Exploring The Life And Work Of Psychologist Steven C. Hayes

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated October 5, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Steven C. Hayes is known by many as a renowned psychologist and researcher, who is thought to have made substantial contributions to the field of psychology. His work has received widespread recognition by many prominent psychological research bodies—specifically for his work with acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and relational frame theory (RFT). 

Below, we’ve summarized Hayes’ early years, psychological contributions and work in the areas of ACT and RFT.

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Steven C. Hayes: Early Life And Education

Steven C. Hayes grew up in Southern California, seeking his first baccalaureate degree in the 1960s from Loyola Marymount University. Over the course of his studies, he found himself gravitating toward behavior therapy, drawn by the possibility of directly positively impacting one’s emotions. He did his clinical doctoral program at West Virginia University, establishing department of psychology as one of the most prominent centers for behavioral analysis in the country over the course of his education and dissertation.

Career And Contributions To Psychology: What Did Hayes Do? 

Throughout his career, Hayes is thought by many to have published numerous articles and books on various psychology-related topics, primarily focused on behavioral cognition and related therapies, in most cases. He has received multiple awards and honors for his contributions to the field of psychology, including the Career Scientist Award from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), election as a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science the Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award from the American Psychological Association (APA). He is also a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, and has worked as a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.

What Is Acceptance And Commitment Therapy (ACT)?

ACT is defined by many as a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy that Hayes and his colleagues developed throughout the 1980s. The approach is generally based on the idea that psychological suffering can be caused by avoiding complex thoughts and emotions during or after a time of strain or trauma. 

In this context, many ACT practitioners believe that the key to reducing suffering might be learning to accept these experiences without self-judgment. ACT can help individuals to develop psychological flexibility, which can involve engaging in actions that are consistent with their values of empathy and self-compassion—even in the presence of complex thoughts and emotions. 

ACT has been scientifically suggested to be effective for various mental health conditions, including the symptomatic resolution of anxiety disorders, depression, and chronic pain. It is also thought to be effective in treating substance use and addiction in some. 

Additionally, ACT has been used to help individuals who may be experiencing difficulty but do not yet have a diagnosis. Common positive implications of ACT for many can include improving relationships, reducing one’s stress and increasing one’s overall well-being. 


What Is Relational Frame Theory (RFT)?

Relational Frame Theory (RFT) is generally defined as a theoretical framework that can provide a comprehensive understanding of human language and cognition. This framework can offer an understanding of how language can influence behavior in some, possibly precluding the formation of preventable psychological conditions. 

RFT is thought by many to be based on the idea that human behavior can be driven by the relationships between stimuli that can be learned through language and social interactions. RFT has previously been used by many as they attempt to explain various psychological phenomena, including anxiety disorders, depression and other mental health conditions.

In addition to his work on ACT and RFT, Steven Hayes has published a range of articles and books on various behavioral psychology-related topics. He is generally widely recognized by many as an expert in behavioral psychology as a result of his extensive publication history and work.

Steven C. Hayes: Achievements And Recognition

Throughout his career, Hayes has received numerous awards and honors for his contributions to psychology. Some of his most notable achievements include:

  • Receiving the Career Scientist Award from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 1995
  • Being elected as a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science in 2001
  • Receiving the Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award from the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2002
  • Receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) in 2012

In addition to these awards and honors, Hayes has been recognized for his contributions to the field of psychology through his teaching and mentorship at a local and university level. He has trained and mentored many of the leading researchers and practitioners in psychology today, and many believe that his work has inspired countless others to pursue careers in psychology.

How Can Online Therapy Support Those Engaging In Self-Discovery? 

Online therapy can help individuals develop psychological flexibility and resilience, possibly empowering many to engage in actions consistent with your values when it comes to self-management—even if those actions involve facing complex thoughts and emotions. 

While this is generally regarded as possible in an in-person clinical setting, many may find it easier to accept their thoughts and emotions without judgment by engaging in online therapy. A possible reason for this is that many will be able to access the tool from the comfort of their home or safe space, which can make it feel more accessible and attainable for those who might feel vulnerable on their journey of self-discovery.  

With the rise of online therapy options, many may be wondering: Is online therapy truly effective? There have been several different published studies surface as a result of the interest; most notably, a study published in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science. 

A systematic review of the literature has suggested evidence for the efficacy of virtual Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)in addressing symptoms of depression, anxiety disorders, and psychological flexibility (PF) limitations. The review analyzed 13 studies with 2580 participants, suggesting significant positive impact when the therapy was used for treating symptoms of depression, anxiety disorder, and PF limitations. Additionally, a correlation between higher levels of clinician guidance and enhanced positive outcomes were found, possibly supporting the more efficient use of this therapy int he future. 

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These therapy-related outcomes were suggested to be associated with reductions in symptomatic expression that is commonly associated with depression and anxiety disorders in most. However, the limited number of studies and considerable heterogeneity of results currently suggest that any conclusions made are tentative. More research is generally needed to fully understand the effectiveness of ACT self-help as a form of psychotherapy, both in the context of virtual and in-person treatment.


Steven C. Hayes' work on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and relational frame theory (RFT) is thought by many to have had a lasting impact on psychology. Many believe that these therapies have helped to improve the lives of many, possibly offering insight into behavioral patterns and one‘s mental health experiences. 

As technology advances, online therapy has become increasingly popular for many individuals seeking mental health support. Numerous studies have suggested the efficacy and positive impacts of online therapy, which can be an accessible and convenient way for individuals to receive the benefits of ACT and RFT. BetterHelp can connect you with an online therapist in your area of need.

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