Essay Example: Personality Theory by Jeffrey Gray

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Vanderbilt University
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Jeffrey Gray developed an influential theory which has a biological foundation of personality traits. He proposed the utilization of the rotated axis of anxiety and impulsivity. In his personality theory, there is the description of systems which are specific and about behavioral inhibition and activation. Initially, the personality theory by Gray started as an improvement to a theory developed by Eysenck but it is currently recognized as an alternative theory (John et al., 1999). In this theory, the inhibition system is correlated to sensitivity of negative reinforcement and motivation avoidance. Activation systems, on the other hand, has a relationship with sensitivity to positive reinforcement and approach motivation. Applying tests scales formulated to relate with the attributes of these systems, a positive correlation between inhibition system scale and a negative correlation with activation system scale could be established.

History of Personality Theory

Gray's personality theory was developed after a disagreement with arousal theory by Hans Eysenck that entailed biological personality traits. In this theory, Eysenck consulted ascending reticular activating system to get insight on personality. He made a comparison of arousal levels and scale of introversion against extraversion and then used the corresponding data to make a description of individual personalities and their behavioral patterns (John et al., 1999). Gray was in disagreement since he was convinced that classical conditioning was not sufficient to explain personality traits. This led to the development of personality theory which was based on physiological responses.

Inhibition Systems

The inhibition system as described by Gary can be described as a neuropsychological system applied in the prediction of an individual's response to cues concerning anxiety in a specific environment. According to Gray, the activation of this system occurs in situations involving punishments or negative occurrences. Through response to negative stimuli, the system leads to avoidance of negative events. Inhibition system correlates with sensitivity to punishment and also avoidance motivation. This theory proposes that anxiety is attributed to inhibition system and this means that its high activity leads to enhancement of punishment and non-reward experiences. The inhibition system is based physiological mechanism from the brainstem known as the septo-hippocampal systems and its monoaminergic afferents (Matthews & Gilliland, 1999).

Activation Systems

The activation systems of the personality is based on appetitive motivation which means a person's temperament to pursue and realize their goals. This system is aroused after receiving cues relating to a reward (Matthews & Gilliland, 1999). Gray's personality, the sensitivity of activation system is based on conditioned appealing system and related to impulsivity.

Comparison of the Inhibition and Activation Systems

Gray described that these two systems function in an inverse relationship in that an individual can only approach a situations using one of the two ways. Punishment versus reward criteria is used to stimulate one of the systems. The two systems differ in the brain physiological pathways followed. Inhibition system is associated with septo-hippocampal systems while activation systems are linked to the mesolimbic dopaminergic system. The differences in the two systems of Gray's personality theory are attributed to their motivations and physiological responses (Matthews & Gilliland, 1999). Gray deduced that people could vary in their responsiveness to either inhibition or activation systems. This means that an individual who is sensitive to the inhibition system tend to be more responsive to negative cues and this means they are more receptive to cues related to that environment and vice versa.

In conclusion, other researchers have taken an interest in Gray's theory which has resulted to the formulations of questionnaires used in the measurement of inhibition system and activation system sensitivity. Carver and White have developed these questionnaires, and they reliably show measure a person's score level concerning their inhibition system and activation system.



John, O., Robins, R., & Pervin, L. (1999). Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research Front Cover (3rd ed.). New York City: Guilford Press.

Matthews, G., & Gilliland, K. (1999). The personality theories of H.J. Eysenck and J.A. Gray: a comparative review. Personality and Individual Differences, 26(4), 583-626. (98)00158-5


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