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Clarifying the Measurement and the Role of the Behavioral Inhibition System in Alcohol Misuse


  • Matthew T. Keough,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Psychology, Concordia University, Montreal, Québec, Canada
    • Reprint requests: Matthew T. Keough, Department of Psychology, Concordia University, PY-239, 7141 Sherbrooke St. West, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, H4B 1R6; Tel.: 514-848-2424, ext. 2390; Fax: 514-848-4523; Email:

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  • Roisin M. O'Connor

    1. Department of Psychology, Concordia University, Montreal, Québec, Canada
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In response to conflicting reward (Behavioral Approach System [BAS]) and/or punishment cues (Fight-Flight-Freeze System [FFFS]) the Behavioral Inhibition System (BIS) inhibits behavior, leading to increased attention to threat, high anxiety, and behavioral ambivalence. The role of BIS in alcohol misuse is complex, as anxiety promotes self-medication drinking, while attention to threat (e.g., negative outcomes of heavy drinking) may reduce risk. Theory suggests that a concurrent strong BAS may bias BIS-conflict in favor of alcohol approach, while a concurrent strong FFFS may increase the likelihood of alcohol avoidance. However, few studies measure BIS as a conflict system, and no studies incorporate such a measure into examinations of alcohol misuse. Our study goals were to (i) test the Motivational Flanker Task (MFT) as a new laboratory measure of the BIS, BAS, and FFFS; and (ii) use the MFT, in conjunction with self-report measures, to test BAS and FFFS as moderators of the BIS-alcohol misuse relation. We hypothesized that an elevated BIS would predict heavy drinking and alcohol-related problems, but only when BAS was high. Further, we expected an elevated BIS to be associated with reduced alcohol misuse, but only when FFFS was high.


Students (= 198) completed self-reports of BIS/BAS/FFFS and drinking behavior, and 2 reaction time tasks: MFT and Point Scoring Reaction Time Task (PSRTT). The PSRTT is a published measure of the revised BIS.


MFT BIS conflict was associated with self-report and PSRTT measures. MFT BAS, but not FFFS, was associated with self-reports. As expected, elevated BIS was associated with heavy drinking, but only when BAS-Drive and BAS-Fun Seeking was also high. FFFS was not supported as a moderator of the BIS-alcohol misuse association.


Results support the MFT as a promising measure of the revised BIS. Considering the joint effects of BIS and BAS clarified risk for alcohol misuse.