Demanding brain: between should and shouldn’t

Vol V, No. 1, 2005 Comments (0)

Alexandru TIBA
Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania

Albert Ellis’ cognitive theory of emotions makes a major distinction between positive and negative demandingness and preferences, but up to now there is no scale that makes this distinction evident. The main goal of this study is to validate this distinction by showing that positive and negative evaluative beliefs are separately associated with two distinct motivational brain systems: the approach/withdrawal systems. Participants (N=46) were tested with a modified version of the ABS II scale, allowing the distinction between positive and negative evaluative beliefs; subsequently they completed the BIS/BAS scales (Carver & White, 1994). Results show that positive demandingness and irrationality, but not preferences, strongly correlate with approach system sensitivity (BAS scores), while negative demandingness and irrationality, but not preferences, strongly correlate with withdrawal system sensitivity (BIS scores). This study suggests that individuals tend to develop positive and negative demandingness depending on the approach/withdrawal motivational systems sensitivity. Implications for emotional reactions and therapy are also discussed.

Key words: approach/withdrawal motivational systems, REBT, demandingness, preferences

Pages: 43-51

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to:

Alexandru Tiba, psychologist; E-mail:


The main assumption of the REBT theory regarding emotion formation is that emotions resulting from rational beliefs (RBs) are distinct from those mediated by irrational beliefs (RBs). The theory also underscores the fact that this distinction is rather qualitative than quantitative (Ellis, 1994; Ellis & Dryden, 1997; David et al., 2002). Two types of evaluative beliefs are considered to be the cornerstones of REBT theory: demands and preferences.

Demands are rigid ideas people hold about how things must or must not be. There are two types of demands as stated in REBT (Ellis & Dryden, 1997):

(a) Positive demanding evaluations (positive DEM); e.g.” I should be accepted and loved by important others”.

(b) Negative demanding evaluations (negative DEM); e.g. „I should not be rejected by important others”.

Preferences are rational forms of evaluations. These represent flexible ideas people hold about the way they would like things to be, without demanding that they have to be that way (Ellis & Dryden, 1997).

There are two types of preferences as described in REBT (Ellis & Dryden, 1997):

(a) Positive preferential evaluations (positive PREF): e.g.” I prefer to be accepted by significant others, but this is not a must”.

(b) Negative preferential evaluations (negative PREF): e.g.”I prefer not to be rejected by significant others, but this is not a must”.

Even though REBT theory makes a distinction between positive and negative DEM and PREF, this distinction has not been made clear at the level of instruments. This study is based upon the idea that this distinction is important with respect to motivation and emotion, and should also be regarded from a practical rather than a purely theoretical point of view.

Recent research on emotion and goal regulation (Carver, 2001; Gray & Braver, 2002) has pointed out a distinction in the prioritization of approach and withdrawal goals in relation to emotion, motivation and personality traits. This relation is considered to be mediated by hemispheric lateralization (Gray & Braver, 2002; Tomarken & Keener, 1998). Individuals with a highly sensitive withdrawal motivational system (BIS – behavior inhibition system), are predisposed to formulate and pursue withdrawal-related goals (e.g. avoiding rejection), while individuals with a highly sensitive approach motivational system (BAS – behavior activation system) are predisposed to formulate and pursue approach-related goals (e.g. gaining acceptance/love) in response to external situations (Gray & Braver, 2002; Tomarken & Keener, 1998). Considering that demands are rigid goals or desires we might speculate that individuals are prone to develop positive or negative DEM and PREF depending on their trait sensitivity in the activation of the approach and withdrawal systems. Such sensitive individuals will be prone to demand attaining a desired stimulus or goal (i.e. approach goals such as acceptance/love) or avoiding an aversive or negative stimulus or goal (i.e. withdrawal goals such as avoiding rejection). Carver & White (1994) have developed two scales that assess individual differences in the reactivity of the approach and withdrawal motivational systems: the BIS (behavioral inhibition system) scale, and the BAS (behavior activation system) scale (Carver & White, 1994).

Provided this line of reasoning is correct, we can expect a positive correlation between positive DEM scores and BAS scores, and between negative DEM scores and BIS scores. Both positive DEM (Tiba, 2003) and BAS are considered to reflect brain reactivity to reward-related cues and to reward (Carver & White, 1994; Carver, 2001; Pickering & Gray, 2001; Davidson et al., 2000; Davidson, 2002; Gray & Braver, 2002). Furthermore, there is a difference regarding positive DEM and PREF, positive DEM being closely related to the response to reward-related cues in the context of an impaired inhibitory control, while PREF are related to response to reward-related cues in a high inhibitory control mode (mainly mediated by the lateral orbitofrontal cortex and anterior cingulate gyrus) (Tiba, 2003). Accordingly, this relation is tied in part to a supposed common neural substrate.

The main objective of this study is to find empirical support for the positive (approach) and negative (withdrawal) dimensions of demandingness, and to see if they relate to the reactivity of distinct motivational systems.

It is hypothesized that positive demands and preferences will be positively correlated with behavioral activation system sensitivity whereas negative demands and preferences will be positively correlated with behavioral inhibition system sensitivity.



Forty-six undergraduate students enrolled in introductory psychology courses at the Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, participated (38 women, 8 men) in the study. Participants were between 19 and 23 years of age. Students participated as partial fulfillment of a course requirement. After reading and signing an informed consent form, participants completed the questionnaires and were then offered a verbal debriefing concerning the goals of the research.

Design and procedure

Participants were instructed to complete the ABS II scale and the BIS/BAS scales. Correlation analyses were conducted between ABS II scale measures and BIS/BAS scale measures.


Demandigness/preferences scales. The items from the ABS II demandingness scale (Romanian version- Macavei, 2002) were used to form scales containing positive and negative demands and preferences (Bernard, 1998). Each positive demand and preference had a negative alternative related to three domains: achievement, approval, and comfort. The 20 demands and preferences-related affirmations were grouped into four categories/subscales: (1) 5 negative demanding affirmations (i.e “I should not be rejected by important others”), (2) 5 positive demanding affirmations (i.e., “I should be accepted and loved by important others”), (3) 5 negative preferential affirmations (i.e. “I prefer not to be rejected by significant others, but is not a must”) and (4) 5 positive preferential affirmations (i.e. “I prefer to be accepted by significant others, but is not a must”). All ratings were made on 5-point scales. There were 6 subscales: (1) positive irrationality that included positive DEM and PREF, (2) negative irrationality that included negative DEM and PREF, (3) negative DEM, (4) negative PREF, (5) positive DEM and (6) positive PREF. Irrationality subscales included scores on DEM items and inversely rated scores on PREF items (Macavei, 2002).

BIS/BAS scales. This is a 20-item self-report measure that assesses trait sensitivity levels of the Behavioral Activation System and the Behavioral Inhibition System. Likert-type response scales that range from l (very false for me) to 4 (very true for me) were used. The BIS scale consists of seven items, two of which have reversed scoring. Two global scores are drawn: global BAS and BIS scores. Based on the results of their factor analysis, Carver and White (1994) divided the BAS scale into three separate subscales: (1) BAS reward responsiveness (five items), (2) BAS drive (four items), and (3) BAS fun seeking (four items).


Correlation analyses were conducted between ABS II measures and BIS/BAS global measures. Results are shown in Table 1.

Demandingness/irrationality relations with BIS/BAS measures

Our results indicate that both positive and negative demandingness significantly correlate with BAS/BIS (respective) measures. There are no significant correlations between preference measures and BIS/BAS measures. The data support the main hypothesis regarding the relation between positive demandingness and approach system measures (BAS), and negative demandingness and withdrawal system measures (BIS).

Further examination of the data indicates that positive irrationality is positively correlated with BAS measures, while negative irrationality is strongly correlated with BIS measures.

Table 1. The Correlational Coefficients between ABS Measures and BIS/BAS Measures







BIS .44** .29* .02 -.14 .30* .25
BAS .34* .39** .04 -.01 .20 .30*

** p< .01 significance level; * p< .05 significance level

Legend: BIS – behavioral inhibition scale; BAS – behavior activation scale; DEMNEG – negative demands scale; DEMPOS – positive demands scale; PREFNEG – negative preferences scale; PREFPOS – positive preferences; IRRATNEG – negative irrationality scale; IRRATPOS – positive irrationality scale.

At a first look, it seems that negative DEM also positively correlates with BAS and positive DEM also positively correlates with BIS, which can weaken the main hypothesis of this study. Even though correlations are not as high as between positive DEM and BAS, and negative DEM and BIS, they are significant (p< .05). BIS and BAS measures in the case of this group were positively correlated (r= .49), and it is possible that the relation between positive DEM and BIS, and negative DEM and BAS is due to this correlation. Partial correlations were carried out (Table 2) to clarify whether this was the case. Partial correlation results indicate that when controlling for BAS, positive DEM is no longer related with BIS, and when controlling for BIS, negative DEM is no longer related with BAS, thus supporting the initial hypothesis.

Table 2. Partial correlation of positive DEM, BIS, and negative DEM and BAS

Positive DEM

(controlling for BAS)

Negative DEM

(controlling for BIS)

BIS r= .12; p > .05
BAS r= .15; p> .05

Preference measures relations with BIS/BAS measures

There were no significant correlations between positive and negative preferences and the BIS/BAS measures. These results are somehow contrary to our expectations, but considering that preferences also refer to the negation of demands and not only to how much we prefer something to turn out positive (positive preference) or not to turn out negative (negative preference) (e.g. I prefer something but it is not a must), relationships between reward responsiveness, reactions to aversive stimuli and positive/negative preferences are unlikely.

Positive DEM and irrationality relation with BAS subscales

Carver & White (1994) have developed a more accurate measure of the BAS system. They divided the BAS scale into three separate subscales: (1) BAS reward responsiveness (five items), (2) BAS drive (four items), and (3) BAS fun seeking (four items).

The following analyses targeted features of the BAS scale that positively correlate with demandingness and irrationality (Table 3).

Results presented in Table 3 show that positive DEM positively correlates with all measures of the BAS subscales. The relation with the drive scale (r= .43) is significant at p< .01, and with fun seeking at p< .05 (r= .31). There is no significant correlation with the reward responsiveness scale.

Table 3. Correlation Coefficients between BAS measures and ABS measures.

DRIVE .46** .43** .32* .40**
FUN SEEKING .21 .31* .21 .29*
BAS .34* .39** .20 .30*

** p< .01 significance level; * p< .05 significance level

Legend: BAS – behavior activation scale; DEMNEG – negative demands scale; DEMPOS – positive demands scale; IRRATNEG – negative irrationality scale; IRRATPOS – positive irrationality scale

Negative demandingness is significantly correlated with the drive scale, but not with other scales. Drive scale items pertain to the persistent pursuit of desired goals; fun seeking reflects the desire for new rewards while reward responsiveness focuses on positive responses to the occurrence and anticipation of reward (Carver & White, 1994). The fact that both positive and negative DEM strongly correlate with the drive scale suggests the possibility that a low inhibitory control of response to rewards or aversive stimuli (Pickering & Gray, 2001) makes these individuals develop more demands and irrationality. These results argue for the idea that demanding individuals are poor in controlling their response to rewards and aversive stimuli (Tiba, 2003), and develop rigid positive and negative demands that reflect a higher or dysregulated level of activation in the motivational salience attribution process.


Positive DEM was expected to positively correlate with the BAS scale, and negative DEM with the BIS scale. The examination of the results shows that this is the case indeed. There are three possible relations: DEM causes approach/withdrawal sensitivity; BAS/BIS cause DEM; both DEM and BAS/BIS are caused by a third variable. We tend to favor the third hypothesis. Both types of DEM and BIS/BAS might have at least partially common neural substrates, with differences in the level of expression of the system that is responsible for processing the motivational salience of stimuli (Tiba, 2003). We will briefly analyze the positive DEM and BAS relation.

The BAS system, which was thought to reflect the responsivity of the brain to reward-related cues (Carver & White, 1994) has recently been interpreted as reflecting the activity of the mesolimbic dopamine system in the process of motivational salience attribution (Pickering & Gray, 2001). The same neural substrate was proposed for positive DEM (Tiba, 2003). The strongest correlation in the current study has been found between the DRIVE subscale of the BAS and DEM. The Drive subscale contains items that refer to strong pursuing of reward. This is the case of positive DEM as well. DEM could be viewed as the reflection of the approach system that circumscribes approach goals. Carver & White’s DRIVE subscale is strongly related to other scales assessing the BAS system such as: Impass (impulsive antisocial sensation seeking), extraversion, and novelty seeking etc. (Carver & White, 1994). These subjects are known to have a deficient inhibitory control of emotional reactions (Davidson et al., 2000; Davidson, 2002; Pickering & Gray, 2001). The present study shows that positive DEM is associated with a measure of the approach system activation while negative DEM is associated with a measure of the withdrawal system activation.

No relation has been found between positive/negative preferences and the BIS/BAS scale. Some theorists consider that the BIS/BAS scale does not measure sensitivity to reward and punishment (Pickering & Gray, 2001), but that in fact BIS measures the level of “nervousness” to cues of aversive stimuli or to aversive stimuli, while BAS measures a dysinhibited approach to reward-related cues and rewards (Pickering & Gray, 2001). If this is the case, no relation will be observed between preferences and BIS/BAS measures. Preferences are considered flexible “wanting” in a certain context, and are dependent on both possibility of obtaining the preferred object in that context, its current value, and previous experience with the desired object.


Both irrational beliefs like DEM (Lyon & Woods, 1991) and approach/withdrawal sensitivity (Meyer et al., 1999, 2001) are thought to represent vulnerability factors to various affective disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, anger, etc. The present results show that measures of specific psychological vulnerability (positive and negative DEM) correlate with measures of specific biological vulnerability (BAS and BIS reactivity). Although this correlation is supposed to be due to a partially common neural substrate, other factors may as well contribute to the expression of each type of vulnerability. Whereas we do not know for certain how to change a biological vulnerability like the BIS/BAS sensitivity, we certainly know how to change a cognitive vulnerability like demandingness. If changing demandingness will impact on a biological vulnerability like BIS/BAS sensitivity, this could prove important in the prevention of several affective disorders. Further research should target this issue to clarify the relation between specific types of irrational beliefs and biological vulnerabilty, and their impact on emotion and pathology.

Another implication of the present results is the approach/withdrawal distinction of DEM, depending on the emotion that is the target of cognitive restructuring, it is proposed that changing a positive DEM will be followed by a change in approach related emotions (mania, anger) while a change in negative DEM will be followed by a change in withdrawal related emotions (anxiety). There are many studies that support the importance of the BIS/BAS distinction in the case of negative emotions (Harmon-Jones, 2003). Although some preliminary results have supported this speculation, this still remains to be tested. Until now this problem has not been considered relevant for practice, and it is possible that a change in positive DEM in the case of withdrawal emotions will not have the same efficiency as changing negative DEM.

In sum, the results of this study confirm the empirical distinction of two types of demandingness, one that is related to the approach motivational system and one that is related to the withdrawal motivational system, and that may reflect a dysregulated functioning of these motivational systems with an impact on emotions.


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