What Is a Behavioral Activation System?

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Have you ever been motivated to do something in order to receive a reward? If so, you have been influenced by your behavioral activation system. Learn more about the behavioral activation system in this lesson. Then test your knowledge with a quiz.


Tracy is a 15-year-old high school sophomore. For the past year, Tracy has had her heart set on owning a Chevy Camaro. However, with her current job as a hostess, Tracy knows it will be years before she can save up enough money to purchase one. Tracy was also not doing very well in school, maintaining a C+ average.

Knowing how badly she wants the car, Tracy's parents make a deal with her. They tell her that for each 'A' she brings home, they will add $100 to her car savings account. The following week, Tracy brought home a math quiz showing an 'A' grade. The same day, her parents deposited money into her account as promised. This gave Tracy the motivation that she needed to work harder in school. She spent at least 2 hours every day studying and she completed all of her assignments on time. By the end of the semester, Tracy had brought all of her grades up to B+ or higher. The following semester, and every semester thereafter, Tracy received straight A's in all of her classes. By the middle of her senior year, Tracy had enough money in her car savings account to purchase the Chevy Camaro.

So what was it that motivated Tracy's behavior? To understand why Tracy behaved the way she did, we must look to the behavioral activation system.

Two Systems of Motivation

The behavioral activation system is one of two systems first developed by psychologist Jeffrey Gray as a means to explain what motivates human behavior. According to Gray, when something happens, we can use one of two systems in order to examine it. The two systems are known as the behavioral inhibition system and the behavioral activation system. These two systems are independent of one another. Each system must be used separately; they cannot be used together. Which system is employed is determined by whether a particular behavior will result in a punishment or a reward.

Behavioral Activation System

The behavioral activation system is aroused when people receive cues from their environment that a goal or reward can be attained in response to carrying out some behavior. Once people know that a reward is likely to follow, they work harder to carry out the behavior. The behavioral activation system is associated with positive emotions such as joy, hope, and happiness, unlike the behavioral inhibition system, which is linked to negative emotions such as sadness, fear, and anxiety. Whereas the behavioral activation system is associated with rewards and goal achievement, the behavioral inhibition system is associated with punishment and avoidance. In the example above, Tracy's goal was to save enough money to buy her dream car. Once she realized that she would be financially rewarded for getting A's, she began to work hard to get A's on all of her assignments. This allowed her to achieve her goal of purchasing the car.

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