The FAST (function acquisition speed test) was developed to assess and alter the degree to which people show psychological inflexibility around certain issues. Early research in the field of “stimulus equivalence” found that people find it difficult to learn a task that involves even indirectly matching words or images that do not go together for that individual. For example, for most people the words Murder and Good do not go together easily, but the words MURDER and BAD do. A task that requires a user to match, under time pressure, the words MURDER to BAD rather than to the word GOOD, will show the user making lots of mistakes and learning the task more slowly.
In one study by Rhonda Merwin and Kelly Wilson published in 2005, it was found that people who score high in measures of distress and a negative sense of self make significantly more errors in a simple learning task that required them to match self-referential terms, such as the word “me” with positive evaluation words, such as “perfect”. In contrast, people found it easier to learn the task that involved matching self-referential terms with negative terms such as “unworthy”. Several other studies found the same type of effect in the context of racial prejudice, sexism, and other aspects of self-esteem and a significant number of these studies were run and published by members of the RaiseYourIQ team and led to the development of the FAST tool.
This early research used a method called the “stimulus equivalence” method, and it was cumbersome for users, took too much time, and did not offer the possibility of of being used realistically as a training tool to loosen the rigidity people show towards sensitive issues. The FAST was developed as an easy to use method for this purpose.
Merwin and Wilson had suggested in 2005 that this effect whereby people find it hard to learn tasks that contradict their personal histories (e.g., a racist individual will find it hard to learn new associations between labels for particular ethics groups and positive terms), had important therapy implications. As one of the key founding Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT; Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999) researchers, Kelly Wilson argued that we could use this effect to diagnose and perhaps treat this resistance to learning shown by people who hold rigid verbal associations. However, at the time no such easy to use treatment tool existed to target this process and aid with verbal and psychological flexibility around sensitive issues.
The particular ACT technique that the FAST method applies, is called “cognitive delusion”. The FAST does in a digital format, what Cognitive Defusion exercises aim to do in the therapy session. That is, they give the client the chance to practice exposing themselves to various other ways of seeing concepts and issues that are causing them trouble. For instance, for a drug addict, there may be trigger words that create struggle with compulsion. For someone struggling with anxiety, there may be words that trigger intense fear or other rigid reactions. For a person with depression there may be a seemingly unbreakable link between thoughts and words related to the self and negative evaluative terms, a link which exacerbates the problem in a vicious circle.
Cognitive Defusion exercises, and the FAST, do not attempt to undermine or change these problematic verbal or “mental” associations, but aim to expand and add to them, loosen them, and make them more sensitive to context. As a simple example, for a spider phobic, we do not need to try to reframe all spiders as perfectly safe in an obviously contradictory way. Instead we can teach the client that spiders are sometimes dangerous and sometimes safe. This approach leaves the often rational aspect of the struggle in place (i.e., it is true that some spiders are deadly), but it softens the responses of the client by also allowing alternative reactions on some occasions (e.g., the response becomes more complex and diverse).
The FAST involves teaching users to make their stereotypical associations in one part of the training / game (e.g., spiders – terrible), but requires them to break those associations and make incompatible ones in another part of the task (e.g., Spiders-happy). This process of affirming and disconfirming the associations in questions across short blocks of task learning, makes the associations in question less rigid but does not eliminate or replace them.
There are many published studies showing the clinical benefits of cognitive defusion exercises, and the FAST is a new digital format for the delivery of such exercises.