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Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory (RST) proposes three brain-behavioral systems that underlie individual differences in sensitivity to reward, punishment, and motivation. While not originally defined as a theory of personality, the RST has been used to study and predict anxiety, impulsivity, and extraversion. The theory evolved from Gray's biopsychological theory of personality to incorporate findings from a number of areas in psychology and neuroscience, culminating in a major revision in 2000. The revised theory distinguishes between fear and anxiety and proposes functionally related subsystems. Measures of RST have not been widely adapted to reflect the revised theory due to disagreement over related versus independent subsystems. Despite this controversy, RST informed the study of anxiety disorders in clinical settings and continues to be used today to study and predict work performance. RST, a continuously evolving paradigm, is the subject of multiple areas of contemporary psychological enquiry.
Origins and Evolution of the Theory
Gray's biopsychological theory of personality was informed by his earlier studies with Mowrer on reward, punishment, and motivation and Hans Eysenck’s study of the biology of personality traits. Eysenck linked Extraversion to activation of the Ascending Reticular Activation System (ARAS), an area of the brain which regulates sleep and arousal transitions.
Eysenck's two original personality factors, Neuroticism and Extraversion, were derived from the same lexical paradigm used by other researchers (e.g., Gordon Allport, Raymond Cattell) to delineate the structure of personality. Eysenck’s Extraversion-Arousal Hypothesis states that under low stimulation conditions, introverts (defined as low in Extraversion) will be more highly aroused than extraverts; however, under high stimulation, introverts may become over-aroused, which will feedback within the ARAS and result in decreases in arousal. Alternatively, extraverts tend to show greater increases in arousal under high stimulation. Eysenck also studied the relationship between neuroticism and activation of the limbic system using classical emotional conditioning models. His theory focused more on anxiety as a disorder than a personality trait. Eysenck’s theory predicts that introverts are more likely to develop anxiety disorders because they show higher neuroticism and stronger emotional conditioning responses under high arousal. His theory was criticized because introverts often show the opposite pattern, weaker classical conditioning under high arousal, and some supporting data confounded personality traits with time of day.
Gray's Biopsychological Theory: Behavioral Activation and Inhibition Systems
Unlike Eysenck, Gray believed that personality traits and disorders could not be explained by classical conditioning alone. Gray proposed the Biopsychological Theory of personality in 1970 based on extensive animal research. His theory emphasized the relationship between personality and sensitivity to reinforcement (i.e. reward and punishment). Eysenck’s theory emphasized Extraversion, Neuroticism, and arousal, while Gray’s theory emphasized Impulsivity, Anxiety, approach motivation, and avoidance motivation.
Gray's model of personality was based on three hypothesized brain systems:
1.Flight-Fight-Freeze system (FFFS) which is characterised by:
- Sensitivity to aversive stimuli
- with associated defensive avoidance (fear) and escape(panic)
- The FFS mediates reactions of rage and panic, flight versus fight, and is sensitive to unconditioned aversive stimuli. FFS is often referred to as the threat system.
2. Behavioral approach system(BAS) characterised by:
- Sensitivity to appetitive stimuli
- Associated approach and anticipatory pleasure (hope
- The BAS includes brain regions involved in regulating arousal: cerebral cortex, thalamus, and striatum. The system is responsive to conditioned and unconditioned reward cues. BAS regulates approach behaviors and is referred to as the reward system. In general, individuals with a more active BAS tend to be more impulsive and may have difficulty inhibiting their behavior when approaching a goal.
3. Behavioural Inhibition System (BIS)characterized by:
- Sensitivity to goal conflict (eg approach-avoidance
- Linked with rumination, anxiety
- The BIS also includes brain regions involved in regulating arousal: the brain stem, and neocortical projections to the frontal lobe. BIS is responsive to punishment, novelty, uncertainty, and non-rewarding stimuli. BIS regulates avoidance behaviors and is often referred to as the punishment system. Individuals with more active BIS may be vulnerable to negative emotions, including frustration, anxiety, fear, and sadness.
Personality is said to reflect variations in these systems.
This theory also suggests why some individuals might be more prone to some psychological disorders than others. So for example, someone with a particularly active BAS might be likely to develop disinhibitory disorders;a person with an active FFFS may be more prone to developing phobias or panic disorder
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