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In this lesson, we will discuss the behavioral inhibition system.

We’ll learn more about the behavioral inhibition system and how it differs from the behavioral activation system. At the end, you can test your knowledge with a quiz.

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A Fear Reaction

Ron and Liam are two friends on a hiking trip in the Smoky Mountains. On their way up the mountain, they spot a northern copperhead, a poisonous snake. They immediately stop in their tracks, hoping that if they remain immobile, the snake will not notice them.

After a few seconds, the snake moves off to the left and disappears. The two boys let out a sign of relief once they are out of danger. So why is it that Ron and Liam responded to seeing the snake the way that they did? To answer this question, we must look closely at the behavioral inhibition system.

Motivation for Human Behavior

The concept of the behavioral inhibition system was first developed by psychologist Jeffrey Gray. Gray theorized that there are two systems that motivate human behavior: the behavioral activation system, which is focused on rewards and goals, and the behavioral inhibition system, which is focused on punishment and avoidance.

Let’s look at these in more detail.

Behavioral Activation System

The behavioral activation system is activated from receiving cues in the environment that a reward may be received as a result of pursuing some behavior. The behavioral activation system is related to positive feelings, such as hope, happiness, and motivation. Suppose Ron and Liam both wanted to lose weight. Once they start hiking, they notice that they are building muscle and dropping weight. As a result, Ron and Liam decide to go on weekly hiking trips. This is an example of behavioral activation.

Behavioral Inhibition System

The other system that motivates human behavior, according to Gray, is the behavioral inhibition system. This is activated from cues in the environment that a punishment or some negative response may occur as a result of pursuing some behavior. As a result, the behavior that would produce the punishment is avoided, or inhibited. The behavioral inhibition system is related to negative feelings, such as anxiety, fear, and sadness.It was the behavioral inhibition system that led Ron and Liam to freeze when they saw the poisonous snake. Had Ron and Liam continued moving, they could have been bitten by the poisonous snake, a negative event.

In order to stop the negative event from happening, Ron and Liam stood still. That is, their movement was inhibited.People who have a high level of sensitivity to the environmental cues related to the behavioral inhibition system are more likely to avoid environments and situations that could lead to punishment or negative experiences. For example, people who are afraid of clowns will avoid going to carnivals and fairs. Using the same logic, teenagers who know that they will be punished for drinking alcohol may avoid parties and outings where there is a chance that people may be drinking.When an event occurs, people can examine it using either of the two systems, though not both at the same time.

It just depends on whether the situation could mean a good thing or a bad thing.

Lesson Summary

According to psychologist Jeffrey Gray, human behavior is motivated by two systems. The behavioral activation system is activated when we sense that we can obtain a reward, while the behavioral inhibition system is activated when we sense that we can avoid punishment.

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