Reversal theory is a structural, phenomenological theory of personality, motivation, and emotion in the field of psychology. It focuses on the dynamic qualities of normal human experience to describe how a person regularly reverses between psychological states, reflecting their motivational style, the meaning they attach to a situation at a given time, and the emotions they experience.
Unlike many theories related to personality, reversal theory does not consist of static traits (trait theory), but rather a set of dynamics motivational states. As people cycle through states, they will see different things as important, experience different emotions, react differently, and look for quite different rewards. Motivation drives orientation, styles, perspective, and desires. The theory emphasizes the changeability of human nature.
Hundreds of empirical papers have been published testing, or using, one or another idea from the theory. It has also generated over twenty books, many standardized questionnaires, its own journal, and various training techniques used in a number of countries. Workshops have been developed for self-development, leadership, creativity, and salesmanship among other topics. Other previous and current applications of the theory include risk-taking, violence, creativity, humor, sexual behavior, ritual, terrorism, advertising, fantasy, and so on.
The Reversal Theory Society has its own journal, the Journal of Motivation, Emotion, and Personality. A number of instruments have been created to measure reversal theory phenomena. Many of these focus on state dominance - which states are more prevalent for a person over time. While others attempt to capture the phenomena of the reversals themselves - how people's states shift in specific situations.
Reversal theory was initially developed primarily by British psychologist Dr. Michael Apter and psychiatrist Dr. Ken Smith in the mid-1970s. The starting point was Smith’s recognition of a personality dimension which he believed had been largely overlooked but was of critical importance in understanding certain kinds of pathology. He coined the terms ‘telic’ and’ paratelic‘ to describe the endpoints of this dimension, which could be described in less precise language as the dimension of serious to playful. Apter made a fundamental change to this idea by suggesting that we were not dealing here with enduring traits but with passing states.
Apter’s suggestion was that in everyday life people moved backward and forward between two opposite states, which were alternative ways of seeing the world. The dimension was really a dichotomy. In the normal way of things, people were playful and serious in turn. (Such alternations are widespread in all kinds of different systems in the real world and known in cybernetics as ‘bistable states.’ Examples would be teeter-totters, toggle switches, and Gestalt reversal figures.) In emphasizing this kind of dynamic, they would be challenging the emphasis placed in personality theory on enduring traits. To them, people were more like waves than the rocks that they broke on.
The theory distinctively proposes that human experience is structurally organized into metamotivational domains, of which four have been identified. Each domain consists of a pair of opposing values or motives so that only one of each pair can be experienced in any given moment. Each pair in a domain represents two opposite forms of motivation - only one state in each pair can be active at a time. Humans reverse between the states in each pair depending on a number of factors, including our inherent tendency to adopt one style over the other.
- The two states in the means-ends domain are called “Serious” (originally coined Telic from the Greek telos) and "Playful" (or Paratelic) and refer to whether one is motivated by achievement or the enjoyment of the process. Though the states are often characterized by seriousness and playfulness, the truest difference in this domain is whether one is motivated by long-term goals or by what is happening in the present moment. Future achievement or present enjoyment? Journey or destination?
- The two states in the rules domain are called "Conforming" and "Rebellious" (or Negativistic) and refer to whether one enjoys operating within rules and expectations; or whether one wishes to be free and push against these structures. Fitting in or breaking free? Boundaries or freedom?
The first four motivational states are referred to as the somatic pairs. This is due to the significance of their interaction, e.g. Serious-rebelliousness (organizing a protest march) is noticeably different from playful rebelliousness (telling a joke in a business meeting).
- The two states in the transactions domain are called "Mastery" and "Sympathy" and relate to whether one is motivated by transacting power and control; or by care and compassion.
- These states in the relationships domain are called "Self" (or Autic) and "Other" (or Alloic) and refer to whether one is motivated by self-interests (personal accountability and responsibility) or by the interests of others (altruism and transcendence). Concerned primarily with oneself or identifying primarily with others? 
The last four motivational states are referred to as the transactional pairs. This is due to the significance of their interaction, e.g. self-mastery (running a marathon) is noticeably different from others-mastery (training someone to run a marathon).
The primary emphasis of reversal theory lies in the concept of reversals - by "triggering" a reversal between states, we can change the meaning attributed to the situation. E.g., what seemed serious before, can suddenly feel exciting with the right change in situation or mindset. Reversals can be created by changing a situation, reframing it, role-playing, or using specific symbols or props that invoke a specific state (e.g., a toy can help trigger the Playful state; the image of a traffic sign may invoke the Conforming state). Reversals can occur as a result of frustration, or by the passing of time (called satiation). Reversal theory links the motivational states above to emotion by proposing that if one is in a state and things are going well, positive emotions result; if the needs of the state are not fulfilled, negative emotions result.
Cognitive synergy is what happens when one experiences opposite qualities attached to the same thing at the same time. Examples would include works of art, metaphors, jokes, toys, and so on. Thus, a representational painting is both a three-dimensional scene and a flat canvas with paint on it. Being aware of both these aspects is what gives it a special synergic quality in experience. But reversal theory offers an interesting perspective on the phenomenon: When perceived in the serious (telic) state synergies tend to be a nuisance, while in the playful (paratelic) state they are usually intriguing and fun.
This the basis for the principle of homeostasis that is found in many fields of study, including many theories found in psychology. Figure 1 (above) demonstrates this principle. The idea that humans are always looking for a perfect medium state of arousal and anything too extreme in either direction is not to be desired, i.e., boredom or anxiety.
Reversal theory proposes an altogether different view of arousal, which is what is called ‘’bistability’’. Bistability emphasizes polarity in the hedonic tone, and this is represented by the curves of the “butterfly curves” figure. It demonstrates that arousal is experienced in each state in a different - indeed opposite way and has its own unique range of emotions. In the serious (telic) state, represented by the solid curve, this range is from relaxation to anxiety, and in the playful paratelic) state, represented by the dashed curve, from boredom to excitement.
In the serious state, one becomes anxious as threatening or demanding events raise arousal levels, but pleasantly relaxed when a task is completed. In the paratelic state, one becomes pleasantly excited as one becomes more emotionally involved and aroused, but bored if there is a lack of stimulation. It will be seen from this that reversal theory gives a very different interpretation of arousal from optimal arousal theory, with its famous inverted u-curve. This enables it, among other things, to make sense of the fact that some activities involve very high arousal and intense pleasure (sexual behavior, for example, and playing or watching a sport) - something which optimal arousal theory has no satisfactory way of dealing with. It also introduces a certain dynamic into the situation through the possibility of sudden changes in experience, and it will have been noticed that as arousal gets higher or lower, so the effect of reversal from one curve to the other becomes more dramatic. The world is seen differently - there is a different experiential structure in each case. One aspect of this is what reversal theory calls 'the protective frame'. This reversal within arousal explains such phenomena as why people indulge in dangerous sports, why people commit recreational violence, the nature of sexual perversion and sexual dysfunction, the attraction of military combat, and the nature of post-traumatic stress disorder. For example, people gratuitously confront themselves with risk in dangerous sports like parachuting and rock-climbing, in order to achieve high (not moderate) arousal. This high arousal may be experienced as anxiety, but if the danger is overcome (and thereby a protective frame set up), then there will be a switch to the playful (in the moment) curve, and this will result in excitement as intense as the anxiety had been - and hopefully longer-lasting.
Reversal theory introduced the term ‘’dominance’’ to make the motivational styles a testable factor in psychometrics, so as to expand its application regions. Dominance means the tendency that an individual has to be one kind of person or another over time. An individual may reverse into a Playful (paretelic) state, but if he or she is Serious (telic) dominant, he or she will easily reverse into Serious states. This term distinguished the reversal theory from the traditional trait theory, namely, one's personality is not a permanent asset but a reversing tendency changing in accordance to the environment, etc.
Parapathic emotions and the protective frame
All high arousal emotions will be experienced pleasantly in the form of excitement when the individual is in the paratelic state – even the most otherwise unpleasant emotions. Such paradoxical emotions are referred to in the theory as ‘parapathic emotions.’ So it is possible to have, for example, parapathic anxiety, as in riding a roller coaster. Parapathic emotions arise when the ongoing experience involves what the theory calls a ‘protective frame.’ Sometimes this makes negative emotions enjoyable, like fear in a horror movie, but this can also make psychologically difficult situations bearable. The frame can be imagined as an emotional safety bubble. Sometimes this frame, which can be physical or psychological, may serve as what can be imagined an emotional safety bubble.
Humans are complex and act in accordance with many, even contradictory values. The needs they produce may vary, but any attempt to structure them (linear, hierarchical, etc.) is left wanting. The normally-functioning person, then, is able to access all the states at different times, and, over time, obtain all the different satisfactions that are available in these various states. Such a well-rounded person may be said to display psychodiversity. The term can be understood by analogy with the biological concept of biodiversity. A biodiverse ecology is one that contains many different species. It is healthy in that, if the climate changes, at least some species will survive to start rebuilding the ecology. Likewise, a person who displays psychodiversity is able to survive personal problems and thrive in different and changing environments.
Reversal theory has attracted widespread interest among the research community, especially of psychologists, and more than 500 papers and book chapters have been written, along with almost 30 books. There have been some 70 graduate dissertations, mainly doctoral.
The theory has been used in the elucidation of a wide diversity of topics and one of the main strengths of the theory is its comprehensiveness and potential for integration. Here, in no special order, are some of the topics that have been worked on: Stress, addiction, anxiety, depression, delinquency, hooliganism, personality disorder, boredom, gambling, crime, violence, leadership, teamwork, creativity, risk-taking, teaching, dieting, humor, aesthetics, play, sport, exercise, design, advertising, corporate culture, consumer behavior, hotel management, sexual behavior, religious faith, ritual, spying, and marital relations.
Following the publication of John Kerr’s Counseling Athletes: Applying Reversal Theory, reversal theory has started to be recognized as a useful approach to training, exercise, and sport, although it is difficult to know how many athletes and coaches are actually using it. Kerr and others have reported it being used in a variety of sports, including soccer, figure skating, golf, and martial arts.
The recent rise in interest in personal measurement ("the measured self"), advances in the technology enabling/supporting personal measurement (e.g., smartphones, wearable technology), and developments in modeling and analyzing repeatedly-measured experiences (i.e., ecological momentary assessment, experience sampling, and multilevel modeling) the idea (reversals and the theory) provides a framework and sets of hypotheses regarding change over time. At present, such measurement is at the descriptive stage, and the application of reversal theory can move this body of work toward more predictive science.
Biological and medical researchers have begun to develop instrumentation that allows the tracking of physiological variables in real-time from individual subjects in their natural settings. Psychologists are beginning to look at the possibilities opened up to them by this technology, and reversal theory is perfectly positioned to take advantage of it. For example, using the recent "Reversal Theory State Measure" to study the causes of reversals, the relative frequency of reversal in different people ('reversibility'), the biases among the eight states in different people, and so on. There are many ongoing areas of application for this such as telehealth.
Since the formulation of reversal theory, dozens of psychometric instruments have been developed to test the motivational styles. An early instrument was The Telic Dominance Scale (TDS) developed by Murgatroyd, Rushton, Apter & Ray in 1978. This scale was aimed primarily at assessing Telic Dominance.
The Apter Motivational Style Inventory (AMSP) is a research instrument that assesses dominant styles. A commercial version is used for training and development by practitioners educated by Apter Solutions.
Others include the Apter Leadership Profile [System] (ALPS), which utilizes a 360-degree measurement of leaders’ motivational micro-climates, and how they interact with their direct reports. The Reversal Theory State Measure (RTSM), a more recently developed tool system, utilizes technology to measure ongoing motivational state changes over time.
Society, Journal, and Conference
A society for researchers and practitioners in reversal theory was set up in 1983. The society has organized regular biennial conferences since then. In 2013, an open-access journal was launched: Journal of Motivation, Emotion and Personality: Reversal Theory Studies.
The Reversal Theory Society’s presidents have been:
- 1983-1985 Stephen Murgatroyd
- 1985-1987 Michael Cowles
- 1987-1989 John Kerr
- 1989-1991 Stephen Murgatroyd
- 1991-1993 Kathleen O’Connell
- 1993-1995 Sven Svebak
- 1995-1997 Ken Heskin
- 1997-1999 Mark McDermott and Murray Griffin
- 1999-2001 Kathy LaFreniere
- 2001-2003 George V. Wilson
- 2003-2005 Richard Mallows
- 2005-2007 Koenraad Lindner
- 2007-2009 Joanne Hudson
- 2009-2011 Tony Young
- 2011-2013 Jennifer Tucker
- 2013-2015 Fabien D. Legrand
- 2015-2017 Kenneth M. Kramer
- 2017-2019 Joanne Hudson
- 2019-2021 Jay Lee
- 2021-2023 Nathalie Duriez
- https://3z8.031.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/RT-Glossary.pdf[bare URL PDF]
- http://michaelapter.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Personality_Dynamics.pdf[bare URL PDF]
- https://3z8.031.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/RT-References.pdf[dead link]
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- Murgatroyd, Rushton, Apter & Ray; The development of the Telic Dominance Scale; Journal of Personality Assessment 1978 Oct 42 (5): 519-28
- Smith, K. C. P., & Apter, M. J. (1975). A Theory of Psychological Reversals. Picton Publishing Chippenham.
- Apter, Michael J.; Reversal theory: What is it?; The Psychologist volume 10, number 5, May 1997
- Apter, M. J. (Ed.). (2001). Motivational Styles in Everyday Life: A Guide to Reversal Theory (1st ed.). Amer Psychological Assn.
- Apter, M.J.; Fontana, D.; Murgatroyd, S. (1985). Reversal Theory: Applications and Development. Psychology Press. ISBN 9781315801773.
- Apter, Michael J., ed. (2001). Motivational Styles in Everyday Life: A Guide to Reversal Theory (1 ed.). American Psychological Association. ISBN 978-1-55798-739-6.
- Apter, Michael (2007). Reversal Theory: The Dynamics of Motivation, Emotion and Personality (2 ed.). Oxford: Oneworld Publications. ISBN 978-1851684809.
- Michael J. Apter (16 January 2018). Zigzag: Reversal and Paradox in Human Personality. Troubador Publishing Ltd. ISBN 978-1-78803-886-7.
- Apter, Michael (1992). The Dangerous Edge: The Psychology of Excitement. New York: The Free Press.
- Apter, Michael (2007). Danger: Our Quest for Excitement. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. ISBN 9781851684816.
- Kerr, John (1997). Motivation and Emotion in Sport: Reversal Theory. Hove, UK: The Psychology Press (Taylor & Francis).
- Apter, Michael J.; Desselles, Mitzi L. (2019). "Understanding the motivation to fight: A reversal theory perspective". Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology. 25 (4): 335–345. doi:10.1037/pac0000390. S2CID 210549982.
- "Bibliography". Reversal Theory Society. Retrieved 15 January 2021.
- Desselles, Mitzi (2014). "The Development of the Reversal Theory State Measure" (PDF). Journal of Motivation, Emotion, and Personality. 2 (1): 10–21. doi:10.12689/jmep.2014.202. Retrieved 15 January 2021.
- Murgatroyd, S.; Rushton, C.; Apter, M.; Ray, C. (1978). "The development of the Telic Dominance Scale". Journal of Personality Assessment. 42 (5): 519–528. doi:10.1207/s15327752jpa4205_14. PMID 16367073. Retrieved 19 January 2021.
- Apter, Michael; Desselles, Mitzi (2001). "Reversal theory measures". Motivational styles in everyday life: A guide to reversal theory. pp. 55–76. doi:10.1037/10427-003. ISBN 1-55798-739-4. Retrieved 19 January 2021.
- Desselles, Mitzi; Murphy, Stephanie; Theys, Evan (2014). "The Development of the Reversal Theory State Measure" (PDF). Journal of Motivation, Emotion, and Personality. 2 (1). doi:10.12689/jmep.2014.202. Retrieved 19 January 2021.
- "Journal of Motivation, Emotion, and Personality". 2013–2021. Retrieved 1 July 2021.
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- Apter, M.J. (Ed.) (2001) Motivational Styles in Everyday Life: A Guide to Reversal Theory. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
- Apter, M.J. (2007) Reversal Theory: The Dynamics of Motivation, Emotion and Personality, 2nd. Edition. Oxford: Oneworld Publications.
- Apter, M.J. (2018) Zigzag: Reversal and Paradox in Human Personality, Matador.
- Apter, M.J. (2007) Danger: Our Quest for Excitement. Oxford: Oneworld Publications.
- Carter, S. and Kourdi, J. (2003) The Road to Audacity: Being Adventurous in Life and Work. Palgrave Macmillan.
- Kerr, J.H. (2004). Rethinking aggression and violence in sport. London: Routledge.
- Kerr, J.H. (2001). Counseling Athletes: Applying Reversal Theory. London: Routledge.
- Kerr, J.H., Lindner, K.H. and Blaydon (2007). Exercise Dependence. London: Routledge.
- Mallows, D. (2007) Switch to Better Behaviour Management: Reversal Theory in Practice. Peter Francis Publishers.
- Rutledge, H. & Tucker, J. (2007) Reversing Forward: A Practical Guide to Reversal Theory, Fairfax, Virginia: OKA (Otto Kroeger Associates).