The Behavioral Activation System (BAS) is a psychological concept that refers to the neurological network responsible for initiating and regulating goal-directed behavior. It is a complex system within the human brain that plays a vital role in motivation, reward processing, and the pursuit of desired outcomes.
Jeffery Gray (1981, 1987) suggested that three neurologically-based, independent systems are involved in regulating behavior. One is the Behavioral Activation System activated by appetitive rewards to conditioned and unconditioned stimuli. The second is the Behavioral Inhibition System activated by conditioned and unconditioned stimuli signaling punishment or non-reward. And the third system is the fight-flight-freeze system proposed to motivate escape behaviors in response to conditioned and unconditioned stimuli (Gray, 1987)`.
The Behavior Activation System is a neurological system activated in response to the signals of reward, motivating approach behaviors.
The Relationship Between BAS and BIS
The BAS and BIS act independently of each other. Accordingly, a person may have high sensitivity to both rewards and punishments, low sensitivity to rewards and punishments, or be high in one and low in the other (Ito et al., 2019). The Behavior Activation System and Behavior Inhibition System act as the gas and brake pedals on a car. The BAS motivates approach behaviors sensitive to when rewards are likely while the BIS motivates avoidance sensitive to when punishments are likely.
The two systems react to conditioned stimuli, learned from past experience or social learning. However, the level of sensitivities in these two independent systems are largely biologically determined. Consequently, a child’s biologically defined BAS and BIS has a reciprocal effect on their experiences, cascading into stable and enduring personality qualities. Accordingly, personality researchers have referred to the BAS-BIS in several personality studies.
Brain Activity for the BAS-BIS Model
The underlying concept of the different neurological systems is that they produce biological reactions in response to environmental stimuli. The biologicals reactions are ultimately expressed through cognitions, emotions, and behaviors. As with all complex systems, the reactions then create reciprocating cycle. The reactionary cognitions, emotions, and behaviors impact environments, and in turn impact internal systems. Depending on our biological sensitivities, our reactions may have a mediating or exasperating impact on the initiating stimuli and on our reactionary process.
The BAS is believed to be primarily associated with the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Accordingly, when the BAS is activated, the release of the dopamine neurotransmitter is experienced as positive emotions, reinforcing behaviors linked to satisfying outcomes. This can manifest as increased motivation, enthusiasm, and excitement.
Furthermore, researchers have discovered differences in the resting prefrontal asymmetry measured by electroencephalographic (EEG) between individuals that correlated with their BAS and BIS scores. “Participants with higher BAS showed more relative left prefrontal activation, whereas those with higher BIS scores showed greater relative right prefrontal activation” (Gable, et al., 2000). Basically, BAS-BIS systems operate within the brain, creating differences in sensitivity to environmental stimuli.
Personality and Behavioral Activation System
Perhaps, these neurobiological systems are the foundational beginnings of personality differences. Early in Gray’s research, he associated the BAS-BIS model to extraversion-introversion (Gray, 1970). Other personality researchers operationalized the BAS-BIS model as extraversion-neuroticism.
While the Behavioral Activation System, may have several correlates to personality types, it is more aptly tied to motivation. Hence, the character trait similarities with some of the personality types.
Individuals with a highly sensitive or strongly activated BAS tend to be more inclined towards experiencing positive emotions, seeking out new experiences, and taking risks. They often have a heightened drive to achieve their goals and derive satisfaction from accomplishing tasks or receiving recognition. We can also see several correlates to high activation in the BAS with Barbara Frederickson’s broaden and build theory.
On the other hand, a malfunctioning or underactive BAS can lead to decreased motivation, a lack of enthusiasm, and reduced engagement in goal-directed behaviors. This can result in feelings of apathy, lethargy, and decreased interest in activities that were once rewarding.
Psychopathology and the BAS-BIS Models
Following Gray’s presentation and research on the BAS-BIS models, Researchers conducted numerous studies on the relationships between BAS and BIS scores and different diagnoses of psychopathologies. Researchers have discovered several correlation worthy of note.
While we largely see the approaching behaviors of BAS as good, and the avoiding behaviors of the BIS as bad. However, this is over simplified. Basically, excessive activation in either system can interfere with healthy lifestyles. High levels of BAS or BIS is associated to psychopathologies.
Usually, the approaching behaviors of BAS are healthy. However, research has also associated high activation of the BAS with impulsivity which can lead to risky, self-destructive behaviors. Furthermore, research has found that High BAS activity may also place higher value on positive rewards typically associated with unhealthy behaviors, such as alcohol consumption, leading to alcohol abuse and addiction (Zisserson & Palfaia, 2007).
Research has also found associations between the manic aspects of bipolar disorder and heightened sensitivity in the BAS (Hayden et al., 2008; Johnson et al., 2012), while heightened BIS levels contribute to depression. A healthy mind and life is always a balance of moderate levels of opposing forces. We need both brakes and gas to safely operate a car on the treacherous roadways of life.
A Few Final Words by Psychology Fanatic
Understanding the intricacies of the Behavior Activation System can be valuable in various fields, such as psychology, education, and business. By comprehending the factors that activate the BAS and influence motivation, professionals can design strategies to enhance engagement, productivity, and overall well-being.
In conclusion, the Behavioral Activation System is a vital component of human psychology that governs our motivation and pursuit of rewards. By delving deeper into this concept, and understanding the balancing and protective features of the Behavioral inhibition System, we can gain insights into our own behaviors and develop strategies to optimize our motivation and satisfaction in various aspects of life.
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Gray, Jeffery Allen (1970). The psychophysiological basis of introversion-extraversion. Behaviour Research and Therapy. volume 8, p. 249-266. DOI: 10.1016/0005-7967(70)90069-0
Gray, Jeffery Allen (1981) Critique of Eysenck’s Theory of Personality. In A Model for Personality, Editor HJ. Eysenck.
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Hayden, E., Bodkins, M., Brenner, C., Shekhar, A., Nurnberger, J., O’Donnell, B., & Hetrick, W. (2008). A Multimethod Investigation of the Behavioral Activation System in Bipolar Disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 117(1), 164-170. DOI: 10.1037/0021-843X.117.1.164
Ito, R., Kobayashi, N., Yokoyama, S., Irino, H., Takebayashi, Y., & Suzuki, S. (2019). Interaction Effects of Behavioral Inhibition System/Behavioral Activation System and Cost/Probability Biases on Social Anxiety. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02536
Subramanian, Łukasz, Sękowski, M., & Żemojtel-Piotrowska, M. (2022). Behavioral Inhibition System (BIS), Behavioral Activation System (BAS), and grandiose facets of narcissism. Current Psychology, 41(6), 4125-4131. DOI: 10.1007/s12144-020-00927-6
Sütterlin, S., Andersson, S., Vögele, C., & , (2011). Inhibition in Action–Inhibitory Components in the Behavioral Activation System. Journal of Behavioral and Brain Science. DOI: 10.4236/jbbs.2011.13021
Zissreson, Rebecca; Palfaia, Tibor (2007). Behavior Activation System (BAS) Sensitivity and Reactivity to Alcohol Cues Among Hazardous Drinkers. Addiction Behavior. 2007 October: 32(10): 2178-2186. DOI: 10-1016/J.addbeh.2007.02.016.