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Reversal theory

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Reversal Theory is a psychological theory of motivation and personality developed by Micheal Apter which embraces the inconsistency and changeability of individuals. The theory specifically focuses on motivational styles – proposing that people regularly reverse between different psychological states,depending upon the meaning and motives felt by an individual in different situations at different times.

These reversals are seen as healthy and necessary, both to ensure that one’s motives are being met, and to appropriately match personal style to the needs of a specific situation or other person.

The theory suggests that key emotions (such as anger and fear) and values (such as achievement and control) can be traced to four domains of experience, each with two opposing motivational states. We reverse between states based upon personal meaning, and whether the values of the state are being fulfilled or not.

The four domains of Reversal Theory are:

  • Means-Ends –Focus is on the intention of an activity –and whether motivation comes

from achieving goals (ends) or experiencing the process itself (means). The two motivational states in this domain are Telic (serious) and Paratelic (Playful)

  • Rules –Focus is on rules and norms –and whether we perceive rules, belonging, and

conformity as either supportive or restrictive. The two motivational states in this domain are Conforming and Negativistic (rebellious).

  • Transactions –Focus is on interactions and exchanges between people –and whether

motives are based in power, ability, and control; or in care and emotional support.The two motivational states in this domain are Mastery and Sympathy.

  • Relationships – Focus is upon whether one is motivated by fulfilling one’s own needs

or another’s.The two motivational states in this domain are Autic (self orientated) and Alloic (other orientated).

See also

References & Bibliography

Key texts


  • 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 material



External links

Website of the Reversal Theory Society

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