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Reversal Theory[1] is a general psychological theory of personality, motivation and emotion in the field of psychology. It was first formulated by British psychologist Michael J. Apter in 1970s.[2]

Whereas many personality theories focus on a person's fixed or in-born dimensions (traits), reversal theory focuses instead of the variability and changeability of motives in response to the meaning that a person attaches to a given situation. The theory proposes that motives and emotions change, depending on the meaning a person attributes to a particular situation. For example, sometimes a roller coaster seems exciting; other times, it may cause anxiety. Sometimes a crying baby creates sympathy; other times it causes irritation.

The theory is organized around a series of motivational style (or metamotivational state), organized into four pairs called "domains". Each pair in a domain represent two opposite forms of motivation - only one state in each pair can be active at a time. We reverse between the states in each pair depending on a number of factors. This suggests that we are actually self-contradictory at all time.

Domains Edit

The four pairs (or domains) are as follows:

  • Means-End Domain - The two states in the first pair are called "Telic" (or "Serious") and "Paratelic" (or "Playful") and refer to whether one is motivated by achievement and future goals, or the enjoyment of process in the moment.
  • Rules Domain - The next two states 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.
  • Transactions Domain - The next two states are called "Mastery" and "Sympathy" and relate to whether one is motivated by transacting power and control; or by care and compassion.
  • Relationship Domain - The final two states are called "Autic" (or "Self") and "Alloic" (or "Other") and refer to whether one is motivated by self interests (personal accountability and responsibility) or by the interests of others (altruism and transcendence).

Reversals and Emotion Edit

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. 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 Paratelic/Playful state; the image of a traffic sign may invoke the Conforming state).

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.

Dominance Edit

Reversal Theory introduced the term dominance to make the motivational styles being 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 reversed into paretelic state, but if he or she is telic dominant, he or she will easily reverse into telic 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.[3]

History, Use and Instrumentation Edit

Reversal Theory was first proposed in the mid-1970s, by K.C.P. Smith and Michael Apter. Since that time, research using the theory has been conducted in the areas of sports performance and psychology, addiction management, health, business/management, and other areas.

While Reversal Theory has been actively researched in academic circles for the last thirty years, it has more recently entered a more public sphere of use by trainers and consultants for purposes of leadership and team development, and sports counseling.

A number of instruments have been created to measure Reversal Theory phenomena. While many of these focus on dominance (which states are more prevalent for a person over time), others attempt to capture the pheomena of the reversals themselves (how people's states shift in specific situations).

Psychometrics Tools in RT Edit

From very beginning the Reversal Theory was formulated, psychometrics instruments were developed to test the motivational styles. The early documented such instrument was The Telic Dominance Scale developed by Murgatroyd, Rushton, Apter & Ray in 1978.[4] This scale was aimed primarily at assessing Telic Dominance.

See alsoEdit

References & BibliographyEdit

  1. Reversal Theory Website
  2. Apter, Michael J.; Reversal theory: What is it?; The Psychologist Volume 10, number 5, May 1997
  3. Research Manual of the Apter motivational style profile(AMSP); ""
  4. Murgatroyd, Rushton, Apter & Ray; The development of the Telic Dominance Scale; Journal of Personality Assessment, 42, 519-528

Key textsEdit


  • Apter, M.J. (1982) The experience of motivation: The theory of psychological reversals.London and New York: Academic Press.
  • Apter, M.J. (Ed.) (2001) Motivational Styles in Everyday Life: A Guide to Reversal Theory. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.ISBN: 1-55798-739-4
  • Apter, M.J. (2005) Personality Dynamics: Key Concepts in Reversal Theory. Loughborough, U.K.: Apter International Ltd.


Additional materialEdit



External linksEdit

Website of the Reversal Theory Society

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