultimately useless. Abandonment of ontology
pragmatists with two truth criteria, not one, and allows another conversation to be had that
incoherence would be the result. The same ap- opens up new and potentially more effective
plies to any claim about reality, including avenues of approach. “Men are like this.” “And
claims that what was experienced was not be- what does viewing it like that permit us to do?”
cause of the way reality is organized in an or “And if they weren’t, then what would you
ontological sense. Thus, it is not possible to be like to see happen? Are there times or places
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a pragmatist and an idealist, because it would where you already see more of what you want
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require treating the idea that the world is not happening? How can we do more of that?” In
real ontologically as well. A pragmatist can other words, a pragmatic perspective allows sci-
assume the “real world” if by that all that is entists to let go of useless battles about who is
meant is the “one world” but that is a world right or what is real, and instead to stay focused
about which nothing can be said because even a on how people can develop more useful knowl-
single knowledge claim partitions the world edge and move toward shared goals.
into the claim and the known. A second major benefit is that scientists can
Our argument is that pragmatism is either be more socially responsible if that is a goal.
incoherent or it is entirely a-ontological. It takes The target article asks scientists in the psychol-
a firm grip on epistemology, asserting that we ogy of men to consider the practical ethics of
know that we know based on the consequences their knowledge claims. That cannot occur ex-
of knowing. That is the “successful working” cept in a twisted way if these claims are viewed
truth criterion. In seeking such pragmatic truth, ontologically. If masculinity really is a trait (if
the contextualist must systematically eschew that partitioning of the world maps onto what is
any interest in or statements about what is real real) then it is mere political correctness to point
in an elemental sense. out how trait conceptions of masculinity fore-
Normal language contains an ontological stall gender equity. If, however, knowledge is
quality based on the common sense confusion the achievement of a goal and promoting gender
between referring and referents, which is why a equity is one of the goals of knowledge in the
pragmatic perspective is often difficult to un- psychology of men, then it is consistent to ask
derstand in a sophisticated way in the public scientists to consider how their knowledge
square. The authors note this problem when claims lead to prediction and influence over
they admit that attempts at “reclaiming “mascu- gendered social learning, including in those ar-
linity” from the public domain and metaphori- eas that lead to gender inequities.
cally recasting it as a process that is socially A third major benefit is that scientist need not
learned, constructed, and socially situated, may wait for “understanding” to happen before try-
be a task verging on the sisyphysian.” ing out new ways of influencing the world.
Indeed, if we learn precisely and broadly appli-
Possibilities in an A-Ontological Approach cable ways to influence it, that in itself is one of
the most important kinds of understanding.
Pragmatists have to be willing to live with Thus it is not by accident that the authors of the
ambiguity and uncertainty. It comes with the target article keep emphasizing possible inter-
territory because an abandonment of ontology ventions, and ways of altering the gendered
leaves behind that sense of certainty that appar- landscape. As the authors have previously
ent knowledge about the organization of reality shown, the psychology of men has lead to very
provides other worldviews. What functional little in the way of interventions that make a
pragmatism fosters, however, is the ability to difference, and if the goal of analysis is predic-
focus on what works in a flexible manner. This tion and influence, this is unacceptable and in-
has at least three benefits. First, it is a lot easier adequate.
to broadminded when “reality” does not keep It is worth noting that these benefits do not
getting in the way. Especially as scientists move justify the a-ontological assumptions of contex-
into the public sphere, it is easy to be drawn into tualism. Assumptions are always preanalytic

and thus beyond empirical test. For those ded- variety of verbal relations are trained such as
icated to social change, however, such benefits similarity, opposition, distinction, or compari-
are a welcome side effect of the absolute disin- sons. These relations are applicable by social
terest in ontological claims that emerges from whim, rather that determined solely by the form
pragmatic epistemology. of related events. For example, a nickel can be
There is still a challenge, however. Even “smaller then” a dime because a relational con-
when we learn more about how to predict and text, not the events themselves, specifies nickels
influence gendered social learning, we will need and dimes relate one to the other.
to speak about that process. Producers and con- Once such relational abilities are established
sumers of pragmatic knowledge then need to the verbal community can readily create rela-
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find ways to continue to hold the knowledge tional networks that may be so extensive that
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that they develop lightly because it is very easy they restrict behavioral repertoires and, thereby,
to repeat the entire process of cognitive entan- promote negative psychological outcomes for
glement wrapped in new cognitive clothing. It is the individual and society. A verbal rule such as
easy to turn anything that one can describe into “a man should be masculine” establishes a com-
a thing. Pragmatic knowledge of how verbal plex relational network that extends far beyond
behavior works might assist in avoiding this the relations in the sentence itself. For example,
process, a topic to which we now turn. the verbally constructed coordination between
manhood and “masculine behaviors” (e.g., emo-
Implications of RFT and ACT for the tional suppression, risk-taking) will very likely
Concept of Masculinity impact the listener’s views of women by deri-
vation of the frames of opposition between
The social learning model provided by the manhood and “feminine behaviors” (e.g., emo-
authors is well grounded in operant theory and tional expression, help-seeking).
does well to reorient the field to an approach Consider, for example, how the rule, “a man
whereby the prediction and influence of mascu- should be masculine” may reduce behavioral
line behavior is possible. Their treatment of the variability or extend the rule beyond contexts in
subject specifies how masculine behaviors are which such learning has occurred. The verbal
shaped through operant conditioning wherein community demands construction of a consis-
gender functions as a discriminative stimulus tent self-concept from a history full of incon-
either materially, symbolically, or verbally. sistent behavior. The need to conform one’s
As Addis and colleagues suggest, the corre- behavior to this conceptualized self narrows the
spondence between behaviors and masculinity person’s behavioral repertoire and begins to ex-
may be further qualified by various discrimina- clude even behaviors that may be effective (e.g.,
tive stimuli such that the same behavior may be help-seeking in the context of psychological
reinforced within one context and punished in distress). For example, if help-seeking is in a
another. Crying in the locker room may be frame of coordination with femininity, and
reinforced by a reduction in aversive stimula- maleness and femininity are in a frame of op-
tion as teammates provide comfort to reduce position, the derived relation is that help-
psychological distress and yet the same behav- seeking is in a frame of opposition to maleness.
ior, crying, may be punished in another context It is easy to imagine how such verbal processes
as “the guys” ridicule a friend for crying on the could pit, through derived relational respond-
diving board. The male in the latter situation ing, the biological fact of being a male in op-
may likely feel shame in addition to the initial position to help-seeking. It is clearly absurd to
fear. state that men who seek help are not men in a
A technical analysis of the symbolic and ver- biological sense, though this is exactly what
bal levels is still needed, however, and may be normal verbal processes can lead toward.
important in this regard. RFT researchers have An understanding of the verbal processes in-
developed a body of evidence (Hayes et al., volved has several implications. Because verbal
2001) that shows the utility of casting symbolic relations are historical, it may be relatively in-
and verbal behavior as a matter of a contextu- effective merely to provide alternative informa-
ally situated and learned ability to relate events tion or to challenge stereotypes. There is no
arbitrarily. As children become verbal, a wide process in learning called unlearning. Learned

behaviors are forever part of the learner in the rules but rather that fusion with any self-concept
sense that they are now permanently part of a leads to behavioral inflexibility outside of that
person’s history and even when extinguished concept. Weakening fusion with verbal rules
they can be reacquired more readily. Thus, for (what ACT researchers call “cognitive defu-
example, direct challenge to stereotypes may be sion”) is a matter of substantial current research
logically but not psychologically sound. among those interested in acceptance and mind-
We need effective alternatives. If the goal is fulness (e.g., Hayes, Follette, & Linehan, 2004).
to alter masculine stereotypes, RFT suggests A wide variety of mindfulness and acceptance
that it might be easier to ride the horse in the techniques are now known to reduce the literal,
direction it is going by relating verbal feature of problem-solving context of verbal rules (Hayes,
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a desired goal to powerful and central aspects of Luoma, Bond, Masuda, & Lillis, 2006). Defu-
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

the existing verbal network. Suppose the goal is sion methods help people look at concepts like
to increase help-seeking among men. Help- masculinity and their utility, rather than looking
seeking by men itself has strong verbal features: only at the world as structured by these con-
it is social, involves new learning, it is not cepts, once it is assumed that they describe the
avoidant, it requires the courage to look at hard world. In essence, the body of work on defusion
things, and it requires the willingness to chal- shows that it is possible to reduce the impact of
lenge stereotypes, to name a few. These can be verbal categories themselves (Hayes et al.,
empirically tested (e.g., by implicit cognitive 2006).
measures, as the authors note), and central fea- For example, consider the impact of the rule
tures could be related through media or other “a man should be masculine” if it was sung
interventions to central features of the verbal aloud, said in Donald Duck’s voice, or said
construct of “masculinity” within the culture, extremely slowly. Would it have the same im-
such as strength, independence, or willingness pact? How would “I should be masculine” work
to face challenges. In effect, the verbal pro- when written on a baby’s T-shirt? ACT re-
cesses that led to the excesses and narrowness searchers have shown that defusion methods
of the concept of masculinity, can be used to such as these can reduce the impact and believ-
expand that very concept within the social com- ability of conditioned social stereotypes, even
munity. though the occurrence of such verbal rules may
Another avenue of approach is revealed by remain unchanged (e.g., Lillis & Hayes, 2007;
another aspect of an RFT approach. Whereas a Masuda et al., 2007).
relational context specifies how one event re- Defusion methods work in part because they
lates to another, a functional context selects reduce the common sense ontology of everyday
what behavioral functions are currently relevant terms. To come back to our earlier point about
to that relation. Manipulation of the function the challenges and opportunities of an a-onto-
context of stereotypes thus provides another logical position for scientists, defusion suggests
avenue of approach. If the goal is to reduce the one way that pragmatic scientists might do such
essentialism of concepts like “masculinity,” interesting things as attempting to account for
RFT researchers have found that giving verbal various senses of questions like “Is ‘masculin-
events multiple and even contradictory func- ity’ a problem?” while at the same time not then
tions broadens the flexibility of later responding creating yet another essentialist account. The
to these verbal events (Roche, Melia, Kanter, key is to break through the common sense on-
Blackledge, & Dymond, under review). Like tology even of scientific terms. In the end, the
fighting a fire by creating back fires, behavioral concept of masculinity is also just a concept,
scientists can fight the repertoire narrowing ef- and any analysis is just useful or not. Scientific
fects of verbal concepts by repeatedly giving theory is not about how the world is organized
them new meanings, thus altering the functional in the abstract. Concepts and analyses are what
context of key terms. they do for us—they are what we make of
Focusing on the functional context provides them—and what they do for us depends on the
other ways to reduce the behavioral impact of contexts in which they are used.
verbal concepts. Consider the earlier example of As Addis et al. note, we have lived too long
a gendered self-concept. The problem may not inside an ontological perspective on “masculin-
be so much that one does not have the correct ity,” and it has cost us all in the area of the

practical ethics of such terms. Contextually sit- Kohlenberg, B. S., Hayes, S. C., & Hayes, L. J.
uated gendered social learning provides another (1991). The transfer of contextual control over
and possibly more functional way forward, but equivalence classes through equivalence classes: A
only if we hold even that concept lightly enough possible model of social stereotyping. Journal of
for it to be purely functional, not ontological. In the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 56, 505–
service of that end, we suggest that the target
Levin, M., & Hayes, S. C. (2009). ACT, RFT, and
article and this response might best be printed
contextual behavioral science. chap. in J. T. Black-
on a T-shirt. ledge, J. Ciarrochi, & F. P. Deane (Eds.), Accep-
tance and Commitment Therapy: Contemporary
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.

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This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

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