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Reinforcement sensitivity theory

Dr. Simon Moss

Overview of the theory

Reinforcement sensitivity theory, formulated by Gray (1970), and then refined over a series of articles (e.g., Gray, 1981, 1982, 1991), characterizes three systems that underpin individual differences in personality and psychopathology. Each of these three systems is assumed to correspond to a circumscribed set of neural pathways.

First, the behavioral approach system, or BAS, motivates behaviors that are intended to seek rewards. When this system is activated, individuals crave excitement, demonstrate remarkable persistence, and feel especially elated when they attain rewards. As a consequence, individuals become very sensitive to potential rewards. Dopaminergic fibres ascending from both the substantia nigra and ventral tegmental area, to innervate the basal ganglia, together with motor, sensiomtor and prefrontal cortices, are assumed to underpin this system (Pickering & Gray, 1999).

Second, the fight-flight system, or FFS, motivates behaviors that are intended to avoid or escape aversive stimuli, often manifested as fear and panic. The periaqueductal grey, medial hypothalamus, amygdala, anterior cingulate, and prefrontal ventral stream are purported to underpin this system (e.g., Corr, 2004).

Finally, the behavioral inhibition system, or BIS, resolves conflicts among competing goals. When this system is activated, prepotent responses are inhibited, arousal rises, anxiety is experienced, and risks are assessed. Generally, avoidant behaviors, underpinned by the FFFS, are preferred to approach behaviors, corresponding to the BAS. Individuals, therefore, become very sensitive to punishment. The periaqueductal grey, medial hypothalamus, amygdala, septo-hippocampal system, posterior cingulated, and prefrontal dorsal stream are supposed to underpin this system (e.g., Gray & McNaughton, 2000).

Individual differences

The extent to which these systems are activated is assumed to vary across individuals (Carver & White, 1994). Individuals who demonstrate elevated levels of BAS activation are especially determined to seek rewards, assumed to override their chronic levels of under-stimulation (Carver & White, 1994). Individuals who demonstrate elevated levels of BIS activation are more inclined to avoid risky, distressing, or upsetting events, purported to reflect a response to chronic over-arousal (Carver & White, 1994).

Consequences of behavioral activation and behavioral inhibition

Workplace deviance

Diefendorff and Mehta (2007) argued that BAS should be related to deviance in the workplace. BAS represents a need to seek novel exciting activities to elevate levels of arousal (Carver & White, 1994). Deviant actions, such as wasting resources, sabotaging equipment, or gossiping about coworkers, could generate benefits or retaliation, and this uncertainty increases arousal. Consistent with this premise, BAS, as measured by the scale constructed by Carver and White (1994), was correlated with such deviance behavior, as rated by self reports.

Diefendorff and Mehta (2007) also contended that BIS could also be related to deviance in the workplace. In particular, because BIS reflects a sensitivity to punishment, attention is more inclined to be directed towards adverse events, ultimately promoting negative affect. To cope with this negative affect, individuals tend to engage in either retaliatory behavior or withdraw their effort, both of which deviates from the standards and policies of the workplace (see Spector & Fox, 2005). Again the findings verify this proposition: BIS was related to deviance, especially if many obstacles in the organization constrain performance, such as limited resources, interruptions, or restrictive rules, which ultimately amplifies negative affect.

Responses to social exclusion and neurological underpinnings

The behavioral inhibition system might reduce activation of the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex--a region that enables individuals to focus attention on important goals and to resolve unpleasant emotions, particularly the feelings that are evoked by exclusion or rejection. Specifically, in one study, conducted by Yanagisawa, Masui, Onoda, Furutani, Nomura, Yoshida, and Ura (2011), participants completed a measure of the behavioral inhibition system and the behavioral activation system. Furthermore, these individuals participated in an online game with other people. Some of these individuals were excluded by everyone else, whereas other individuals were included. During this task, near-infrared spectroscopy was applied to measure activity in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. Finally, the degree to which they felt a sense of belonging, self esteem, control, and meaning were assessed.

Unsurprisingly, when the behavioral inhibition system was activated?-and thus individuals reported sensitivity to problems?-exclusion was especially likely to impede their needs, decreasing any sense of belonging, self esteem, control, and meaning. This relationship was mediated by limited activation of the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. That is, if people are sensitive to problems, activation of the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex in response to problems is limited. Hence, the capacity of these individuals to resolve their pain diminishes.

Risk taking

As Verbruggen, Adams, and Chambers (2012) showed, after people need to inhibit a manual response repeatedly, reflective of behavioral activation instead of behavioral inhibition, they seem to shun risk. That is, they are not as inclined to gamble on large amounts of money. Presumably, this inhibition of manual responses may evoke a cautious mindset, diminishing behavioral activation. Consequently, the participants are not as attracted to the prospect of sizeable, but unlikely, rewards.

For example, in one study, participants completed a gambling task. They needed to choose between several monetary amounts. If they chose a high amount, the probability they would win this sum was low. If they chose a low amount, the probably they would win this sum was higher. Therefore, the tendency to choose a high amount reflected a risky, instead of a cautious, approach.

On some of the trials, a particular signal was presented. On these trials, some participants were instructed to press a space bar. Other participants were instructed to inhibit any response: They did not choose an amount on these trials.

If participants had inhibited some responses, they tended to choose the lower amounts on other trials. That is, they tended to shun risk. Indeed, even two hours after this mindset had been evoked, participants still seemed to shun risk. Arguably, the inhibition of motor responses could prime behavioral inhibition, or suppress behavioral activation, and ultimately diminish risk tasking.

Factors that moderate the effects of behavioral activation and behavioral inhibition

According to Carver, Johnson, and Joormann (2009), behavioral activation and behavioral inhibition do not always significantly affect behavior. Specifically, if people are conscientious--that is, disciplined, methodical, ambitious, and diligent--and perhaps agreeable as well, they can readily inhibit the automatic tendencies that emanate from behavioral activation and behavioral inhibition.

This possibility was explored by Turiano, Whiteman, Hampson, Roberts, and Mroczek (2012) in the context of drug use. For example, they discovered that extraversion at one time predicted substance abuse many years later. Extraversion tends to correlate with behavioral activation. Extraverted individuals, therefore, are likely to gravitate to the immediate rewards that some drugs can provoke. Yet, when conscientiousness was elevated, the relationship between extraversion and substance abuse dissipated.

Similarly, these researchers showed that neuroticism at one time predicted substance abuse many years later. That is, neuroticism tends to correlate with behavioral inhibition, amplifying the aversion of individuals to negative emotions. Consequently, these individuals abuse drugs merely to prevent such emotions, rather than attempt to address the cause of their problems. However, when conscientiousness was elevated, this association between neuroticism and substance abuse also diminished. Arguably, conscientious overrode the detrimental effects of both behavioral activation and behavioral inhibition.

Revised reinforcement sensitivity theory

In 2000, Gray and McNaughton refined the original reinforcement sensitivity theory to formulate a revised version. Like the original theory, this revised formulation assumes that three independent biological symptoms govern behavior: the behavioral activation system, the behavioral inhibition system, and the fight-flight-freezing system. In other words, apart from appending the word freezing to the fight-flight system, the names of these three modes are equivalent in both the original and revised variants.

Behavioral activation system: Revised

Despite this similarity, the characteristic properties of each system have been modified appreciably since the original formulation. In the original formulation, for example, the behavioral activation system was assumed to underpin the responses of individuals to reward and relief. Furthermore, activation of this system was presupposed to be associated with extraversion and rash or reckless impulsivity.

Nevertheless, since the original formulation of this theory, complications with these arguments began to surface. Dopamine, for example, was assumed to underpin the behavioral activation system. This neurotransmitter, however, is related to extraversion but not rash impulsivity (see Reuter, Schmitz, Corr, & Hennig, 2005). Similarly, Smillie and Jackson (2006) argued that a pursuit of rewards is related to functional impulsivity--that impulsivity but only when suitable--rather than rash impulsivity (see also Dawe & Loxton, 2004).

Accordingly, the properties and scope of the behavioral activation system was modified (Gray & McNaughton, 2000). First, in contrast to the original version, the behavioral activation system now represents more functional attempts to seek rewards, such as a predilection towards novel experiences, spontaneous behavior, and exciting activities. Similarly, this revised version is related to extraversion and functional, but not rash, impulsivity. Finally, this version corresponds to a single dimension--instead of three distinct subscales (cf Carver & White, 1994).

Fight-flight-freezing system

The original formulation of the fight-flight system was also modified in the revised version. In the original variant, the fight-flight system mediated rapid responses to unconditioned aversive stimuli--that is, stimuli that is inherently threatening or unfavorable, such as pain or noise. In the revised model, however, the fight-flight-freezing system underpins responses to both unconditioned and conditioned stimuli.

Second, in the original variant, unconditioned aversive stimuli would evoke either an attempt to escape, called flight, or defensive aggression, called fight. In the revised model, this system can also elicit freezing, in which individuals often discontinue any movement or thought in response to threats.

Third, the revised formulation of reinforcement sensitivity theory differentiates the stimuli that provoke flight, freezing, and fight. In particular, if the threat is somewhat distal or distant, flight or freezing is elicited. If the aversive stimulus is more proximal or immediate, fight is evoked. In this context, fight is a defensive response, which coincides with fear, rather than predatory aggression, which coincides with the pursuit of rewards and is thus mediated by the behavioral activation system.

Behavioral inhibition system

In the revised model, the function and properties of the behavioral inhibition system was modified appreciably. In the original version, this system was assumed to mediate responses to conditioned aversive stimuli--stimuli that individuals learn are unfavorable or threatening. In the revised variant, this system underpins responses to any form of conflict. That is, the system facilitates the detection and resolution of conflict. In particular, in response to conflict, ongoing behaviors, underpinned by the behavioral activation or fight-flight-freezing systems, are inhibited. Instead, attention and effort is directed towards the source of this conflict. Behavior is vigilant, cautious, and careful--rather than impulsive.

Second, in the original model, the behavioral inhibition system was related to both anxiety and fear (cf., Carver & White, 1994). In the revised model, the behavioral inhibition system corresponds to anxiety--an emotion that is evoked by uncertainty and evaluation from other individuals, representing the anticipation of potential disaster (see White & Depue, 1999, for a distinction between anxiety and fear). In contrast, the fight-flight-freezing systems correspond to fear, which represent concerns about specific aversive stimuli or events.

Third, in the original model, avoidance was primarily underpinned by the behavioral inhibition system. In the revised version, avoidance is primarily mediated by the fight-flight-freezing system (Jackson, 2009).

Freezing versus avoidance

When threatened, people and animals can freeze, flee and avoid, or fight. Low, Weymar, and Hamm (2015) explored the mechanisms that determine whether individuals will freeze or flee. In essence, when the threat was approaching and uncontrollable, the likelihood of freezing increased. In contrast, when the threat could be avoided, individuals were more likely to flee.

Although this principle is quite obvious, the evidence that Low, Weymar, and Hamm (2015) presented is innovative. In essence, on each trial, a large square appeared on the screen. A yellow square indicated the threat could be avoided by pressing a button& a blue square indicated the threat could not be avoided. Either a circle or star then appeared in the square. The circle, but not the star, indicated a threat was imminent. As the circle increased in size, the likelihood of a electric shock increased.

If the threat could not be avoided, individuals exhibit the hallmarks of freezing: Heart rate decreased, called bradycardia, enabling individuals to monitor the predator and avoid discovery. The sensory N1 component increased as well. If the threat could be avoided, individuals exhibit the hallmarks of preparing to flee: skin conductance increased, reflecting sympathetic arousal, and heart rate escalated. Startle responses diminished too.

Measures of revised reinforcement sensitivity

Measures of BAS and BIS

Carver and White (1994) constructed a measure of BAS and BIS sensitivity. BAS sensitivity comprises three subscales, including reward responsiveness (e.g., "When I get something I want, I feel excited and energized"), drive (e.g., "I go out of my way to get things I want"), and fun seeking ("I crave excitement and new sensations"). These subscales, therefore, reflect the extent to which individuals feel especially elated when they attain rewards, demonstrate remarkable persistence, and crave excitement. Many researchers, however, combine these three subscales to form a composite scale (e.g., Elliot & Thrash, 2002& Harmon-Jones & Allen, 1997). BIS sensitivity reflects one scale only (e.g., "I worry about making mistakes"). Cronbach?s ? for the subscales ranges from .71 to .81 (Carver & White, 1994).

Measures of the revised version of reinforcement sensitivity

Jackson (2009) developed and validated measures of reinforcement sensitivity, as defined by the revised variant (for an opportunity to complete this measure and receive a free report, see Cymeon research). Five subscales were constructed, all of which comprise six items. The measure of behavioral activation system includes items that relate to a predilection towards novel experiences, spontaneous behavior, and exciting activities. Typical items include "I look for new sensations" and "I like to do things spontaneously". Internal alpha consistency was .80. This subscale was inversely related to fear and positively related to psychopathy and, to a lesser extent, delinquency. These associations are expected, given that psychopathy, delinquency, and behavioral activation all relate to approach.

The measure of behavioral inhibition system comprises items that relate to competition with peers and avoidance of failure. Sample items include "I want to do well compared to me peers" and "I avoid work that makes we look bad". Internal consistency was .74 (Jackson, 2009). This subscale was positively related to work deviance but negatively related to Factor 1, psychopathy, which represents fearlessness and social potency (Jackson, 2009).

In this measure, fight represents the extent to which individuals would retaliate physically if provoked--perhaps by an attack from someone else. Examples of these items are "I would fight back if someone hit me first" and "If I caught somebody stealing my belongings, I would attack". Internal consistency was again .74 (Jackson, 2009). Fight was also related to deviance and delinquency as well as Factor 2, psychopathy, which represents non-conformity and blame, for example (Jackson, 2009).

Flight entails items that refer to whether participants feel inclined to flee or to hide in response to some threat. Sample items include "If approached by a suspicious stranger, I run away" and "I used to hide behind a chair as a child when I watched a frightening TV show". Internal consistency was virtually acceptable, at .69. Flight was inversely related to delinquency and psychopathy (Jackson, 2009).

The final subscale, freezing, represents the extent to which individuals stop thinking or moving in response to some aversive stimulus. Typical items include "If I got scared in my bed at night, I would remain motionless" and "In a crowd, my mind freezes and then I never know what to say". Internal alpha consistency was .70 and freezing was negatively associated with psychopathy (Jackson, 2009).

Structural equation modeling was utilized to assess the factor structure of these subscales as well as the relationships between these systems. A model in which the five subfactors were distinguished but correlated generated acceptable fit: GFI=.90, AGFI=.89, and RMSEA=.05 (Jackson, 2009).

Personality, as represented by the five factor model, is also related to these systems. Extraversion is highly related to the behavioral activation system and inversely related to flight and freeze. Neuroticism is highly related to the behavioral inhibition, flight, and freeze systems. Agreeableness is positively related to behavioral activation, but inversely associated with fight. Openness is also positively related to behavioral activation--but negatively related to flight and freeze.

Practical implications

Implications to redress workplace deviance

Managers should ensure that employees who seem to crave excitement?who, for example, often engage in thrilling, dangerous acts outside work?are granted variety and novelty at work. They need to be granted the opportunity to interact with a variety of important stakeholders. In addition, they should receive a variety of shorter tasks rather than one protracted activity, as otherwise deviant behavior might ensue (e.g., Diefendorff & Mehta, 2007).

Related theories

The distinction between BAS and BIS is similar to other dichotomies, such as promotion versus prevention focus (Higgins, 1997) and, more generally, approach versus avoidance motivation (Elliot & Thrash, 2002). For example, BAS, promotion focus, and approach motivation all characterize the inclination to seek positive and rewarding stimuli, but merely define these stimuli differently. In his definition of promotion focus, Higgins (1997), for example, focuses on growth and development as inherently rewarding. In their definition of approach, Kanfer and Ackerman (2000) refer to seeking outcomes that are valued by the organization as rewarding. In other words, the principal difference between these dichotomies relates more to the context and literatures in which they are applied.


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