Research on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT; Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999), and mindfulness-based therapies generally, has grown exponentially in recent years. Similarly, research on Relational Frame Theory (RFT; Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001) has also grown considerably, but certainly not at the same pace as research on ACT. One consequence of these differential growth patterns is that new concepts and theoretical middle-level terms have emerged in the ACT literature (e.g., defusion) that are difficult to interpret from an RFT perspective, and are thus of limited value in conducting basic (functional) experimental analyses of human psychological suffering and distress. In recent years, some authors have questioned the increasing separation between ACT and RFT (Barnes-Holmes, Hussey, McEnteggart, Barnes-Holmes, & Foody, 2016).

Part of the motivation for raising this question was the historical narrative that RFT was typically seen as providing the basic science underpinning ACT (Hayes et al., 1999). If this relationship is no longer in place, or has at least weakened to a considerable degree, then it seems important to meet that fact head-on and either seek to re-establish the relationship or abandon it. Indeed, addressing this issue seems particularly important given recent calls to focus on process-oriented idiographic research in the field (Hofmann & Hayes, 2019). In responding to a new-found emphasis on clinical processes at the level of the individual, RFT as a behavior-analytic account of human language and cognition would appear to be well positioned to respond to this call.

The proposed MRes research project would form part of a broader research agenda that is working towards reconnecting RFT with ACT in terms of basic processes, conceptualized and analyzed empirically at the level of the individual participant.

Objectives of the research:

Historically, Relational Frame Theory (RFT) has been seen as providing the basic science foundation for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Recently, conceptual advances in RFT have suggested that the ACT–based concept of defusion may be conceptualized in terms of the relative dominance of one property of relational framing over another (i.e., the dominance of the relational properties of a stimulus, Crels, over its functional properties, Cfuncs). However, there is currently no empirical evidence to support this suggestion.

The proposed MRes research project would aim to test and develop this conceptual analysis by conducting two lab-based studies employing single-case experimental designs. The first would involve replicating a robust experimental effect involving an RFT-based methodology, known as the implicit relational assessment procedure (IRAP), that demonstrates the dominance of Cfunc over Crel properties (i.e., fusion). The second study would involve testing therapy-based defusion techniques as a means of reducing Cfunc dominance over Crel control. Overall, the proposed research program would aim to work towards a more thoroughly RFT process-based experimental analysis of the impact of defusion exercises as found in the ACT literature.

Methods to be used:

Participants will be recruited from the student population at Ulster University. Stimuli similar to those used by Bortoloti et al. (2019) will be employed. However, the proposed research will employ training and traditional (testing) IRAPs to establish combinatorially entailed relations, instead of a traditional MTS procedure (as employed by Bortoloti, et al). Participants will be exposed to four separate Training IRAPs, three to establish the baseline relations and a fourth that will test for novel derivations based on these newly established relations.

The study will involve one of the following four ACT-based defusion exercises: 1. word repetition; 2. thoughts and feelings aren’t causes; 3. having thoughts; 4. leaves on a stream (see Hayes et al., 1999 for a description of each intervention). The study will employ a multiple baseline across participants design. The ACT defusion exercise will be introduced at the relevant stages in accordance with the multiple baseline methodology. The primary outcome measure will be a substantive and clearly visible reduction in the differential trial-type effects typically observed with the IRAP following the defusion exercise.

Skills required of applicant:

The applicant should hold or expect to achieve an Upper Second Class Honours (2:1) or First Class Honours Degree in Psychology or a cognate field. The applicant should also have strong research methods skills and an interest in experimental and/or clinical psychology.

Essential criteria

  • To hold, or expect to achieve by 15 August, an Upper Second Class Honours (2:1) Degree or equivalent from a UK institution (or overseas award deemed to be equivalent via UK NARIC) in a related or cognate field.

Funding and eligibility

The Doctoral College at Ulster University


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Completing the MRes provided me with a lot of different skills, particularly in research methods and lab skills.

Michelle Clements Clements - MRes - Life and Health Sciences

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I got my BSc in Psychology at Ulster and brought my interest in behavioural epigenetics to my PhD, testing the effect of prenatal maternal levels of socialisation on the mental health of children.My proudest moment was sending the email to submit my thesis in mid-September 2020, looking back on the 6 months I spent in lockdown, working for 10 hours a day sometimes, 7 days a week. I knew that in that instant, as I clicked 'Send', I'd made so many people proud of me but especially my wife, my clinician parents, my supervisors, and my friends in the doctoral cohort.

Erik Spikol - PhD in Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience

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I completed my BSc in Health Studies many years ago and studied part-time through most of my career in child & adolescent mental health completing two MScs in the process. I was privileged to have received a Public Health Agency funded R&D fellowship which allowed me to complete my PhD full-time. I conducted a clinical study focused on autism trait prevalence in people attending specialist gender services in Northern Ireland under the supervision of Professor Gerard Leavey, Dr Michael Rosato and Professor Hugh McKenna.I am proud to have finished my PhD during one of the most challenging years ever. I couldn`t have got through this without the support of my supervisors and experts by experience who supported my research. I`ll never forget the generosity of participants who allowed me some insight into their lives.

Katrin Lehmann - PhD in Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience

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I completed my degree in Forensic Psychobiology at Abertay University Dundee. I then completed a MSc in Health Psychology at Ulster University and published my research on the benefits of Yoga on the psychological well-being of first time mums, supervised by Dr Liz Simpson. I started my PhD at Ulster University following the completion of my MSc in Health Psychology.One of my proudest moments was having the opportunity to lead an international collaborative piece of research, spending time in Rome with Italian researchers, which led to a publication. I am very proud to have completed my PhD during a very challenging time through the Covid-19 pandemic and completing with 3 published papers. Doing a PhD is a transformational journey, and my supervisors played a crucial role in my success.

Deirdre Timlin - PhD in Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience

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I completed my first degree in Product Design at LYIT, in my home county of Donegal. After which, I completed my degree in Psychology and master’s in Applied Psychology at Ulster University.While this PhD may have been challenging, it has been equally one of the most rewarding resilience building experiences of my professional and personal life. My proudest moments were i) getting accepted as a PhD candidate, ii) the following year publishing my first paper, and iii) then successfully defending my project in the viva. I am extremely proud to achieve this PhD and to have successfully completed my doctorate despite the unforeseen challenges faced during the Covid-19 pandemic.I could not have got through this without the support and expertise of both my supervisors Professor Brendan Bunting and Doctor John Mallett. I would also like to thank my family and friends for all their morale support and agricultural input over the years. I would like to wish every one of my fellow

Kelly Trearty - PhD in Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience

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I started my PhD at Ulster University after completing my BSc Psychology degree at Magee campus. Returning to education to complete a PhD was a goal of mine ever since I completed my BSc Pharmacy degree in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 2006. My PhD research examined patterns of healthcare utilisation by older adults using service evaluation and longitudinal epidemiological data. Looking back at my PhD I have many fond memories including having the opportunity to spend a week in Utrecht University developing my longitudinal data analysis skills, presenting my research at the FIP World Congress in Glasgow, collaborating with the Medicines Optimisation in Older People team in Northern Ireland, and contributing to Project ECHO NI. I am incredibly grateful to the many friends and colleagues in the School of Psychology and Doctoral College who made my PhD experience at Ulster a thoroughly enjoyable one. I wish to extend my sincere thanks to my wonderful supervisory team Prof

Ann Doherty - PhD in Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience

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My PhD journey as a part-time student was not straight forward and I am delighted to have completed my PhD under the phenomenal supervision of Prof. Siobhan O'Neill and Dr. Edel Ennis. I completed my undergraduate degree in Psychology and Masters in Addiction Studies in Dublin Business School, as well as gaining a PgDip in Applied Behaviour Analysis from NUI Galway. My PhD research looked at unemployment and mental health examining the process of being unemployed and seeking work. It also looked at suicidal ideation with people who experienced unemployment.A PhD part-time is hard, particularly as life will drag your attention off course from time to time! During the course of my PhD journey I got married, built a house and had a baby. There were definitely times when I didn't think I'd get here. My advice to anyone is 'keep going', it will be hard at times but it will be worth it. Surround yourself with people who understand the commitment needed and come up with some good one liners

Maeve Murphy - PhD in Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience

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My name is Nargis Khan and I am originally from Pakistan. I first came to Ulster University to study psychology at the undergraduate level and later joined a doctoral course which I have now successfully completed. I had a fantastic time studying in Ulster at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level. Throughout my PhD, I was well catered for in terms of resources with access to well-stocked libraries full of friendly and helpful staff, funding to travel to conferences, the availability of various courses (e.g., statistics) and above all a supportive and stimulating environment which fostered my academic development. The seminars organised during the term time allowed me to present my work and hear about the research of others across a range of areas. I particularly appreciated the teaching opportunities available to me during my PhD. My supervisors were supportive and generous with their time. Other members of staff in the Psychology department also took a genuine interest in the

Nargis Khan - PhD in Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience