A Critique of Carver and White's (1994) Behavioral Inhibition Scale (BIS) for Investigating Lykken's (1995) Theory of Primary Psychopathy. Academic Article uri icon


  • In a 1995 monograph, Lykken asserted that an innate fearless temperament underpins the development of primary psychopathy as described by Cleckley (1941). To embed this insight in a larger theory of behavior, Lykken embraced constructs from Gray's (1982) reinforcement sensitivity theory (RST). Specifically, he hypothesized that in primary psychopaths the behavioral inhibition system (BIS) lacks normal sensitivity to cues of conditioned punishment or non-reward. Subsequent researchers have embraced Carver and White's (1994) BIS scale as the instrument of choice for testing Lykken's theory of primary psychopathy, a practice that this review calls into question. We note (a) a dearth of research using the BIS scales in offender samples, where more psychopathic individuals are likely to be found and (b) limited BIS scale coverage of the functions attributed to the behavioral inhibition system in RST. In addition, (c) we review literature suggesting that rather than assessing the fear sensitivity function critical to Lykken's theory, the BIS scale instead functions primarily as an index of negative emotionality. We recommend a moratorium on the use of the BIS scale to test Lykken's theory of primary psychopathy.

published proceedings

  • Pers Individ Dif

author list (cited authors)

  • Poythress, N. G., Edens, J. F., Landfield, K., Lilienfeld, S. O., Skeem, J. L., & Douglas, K. S.

citation count

  • 32

complete list of authors

  • Poythress, Norman G||Edens, John F||Landfield, Kristin||Lilienfeld, Scott O||Skeem, Jennifer L||Douglas, Kevin S

publication date

  • January 2008