Sensitivity to Reward and Punishment

Jeffrey Gray has proposed an influential alternative biological theory of personalit (Gray, 1972, 1990), called reinforcement sensitivity theory. Based on brain function research with animals, Gray has constructed a model of human personality based on two hypothesized biological systems in the brain. The first is the behavioral activation system (BAS), which is responsive to incentives, such as cues for reward, and regulates approach behavior . When the BAS recognizes a stimulus as potentially rewarding, it triggers approach behavior . For example, as a child, you might have learned about an ice cream truck that made deliveries to your neighborhood while playing music. When you heard that music (cues of reward), your BAS created the urge to run out into the street to find the ice cream truck (approach motivation) The other system in the brain postulated by Gray (1975) is the behavioral inhibition system (BIS), which is responsive to cues for punishment, frustration, and uncertainty. The effect of BIS activation is to cease or inhibit behavior or to bring about avoidance behavior. You may have been scolded or punished by your mother for running into the street. The street becomes a punishment cue to the BIS, which causes you to inhibit your behavior. A rough analogy is that the BAS is like an accelerator that motivates approach behavior, whereas the BIS is like brakes that inhibit behavior or help a person stop what he or she is doing.

According to Gray, people dif fer from each other in the relative sensitivity of their BIS or BAS system. A person with a reactive BIS is especially sensitive to cues of punishment, frustration, or novelty. He or she is vulnerable to unpleasant emotions, including anxiety, fear, and sadness. According to Gray, the BIS is responsible for the personality dimension of anxiety. A person with a reactive BAS, on the other hand, is especially sensitive to reward. Such a person is vulnerable to positive emotions and tends to approach stimuli. The ability of an individual with a reactive BAS to inhibit behavior decreases as he or she approaches a goal. According to Gray , the BAS is responsible for the personality dimension of impulsivity, the inability to inhibit responses.

Gray and others (Fowles, 1987) have framed this model of impulsivity and anxiety as an alternative to Eysenck' s dimensions of extraversion and neuroticism. This alternative interpretation is presented in Figure 7.4. In Gray' s model, the extraversion and neuroticism dimensions are rotated about 30 degrees from anxiety and impulsivity. Those who are highly extraverted and a bit neurotic are seen as the most impulsive. At the other end of the impulsivity dimension are persons who are introverted and emotionally stable. Persons who are a bit introverted and highly neurotic are seen as the most prone to anxiety . At the other end of the anxiety dimension are persons who are extraverted and emotionally stable.

Some debate has focused on exactly where to locate BAS (impulsivity) and BIS (anxiety) in the conceptual space defined by Eysenck s dimensions of extraversion and introversion (Gomez, Cooper, & Gomez, 2000; Zuckerman et al., 1999). In fact, one of the authors of this book has had a series of exchanges with Gray and his colleagues about this issue (Pickering, Corr, & Gray, 1999; Rusting & Larsen, 1997, 1999). It appears that the relation between Gray' s constructs and Eysenck' s constructs is direct, with BAS being equivalent to extraversion and BIS being equivalent to neuroticism. In fact, the Canli et al. (2001) study cited earlier showed that the brains of extraverts (compared to introverts) were more reactive to pleasant, rewarding images and the brains of persons high on neuroticism are more reactive (than those low on neuroticism) to images associated with negative emotions. Many researchers


Figure 7.4

Relation between Eysenck's dimensions of extraversion and neuroticism and Gray's dimensions of impulsivity and anxiety.


Figure 7.4

Relation between Eysenck's dimensions of extraversion and neuroticism and Gray's dimensions of impulsivity and anxiety.

view the BIS and BAS constructs as similar to neuroticism and extraversion in that both refer to dispositional tendencies to withdraw from punishment or to approach reward, respectively (e.g., Davidson, 2003; Kosslyn et al., 2002; Sutton, 2002). Gray has revised his model and now locates BIS much closer to neuroticism and locates BAS much closer to extraversion (Pickering et al., 1999).

Gray believes that differences between people in sensitivity to reward and punishment are responsible for generating the varieties of behavior associated with being anxious/neurotic and with being impulsive/extraverted. If we ask why some people are more susceptible than others to anxiety attacks, fears, worry , depressions, phobias, obsessions, or compulsions, Gray would ar gue that their susceptibility is due to an overly sensitive behavioral inhibition system. Such people tend to notice and are sensitive to punishment and other frustrations. Moreover , they are distressed by uncertainty and novelty. Then, if we ask why some people are more susceptible than others to positive emotions, to approach behaviors, to seeking out and interacting with others, Gray would ar gue that this is due to an overly sensitive behavioral activation system.

One team of researchers, stimulated by Gray' s theory, constructed a questionnaire to measure BIS sensitivity—a tendency toward anxiety and fearfulness and the avoidance of uncertainty and risk (MacAndrew & Steele, 1991). The researchers identified a high and a low fearful group and determined which questions discrimi nated between the groups. Some examples of questions on this questionnaire are "I have been quite independent and free from family rule," "I am entirely self-confident, and "I do not blame a person for taking advantage of someone who lays himself open to it." For the high BIS group, the researchers selected a group of female psychiatric patients who had a history of anxiety and panic attacks. The low BIS group called for a sample of persons who had little regard for their own safety , who took risks and disregarded danger. To represent this group, the researchers used a sample of convicted prostitutes—persons who regularly engaged in illegal, high-risk sexual and drug-taking behavior. The prostitutes and anxiety patients were found to be significantly di ferent in their responses to the questionnaire. The prostitutes scored lower than the anxiety patients on this measure. Such a finding indicates that th questionnaire has some validity as a measure of tolerance for risky situations, danger, and fearlessness.

A second research group making use of Gray' s theory consists of psychologist Charles Carver and his colleagues (Carver, Sutton, & Scheier, 1999; Carver & White, 1994). Carver and White (1994) developed and validated a scale to measure individual differences in the strength of the BIS and BAS. Other researchers are adding to the validity evidence behind this scale. For example, Zelenski and Larsen (1999) found this scale to be one of the best measures of BIS and BAS. Carver et al. (1999) reviewed Gray's theory, emphasizing individual dif ferences in approach or incentive motivation (extraversion or impulsivity) and individual dif ferences in withdrawal or aversive motivation (neuroticism or anxiety). They showed how several programs of research can be integrated into the theme that humans appear to possess separate systems for responding to incentives and threats. For example, these systems show reliable individual differences, they relate to major af fective dispositions, they may be later-alized in our cerebral architecture, and they may relate dif ferently to learning by punishment and learning by reward. Carver and his colleagues consider these the "Big Two" personality dimensions. This review paper shows the remarkable integrating power of Gray's theory of personality .

Gray has primarily conducted research with animals. With animals, you can use drugs or surgery to eliminate certain areas of the brain, then test whether this af fects the animal's ability to learn through punishment or reward. Gray' s theory relates anxiety and impulsivity to the two principles of learning: reinforcement (both positive and negative) and punishment (and the loss of reinforcement). There is some evidence that these two forms of learning are under separate neural control. It appears likely that different brain mechanisms may be involved when a person or an animal learns through reinforcement or through punishment (Gray , 1991). Thus, there should be people with varying degrees of sensitivity (high, medium, or low) to punishment and to reward.

In a study of reward and punishment, participants were required to complete hundreds of trials of a dif ficult reaction time task (Larsen, Chen, & Zelenski, 2003) They had to name the colors of words that popped up on a computer screen as quickly and accurately as possible. It is a dif ficult task, and people can get only about hal the trials correct given that they have to respond in less than one second on each trial. One group was rewarded for each correct and fast response, and they earned 5 dollars during the course of a 20-minute experiment. Another group was punished after incorrect or slow responses and, though they started the experiment with 10 dollars, proceeded to lose 5 dollars. As such, everyone finished the experiment with 5 dollars but one group was rewarded on a trial-by-trial basis whereas the other group was punished on a trial-by-trial basis. It turned out that BAS scores predicted better performance in the reward condition, with high BAS persons working faster and becoming more accurate when they were working for reward. BIS scores, on the other hand, predicted performance in the punishment condition, with high-BIS persons responding with better performance when they were being punished, compared to low BIS participants.

Much of the work carried out to test Gray' s theory has focused on impulsivity (the inability to inhibit responses). Our jails are full of people who are deficient i the ability to control their behavior , especially behavior that may be immediately rewarding. For example, a 17-year -old male sees an expensive sports car parked on the street. As he looks at the car and thinks about how much fun it would be to drive, he notices that the keys are in the ignition. The owner appears nowhere in sight and the street is fairly deserted. He starts to reach for the door handle. The ability to stop this approach behavior, even though it is immediately rewarding, separates the average person from the impulsive person.

Impulsive individuals can be characterized as having stronger approach than avoidance tendencies and are less able to inhibit approach behavior , especially in the presence of desirable goals or rewards. You probably know someone who often says things that get them into trouble or who hurts other people' s feelings without even thinking. Even though they know they might hurt someone' s feelings and feel bad themselves (i.e., are "punished" by feelings of remorse), why can' t they control what they do and say?

According to Gray's theory, impulsive people do not learn well from punishment because they have a weak behavioral inhibition system. If this is true, then researchers should be able to demonstrate that, in a task that involves learning from punishment, impulsive persons do less well than nonimpulsive persons. Studies have been conducted on impulsive college students, juvenile delinquents, psychopaths, and criminals in jail (Newman, 1987; Newman, Widom, & Nathan, 1985). The typical finding is that suc persons are, in fact, deficient in learning through punishment. For example, when impul sive persons play a game of chance and are punished for wrong responses, they learn more slowly than when playing the same game but are rewarded for correct responses. Impulsive persons, it seems, do not learn as well from punishment as from reward.

Let's say you have a roommate and would like to teach her to clean her part of the apartment. You could try rewarding with candy and praise every time she picked something up. Or you could try punishing by yelling and scolding every time she left something out of place. If your roommate is an impulsive person, chances are that you would do better using the reward strategy than the punishment strategy . On the other hand, if your roommate is an anxious person, it might be more ef fective to use punishment than reward.


Think of a situation in which you are trying to teach someone something new. Discuss an example of how you might use reward to teach that behavior. Then discuss how you might use mild punishment to teach the same behavior.

Conquering Fear In The 21th Century

Conquering Fear In The 21th Century

The Ultimate Guide To Overcoming Fear And Getting Breakthroughs. Fear is without doubt among the strongest and most influential emotional responses we have, and it may act as both a protective and destructive force depending upon the situation.

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  • elena
    How to judge reward sensitivity?
    1 month ago
  • bernd
    What does it mean to be reward or punishment sensitive?
    17 days ago
    What does sensitivity to rewards and punishment mean?
    1 day ago

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