Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Biopsychological theory of personality and motivation

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Biopsychological theory of personality and motivation:
How does Gray's BIS/BAS theory explain motivation?

Overview[edit | edit source]

graph BIS and BAS.
Fig 1. BIS and BAS.

Many people may often wonder why they always behave in certain ways, they may wish they did or didn't do certain things but they just cannot seem to change. Read on in this chapter to gain an insight into Gray's biopsychological theory of personality and the two systems: Behavioural Activation System (BAS) and Behavioural Inhibition System (BIS) can have an impact on these decisions we make in every day life, you may even find some handy tips that could begin to help you on your journey.

What is motivation?[edit | edit source]

In simplistic terms, being motivated is when you feel driven to pursue something and actively seek out its completion (Ryan & Deci, 2000). There are however many different types of motivation, and this is what helps us to understand why people may pursue certain tasks (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Self Determination Theory allows us to make distinctions between the types of motivation based on the goals an individual may have (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

There are two main types of motivation that must be made distinct; extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation relates to an outside force influencing an individual's desire to complete a task, usually in the form of a rewarding stimulus (Ryan & Deci, 2000). People are most likely to pursue an extrinsically motivated behaviour because they would like to feel valued and connected to other people. In Self Determination Theory this aspect is called relatedness (Ryan & Deci, 2000). There are 4 subcategories within extrinsic motivation which are: (Ryan & Deci, 2000)

  1. External regulation - this is seen when an individual performs a task in order to obtain an external reward.
  2. Introjected regulation - this is seen when an individual performs a task in order to avoid feelings of guilt and to boost their self-esteem.
  3. Identified regulation - this is seen when an individual performs a task because they see it as something important that they and perhaps everyone needs to do.
  4. Integrated regulation - this is when the individual values the task themselves after self examination, but they still are expecting some outcome that is separate from the presented behaviour. Not to be confused with intrinsic motivation, although similar.

Intrinsic motivation is when an individual is motivating themselves to complete a task, in the absence of external reward or punishment. This is usually due to the individual finding the task interesting or enjoyable (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Intrinsic motivation plays a critical role in the development of social, physical, and cognitive development. This is because as we act on our intrinsic motivations we learn and develop knowledge and skills (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Intrinsic motivation has been proven to also be correlated with positive coping and self perceived competence (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Behavioural inhibition system[edit | edit source]

The Behavioural Inhibition System (BIS) is a system of the brain that is associated with resolving conflicts by inhibiting behavior, increasing anxiety, and engaging in risk-assessment behaviours (Tsan, Day, Schwartz, & Kimbrel, 2011). BIS has been found to be positively correlated with neuroticism, depression, anxiety, and cluster C personality disorders (Tsan et al., 2011).

When people experience motivational uncertainty or conflict, the BIS comes into action (High & Soloman, 2014). People who favour BIS tendencies are highly aroused and very aware of environmental stimuli (High & Solomon, 2014). The BIS is involved with drawing the individuals attention to conflicting stimuli, assessing risks, inspecting memory, and suppressing approach and avoidance behavior (High & Solomon, 2014). After the BIS is activated and has assessed the risks it favours protecting itself and avoiding risks, however once risk has been eliminated the BIS will be deactivated and passed over to BAS (High & Solomon, 2014).

Behavioural activation system[edit | edit source]

The Behavioural Activation System (BAS) is a system within the brain that is related to multiple approach behaviours in humans, including sensitivity to reward, impulsivity, and extraversion (Tsan et al., 2011). The BAS has been found to be positively correlated with extraversion, substance use, ADHD symptoms, and cluster B personality disorders (Tsan, et al, 2011).

The BAS is related to appetitive events, that being it motivates the individual to engage in behaviours that result in positive outcomes such as receiving reward or the removal of an aversive stimulus (High & Solomon, 2014). The BAS will always look for the possible gains and advantages in a situation (High & Solomon, 2014). Carver and White (2004) have proposed that BAS involves 3 subscales: (High & Solomon, 2014).

  1. Drive Factor - which, as it sounds, is focused on pursuing desired goals.
  2. Reward Responsiveness Factor - this revolves around the excitement of doing things well and receiving rewards.
  3. Fun Seeking Factor - is similar to impulsivity because it lacks planning and restraint.

How does BIS and BAS affect our personality and what influence does it have on motivation?[edit | edit source]

Both the BIS and BAS are derived from the work of Gray's Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory (RST), this is one of the most influential neuropsychological models of personality to date (Segarra, Poy, Lopez, & Molto, 2014). The original version of RST comprised of 3 components; BIS, BAS, and Fight/Flight System (FFS). The FFS was proposed to be activated when in the presence of fearful stimuli and was associated with defensive aggression and escape behaviours, it has also been found to be positively correlated with Psychoticism (Segarra et al., 2014). The BIS and BAS scales have been linked to theories that help explain personality differences such as Eysenck's Five Factor Model of Personality (Segarra et al., 2014). In these studies it has been revealed that the BIS is positively correlated to the factors of Neuroticism, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness while being negatively correlated with the factor of Extraversion (Segarra et al., 2014). All three of the BAS subscales have been found to be positively correlated with the factor of Extraversion. Going into detail, the BAS fun seeking was positively correlated with the factor Openness and negatively correlated with Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, BAS drive was not related to the factor of Openness, and was negatively correlated with Agreeableness whilst being positively correlated with Conscientiousness (Segarra et al., 2014). This demonstrates how the BIS and BAS systems can begin to explain personality and individual differences in people.

BIS and BAS tendencies have a major effect on our personality, [grammar?] scoring high on BIS would portray something completely different to scoring high on BAS. The BIS and BAS play an important role in how we might seek out help for ourselves, [grammar?] this is a display of how it can change our personalities and motivation (Tsan et al., 2011). For instance, if individuals were trying to seek help for a psychological problem, [grammar?] if an individuals BIS system was activated they would display anxiety, apprehension, and engage in risk assessment behaviours to resolve their conflict and would most likely try to avoid the situation if they could see anything negatively associated with it (Tsan et al., 2011)[Rewrite to improve clarity]. Leading on from personality is a neurobiological basis, [grammar?] people who have higher activity in their left Prefrontal cortex, or also known as left-side asymmetry score high on BAS scales, and those who show right side asymmetry score high on BIS scales (Reeve, 2009). This in turn acts on their personality by either giving them a more approach style personality (BAS) or by giving them an avoidance type personality (BIS) (Reeve, 2009).

Gray found that the risk seeking behaviours such as alcohol and drug use are found to be highest on the levels of BAS Drive and BAS Fun Seeking (Voigt, Dillard, Braddock, Anderson, Sopory, & Stephenson, 2009). Interestingly enough BAS has also been found to influence the type of foods we are motivated to eat, for example it was found those who scored high on BAS preferred foods that were sweet and high in fat content and this is possibly a reason for the correlation found amongst obesity and BAS (Voigt et al., 2009).

Motivation is affected by BIS and BAS, [grammar?] BIS will inhibit behaviour that can result in any negative outcomes and causes an individual to inhibit their motivations of working towards their goals (Carver & White, 1994). BAS will cause the individual to seek out their motivations and actively work towards their goals (Carver & White, 1994). A person who is high on a BIS scale is generally vunerable to anxiety and depression however, the individual may end up being motivated to learn the anxiety resulting situations so they can avoid these and have a relatively low anxiety level (Carver & White, 1994). Daily affect can be influenced by two motivational processes; differential exposure and differential reactivity. Differential exposure hypothesis states that BIS and BAS traits can influence an individual to experience certain types of events for example [grammar?] people with BIS tendencies may recognise the possible negative events and actively avoid these and people with BAS tendencies recognise the possible positive events and seek out these to attend (Gable, Reis, & Elliot, 2000). However [grammar?]in contrast to this the Differential Reactivity hypothesis states that individuals react strongly to the stimuli presented in the environment, [grammar?] for example people who are BIS sensitive will react stronger to negative events and people who are BAS sensitive will react stronger to the positive events (Gable et al., 2000).

Judge, Simon, Hurst, and Kelley (2014) discuss the concept that traits can vary in intensity over time, [grammar?] if this is the case then their life experiences could be an exact result of changes in those traits that caused their motivations to lead them where they want to be. The five factor model of personality states that personality traits can vary in response to environmental or internal influences that motivate the individual to achieve their goals (Hurst et al., 2014).

One example of how BIS and BAS can help to explain motivation is in a study by van Beek, Kranenburg, Taris, and Schaufeli (2013) that explores students studying behaviours and motivations. Their research found that their may be links involved with BIS/BAS sensitivity and the motivation of academic functioning. In this study they focused on two key areas being: overcommitment to ones studies which involved having an uncontrollable inner drive to study excessively, this is similar to being a work-a-holic (van Beek et al., 2013). The second study engagement differs in that this is directly related to dedication and absorption of the material, this is similar to work engagement(van Beek et al., 2013).Low self esteem and a high fear of failure mean that people who adopt the 'overcommitment to ones study' approach tend to work in an obsessive compulsive manner and these features are usually adopted by BIS motivated individuals (van Beek et al., 2013). BIS individuals are motivated to pursue a task to prove competence and eliminate failure, [grammar?] this is most often why they are overcommitted (van Beek et al., 2013). Having high self esteem, self efficacy, and optimism activates engagement, and these are proposed to be activated by BAS (van Beek et al., 2013). BAS individuals are motivated to achieve goals related to competence building and task mastery and this in turn is reflected in engagement (van Beek et al., 2013). It was also found that BIS individuals would more often than not have a positive association with exhaustion because they would find it difficult to pull away from tasks due to the threat that they may fail, they also did not find their studies that enjoyable (van Beek et al., 2013). In contrast, BAS individuals have higher levels of energy and find it easier to pull away from tasks, this then opens up opportunities for other positive opportunities, they found their studies more enjoyable that did those high on BIS (van Beek et al., 2013). Another finding was that BIS individuals 'overcommitment' was negatively correlated with academic performance, and that BAS individuals 'engagement' was positively correlated with academic perfomance (van Beek et al., 2013).

BIS and BAS typical statements, and mini test[edit | edit source]

As cited in Reeve (2009) below is some examples of questionnaire items:

BIS Items:

  1. If I think something unpleasant is going to happen I usually get pretty 'worked up'.
  2. Criticism or scolding hurts me quite a bit.
  3. I feel pretty worried or upset when I think or know somebody is angry at me.
  4. I feel worried when I think I have done poorly at something.

BAS Items:

  1. When I get something I want, I feel excited and energized.
  2. When good things happen to me, it affects me strongly.
  3. When I want something, I usually go all-out to get it.
  4. I go out of my way to get things I want.
  5. I will often do things for no other reason than that they might be fun.
  6. I crave excitement and new sensations.

The actual BIS/BAS scales full questionnaire comprises of 7 BIS items and 13 BAS items, this above is only part of the questionnaire. Respondents do not know which items are ranked as BIS and BAS and are asked to agree or disagree on a scale of 1-7, 1 being strongly agree and 7 being strongly disagree.

If you are curious about whether you may rank higher on the BIS or BAS scale you could rate 1-7 on these items and see which you scored highest for.

Some tips[edit | edit source]

BAS is linked with Extraversion and BIS is linked with Introversion. click here to find out some ways to become more extraverted if you score a high BIS here to find out some ways to become more introverted if you score high on BAS scores.

If you score high on BIS, as you have read this is related to seeing the negative in situations and pursuing avoidance, if you want some tips on how to be more optimistic click on this link.

Here is a fantastic video that discusses how to motivate change.

Test your knowledge[edit | edit source]


1 Which of the following is NOT a sub category of extrinsic motivation?

External regulation
Progressive regulation
Identified regulation
Introjected regulation

2 Gray discovered risk seeking behaviours to be high on 2 of the 3 BAS categories. Which of these was not in those 2?

BAS drive
BAS fun seeking
BAS reward responsiveness

3 Which of the following is BIS not positively correlated with?


4 Which of the following is BAS not associated with?

Sensitivity to reward

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

In conclusion, this [what?] helps to explain how BAS affects our motivational states as it drives us towards seeking something we will desire. It explains that BIS affects our motivational states in the opposite way as it drives us to avoid unpleasant situations. As discussed it can also be demonstrated the very different personalities that individuals have dependent on whether they are higher in BIS or BAS and this affects our motivation.

See also[edit | edit source]

  1. Gray's biopsychological theory of personality
  2. More about Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation
  3. More about Learned Optimism
  4. More about Anxiety and Motivation
  5. More about Depression and Motivation
  6. More information about Depression and Motivation
  7. More on Motivation and Personality

References[edit | edit source]

Carver, C., & White, T. (1994). Behavioural inhibition , behavioural activation, and affective responses to impending reward and punishment: The BIS/BAS Scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(2), 319-333. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.67.2.319.

Gable, S., Reis, H., & Elliot, A. (2000). Behavioral Activation and Inhibition in Everyday Life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(6), 1135-1149. doi: 10.1037//0022-3514.78.6.1135.

High, A., & Solomon, D. (2014). Motivational systems and preferences for social support strategies. Motivation and Emotion, 38(4), 463-474. doi:

Judge, T., Simon, L., Hurst, C., & Kelley, K. (2014). What I experienced yesterday is who I am today: Relationship of work motivations and behaviors to within-individual variation in the five-factor model of personality. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(2), 199-221. doi: 10.1037/a0034485.

Reeve, J. (2009). Understanding Motivation and Emotion (5th ed.). USA: John Wiley & Sons.

Ryan, R,. Deci, E. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25,(1), 54-67. doi:

Segarra, P., Poy, R., Lopez, R., & Molto, J. (2014). Characterizing Carver and White's BIS/BAS subscales using the Five Factor Model of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 61-61, 18-23. doi:

Tsan, J., Day, S., Schwartz, J., & Kimbrel, N. (2011). Restrictive emotionality, BIS, BAS, and psychological help-seeking behaviour. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 12(3), 260-274. doi:

van Beek, I., Kranenburg, I., Taris, T., & Schaufeli, W. (2013). BIS- and BAS-activation and study outcomes: A mediation study. Personality and Individual Differences, 55(5), 474-479. doi:

Voigt, D., Dillard, J., Braddock, K., Anderson, J., Sopory, P., & Stephenson, M. (2009). Carver and white's (1994) BIS/BAS Scales and their relationship to risky health behaviours. Personality and Individual Differences, 47,(2), 89-93. doi:

External links[edit | edit source]

  1. Take an online quiz to find out if you rank higher on BIS or BAS (

The results of this quiz will give you 4 percentages labeled as:

  • Pursuit of Desired Goals = BAS Drive
  • Desire for new rewards and impulsive approach to potential rewards = BAS Fun Seeking
  • Anticipation or occurrence of reward = BAS Reward Responsiveness
  • Anticipation of punishment = BIS

(see above earlier in this chapter for a description of these 4 categories). Note also that this is a more traditional approach and that these days we would test if someone is higher on BIS or BAS through EEG testing