Sensitivity to Reward or Punishment: Which Kind of Person Are You?

Reward sensitivity and punishment sensitivity influence how you feel, how you perceive opportunities, and what decisions you make. Find out how these processes influence you.
Sensitivity to Reward or Punishment: Which Kind of Person Are You?
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 03 April, 2023

Some people are open, optimistic, and daring. They love novelty and always see opportunities. On the other hand, some are avoidant. They don’t like risks and prefer to stay in familiar territory.

Neither of these two personalities is better than the other. However, these tendencies do cause great differences in daily life. It’s for this reason that we’re going to talk about sensitivity to reward and sensitivity to punishment.

The way you perceive situations, how you feel, and the decisions you make are greatly influenced by these factors. That’s why there are those who welcome challenges and follow their impulses and those who are more cautious and restrained. If you want to know the reasons behind these traits, read on.

Woman thinking
People with high sensitivity to punishment are usually cautious.

Sensitivity to reward and sensitivity to punishment

These two terms are included within the reinforcement sensitivity theory (RST) proposed by the psychologist Jeffrey Alan Gray in 1970. It’s a neuropsychological model on emotion, motivation, and learning that accounts for the influence that certain circumstances have on us.

Gray postulates that there are three systems that make up this process:

The behavioral approach system

The behavioral approach system (BAS) is a positive feedback system. It predicts the sensitivity to the reward of each person since it acts before the positive, appealing stimuli and opportunities that are presented to us. It generates activation and reward orientation. Consequently, it’s related to optimism, impulsiveness, and the tendency to take risks.

Those who have a highly developed behavioral approach system identify the opportunities offered by a situation more accurately and in less time. Furthermore, they tend to pursue goals and achieve them, experiencing their positive effects such as joy or hope more frequently.

The fight-flight-freeze system

Also called the acute stress response (ASR), this system responds to aversive stimuli (those that are unpleasant or generate negative consequences). It does this by generating avoidance or escape reactions. It’s linked to negative feelings such as pain, anxiety, and worry. In addition, it keeps us alert to possible risks in the environment.

This is a useful and necessary survival mechanism. However, it also carries a risk. That’s because it can be activated in situations that don’t really pose a danger and lead us to display behaviors that aren’t the most appropriate. For example, you might lose a valuable opportunity by not being daring enough to grab it and act.

The behavioral inhibition system

This third system is the behavioral inhibition system (BIS).  It acts as a mediator between the previous two. It mediates in the resolution of the conflict between the tendency to approach, which is generated by the BAS, and the tendency to avoid, caused by the ASR.

In any given circumstance, whether we respond by approaching or avoiding will depend on the BIS or our sensitivity to punishment. In some people, this sensitivity will be such that it’ll trigger ASR from really low thresholds. This is because they’ll perceive certain situations as extremely threatening, situations that, for others, wouldn’t pose any threat.

Thus, to avoid punishment and unpleasant experiences and emotions, they make the decision to either flee or to avoid and remain safe or in the background. In short, to inhibit their behavior.

On the contrary, those with low sensitivity to punishment won’t perceive the signals as threatening. In fact, the possibility that something could go wrong won’t even necessarily occur to them. Therefore, it’s more likely that their approach system will be activated and they’ll decide to act and take a risk.

man on a dark road
People with high sensitivity to rewards are very open to meeting new people and places.

Sensitivity to reward and sensitivity to punishment: which is more marked in you?

Now we’ve given an outline of these two kinds of characteristics, do you know which one is more marked in you? Here are some signs to help you work it out.

High reward sensitivity (and low punishment sensitivity)

  • You perceive opportunities more easily.
  • You feel less risk aversion.
  • You’re really open to meeting new people and places.
  • You often feel optimistic, hopeful, or excited about challenges.
  • As a rule, you’re in good spirits and you have few worries.
  • You like to be the center of attention and receive praise and admiration.
  • You tend to be focused on enjoying yourself. Furthermore, you have the tendency to adopt the ‘you’ll cross that bridge when you come to it’ mindset when it comes to difficulties.

High punishment sensitivity (and low reward sensitivity)

  • You tend to easily perceive risks, possible setbacks, and potential losses.
  • When faced with a challenge, you’re far-sighted and cautious. In other words, you need to know that you’ll be able to fulfill it before taking the risk.
  • You tend to feel indecisive and worried about important decisions and projects. In fact, you analyze them several times in-depth and often doubt your ability to complete them successfully.
  • You prefer people, places, and dynamics that are known and familiar to you, those in which you feel in control and know what to expect.
  • As a rule, you choose to go unnoticed or remain in the background instead of risking being judged by others.
  • You often feel restless, worried, and anxious.
  • If you’re not sure that something will work out, you choose not to take action.

It must be said that these situations pose unusual extremes. Consequently, most of us fall somewhere in between the two. However, getting an idea of your sensitivity to reward and punishment can help you to know yourself better, understand why you feel and act in certain ways, and if you consider it necessary to make some changes.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Gray, J. A. (1970). The psychophysiological basis of introversion-extraversion. Behaviour research and therapy8(3), 249-266.
  • Gray, J. A. (1982). The neuropsychology of anxiety: An enquiry into the functions of the septo-hippocampal system. Behavioral and brain sciences5(3), 469-484.
  • Pascual Nicolás, D., Pascual Nicolás, T., Redondo Delgado, M., & Pérez Nieto, M. Á. (2014). Sensibilidad a la recompensa y al castigo, personalidad, impulsividad y aprendizaje: un estudio en un contexto de violencia de pareja. Clínica y Salud25(3), 167-174.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.