Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Psychology

Relationship between Reward-Dominant Response Style and Ratings of Boys' Conduct Problems

Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Psychology

Relationship between Reward-Dominant Response Style and Ratings of Boys' Conduct Problems

Article excerpt

Basic personality dimensions thought to underlie common forms of child psychopathology are of interest in cognitive-behaviour therapy if related to reinforcement contingencies used in treatment. Reward dominance, or the tendency to be overly influenced by past experience of reward, is one such response style. To obtain cross-national information on this phenomenon, 136 New Zealand boys (aged 6 and 7) were administered a version of the Miami Door Opening Task and rated for conduct problems by parents and teachers. Half the boys were also given a brief cognitive intervention designed to encourage an adaptive, self-regulatory strategy that could have improved performance. Compared to a neutral intervention, however, this manipulation did not influence performance on the task. The majority of the participants tended towards a reward-dominant response style, demonstrating that inhibiting a previously rewarded behaviour in order to maximise a score is not typical for boys of this age. However, the 10% of boys who met clinical criteria for conduct disorder, but who had not been clinically referred, did all score in the most reward dominant category.


There has been considerable interest in developmental psychopathology over the phenomenon of reward dominance in children and its relationship to conduct disorder and antisocial behaviour. A major impetus for this research has been evidence of continuity between externalising problems in young children and antisocial activities in adolescents (e.g., Fergusson & Horwood, 1996; Loeber, 1990; Patterson, Reid, & Dishion, 1992). This progression indicates that very basic dimensions of personality may be implicated in children who are "early starters" with difficult temperaments, distractibility, and oppositional characteristics. Moffitt (1993) suggested these difficulties were linked to neurological deficits in verbal regulation of behaviour and in executive functioning.

Lynam (1996) has proposed that children with this combination of conduct and attentional symptoms have a deficit in personal constraint, related to a reward-dominant response style. Broadly speaking, reward dominance refers to the tendency to engage persistently in previously reinforced behaviour, even when it is no longer adaptive to do so (Newman, Patterson, & Kosson, 1987). The term "dominance" implies that the tendency to continue behaviour that is rewarded is greater than the tendency to cease (or inhibit) behaviour that is punished. This is not the same as delay of gratification (Rachlin & Green, 1972), which involves selecting a larger, more distant reinforcement over a smaller but more immediate one.

Eysenck (1964) was the earliest theorist to suggest that delinquent or psychopathic individuals have difficulty inhibiting previously rewarded behaviour. Gray (1982) extended this model, noting that there are two major motivational systems in the brain: the dopaminergic or activating system that processes information about reward, and the seretonergic or inhibiting system that is responsive to novel cues from the environment and stimuli associated with past punishment. It was argued that individuals with a dominant inhibitory system are anxiety prone, and those with a dominant activation system are reward focused. In two British studies, Fonseca and Yule (1995) confirmed that severely conduct disordered and delinquent children were more sensitive to reward than were a normative sample.

A modification of Gray's theory has been articulated by Quay (1988). According to this model, conduct disorder involves a behavioural activation system that dominates the inhibition system, whereas a depressed inhibition system is thought to underlie attention deficits. Shapiro, Quay, Hogan, and Schwartz (1988) tested these assumptions with a card-playing task, involving both reward and punishment. Children diagnosed as conduct disordered played significantly more cards. …

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