Reversal Theory Society

Reversal Theory: What Is It?

by Michael Apter

Photo of Michael Apter"GRAND theories" have been out of fashion in psychology for some time, and the serious professional researcher is very aware of the need to avoid seeming grandiose' to his or her colleagues. Given this, it is with some trepidation that I will be introducing in this article a theory - 'reversal theory' - which, as will be seen, has some pretensions to generality.

The basic ideas of the theory were developed by Dr K.C.P. Smith (a consultant child psychiatrist) and myself some 20 years ago, and expressed fully for the first time in my book The Experience of Motivation (1982). In the period since then, the theory has been fortunate enough to attract an increasing amount of interest - some rejecting, some rejecting some welcoming. Researchers and practitioners in a number of countries have, between them 'tested, added to, modified, and used the developing theory in a variety of ways. The theory has in this way generated over 200 publications, including nine books. It is probably true to say, however, that it has not to this point been accepted into mainstream psychology a point to which I shall return below.

The aim of this article is to draw readers' attention to this growing body of research and theory, and to attempt to give some impression of what it is all about. Readers of The Psychologist might be particularly interested to learn more at the present moment, given the fact that an international conference on the theory is to be held in England in the summer of 1997 (details at end of article).

The general approach

Just how general is the theory? One way of describing it would be to say that it deals with the kinds of phenomena which come under the standard text book headings of motivation, emotion, and personality (Apter, 1989). But it goes further than this since it also provides a new structure for understanding certain kinds of psychopathology and makes suggestions for therapy. In addition, it makes links in one direction to psychophysiology and in the other to social psychology and to the field of family relationships. The broadness of its application is evident from its attempts to show the common structures underlying a range of such varied phenomena as the enjoyment of humour, the preference people have for different sports, the appreciation of art in its various forms, the genesis of crime, the purpose of religious ritual, the practice of creative thinking, the problems of sexual dysfunction, the attraction of gambling, and the adolescent need for rebellion.

It may be helpful first of all to 'position' reversal theory by contrasting it, albeit rather bluntly, with some other theories and approaches.

The first and most obvious thing to say about the theory is that it is centred on mental life and is, in this sense, phenomenological. This does not mean that it excludes an interest in overt behaviour - quite the contrary. But reversal theory argues that behaviour can only be fully understood by reference to the subjective meaning assigned to it by the actor. In this respect, the theory is clearly anti behaviourist.

Secondly, an implication of the theory is that the cognitive revolution in psychology has gone too far. For one thing, motivation and emotion should be reinstated as central concerns, on an equal footing with cognition. For another, motivation and emotion cannot be reduced solely to cognitive processes, as some have tried to do, but must be explored in terms of their own logic.

Thirdly, the theory opposes the increasing spirit of cultural relativism which has, especially in the form of social constructionism, come to pervade much of psychology. Instead, the emphasis of reversal theory is on cultural universals, and its assumption is that human nature is, everywhere and at all times, fundamentally the same.

Fourthly, the theory is radical in the sense that it regards certain traditional and widespread assumptions as simplistic. In particular, the theory regards the assumption that personality can be understood as a collection of static traits as one which is too rigid to capture the essence of personality - which is all about patterns of change. And it regards the homeostatic assumption that underlies most theories of motivation (as in psychoanalysis, drive-reduction theory, ethology, and optimal arousal theory) as inadequate and needing to be replaced by the more sophisticated concept of multistability.

The structure of experience

What, then, is reversal theory? One way of looking at it would be as a theory of the structure of mental life. The basic idea is that there are a number of identifiable and discrete ways of experiencing the world, which are universal in the sense that everybody experiences things through the same set. As we pass through our everyday lives, from minute to minute and hour to hour, so we move between these qualitatively different experiential states. This means that we not only differ from each other, but also, over time from ourselves. We are all, as it were, different people at different moments of our lives. These states, known for reasons we need not go into here as 'metamotivational states' have three related characteristics. They each derive from a basic psychological desire or value. They are each associated with their own range of emotions. And they each involve seeing the world in their own particular way.

The second basic idea of reversal theory is that these fundamental states go in pairs of opposites, so that change consists of movement between members of each pair, only one of them being ,operative' at a given time. (The pairs are conceived as operating in parallel, although one pair is likely to be more salient in experience than others at a given moment.)

Since such switches between members of a pair are between opposites, we can conceive of this type of change as a 'reversal.' In this sense, people are not only changeable over time but self-contradictory.

It should be noticed that this principle of reversible change is different from the principles of change which have traditionally been at the heart of experimental psychology: namely, learning and maturation. It is, however, not unknown in psychology. The most obvious examples of this kind of change come from the field of perception, where reversal figures like the Necker cube have long been a topic of interest. It also needs to be made clear that reversal theory is not a new form of what has been called 'situationism' (in which the individual's behaviour is said to be more a function of situation than an expression of personality). Although situations and events will play a part in determining the individual's metamotivational state at a given time, certain dynamics of change internal to that individual will also be relevant. The effect of this is that an individual can be in the same situation at different times, but experience it differently - and therefore behave in it differently too.

To this point, the discussion has all been rather abstract. In much of the remainder of this article I propose to make matters a little more concrete by looking in more detail at a particular pair of states.

Telic and paratelic states

The telic and paratelic metamotivational states have a number of contrasting features. These can be summarized by saying that the telic state (named from the ancient Creek 'telos' meaning a 'goal') is a serious-minded state in which the individual sees himself or herself as engaged in some purposeful activity which is important beyond itself. The paratelic state, in contrast, is a playful state in which the on-going activity is engaged in for its own sake, i.e. for the immediate enjoyment which it can provide. (The term is derived by adding the ancient Creek 'para', meaning 'alongside' to 'telic.') For instance, most people probably fill in tax forms in the telic state and go to the cinema in the paratelic state.

But one can change from one to the other in the course of the same activity: for example, in studying for an examination one might become so interested in the subject-matter that one gets 'carried away' and forgets the serious purpose, enjoying instead the fascination of the material.

I said above that metamotivational states can be characterized in three ways. Let me illustrate this now in relation to the telic and paratelic states.

1) First of all there is a basic psychological desire or value. In the telic state the desire is for significant achievement or feelings of progress towards achievement, while in the paratelic state the desire is for fun, often in the form of immediate gratification of some sensual need.

2) There is a different range of emotions in each case. This is represented by the hypothetical curves of Figure 1, which show how arousal is experienced in each state in a different - indeed opposite way, and has its own unique range of emotions. In the telic state (represented by the solid curve) this range is from relaxation to anxiety, and in the paratelic state (represented by the dashed curve) from boredom to excitement. In the telic 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 behaviour, for example, and playing or watching 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. 3) The world is seen differently - there is a different experiential structure in each case. One aspect of this is what 1 have called 'the protective frame', which is absent in the telic case and present in the paratelic. I have explored this frame in its various manifestations in detail in my book The Dangerous Edge (Apter, 1992). As a result of this exploration, the book provides a systematic explanation of 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 paratelic curve, and this will result in excitement as intense as the anxiety had been - and hopefully longer lasting.

Some supportive evidence

Various psychometric tools have been devised for identifying the metamotivational state an individual is in at a given time, and therefore reversal between states, and for measuring the relative bias or dominance of one state over its opposite over time in a given individual. Using these tools, investigations have been conducted which have largely supported the telic-paratelic model which has just been presented, and favoured it over other accounts. Here are some examples:

* People switch back and forth, in the course of everyday life, between seeking relatively high and relatively low levels of felt arousal but - in direct contradiction to optimal arousal theory avoid intermediate levels. (Walters, Apter & Svebak, 1982).

* People switch between the telic and paratelic states over time, even when the environment is unchanging (Lafreniere, Cowles & Apter, 1988). This contradicts both the trait and the situationist approaches which see people either as unchanging, or as changing only in response to different situational demands.

* People taking part in dangerous sports like parachuting, tend to experience anxiety immediately before, and excitement immediately after, the danger is confronted and overcome (Apter & Batler, 1997). Since arousal is unlikely to have changed to any substantial extent in the short time involved, this is difficult to explain in homeostatic terms.

* The more stressors which telic dominant individuals have in their lives, the unhappier they are. But the situation is inverted for paratelic dominant individuals: the more that they are stressed, the happier they are, at least up to a certain level of stress (Martin, Kuiper, Olinger & Dobbin, 1987). While many theories of stress address individual differences, emphasizing how some people are 'hardier' than others in response to stress, no other theory predicts that some people actually need stress, and flourish under stress conditions.

* If a given level of arousal is experienced by the telic and paratelic states in different ways, then there may be objective psychophysiological differences between these two states. A range of such differences has been uncovered by Sven Svebak and his colleagues in Norway, and reported in a series of papers. These differences include: steeper tonic muscle tension gradients in the telic state, higher heart rate acceleration under conditions of threat in the telic state, and different 'cortical information-processing styles' between the two states (e.g. Svebak & Murgatrovd, 1985).

The complete set of states

Having looked at one pair of states, we can now extrapolate from these to indicate in broad terms the kind of ways in which reversal theory understands personality and individual differences. In these terms, it can be seen that people differ from each other in a number of ways: they can vary in whether, and how far, they are biased towards one state or the other (this kind of bias, as already noted, is called 'dominance' in the theory), how generally labile they are in moving backwards and forwards between the states, which factors facilitate and which factors tend to inhibit reversal between the states, and which kinds of strategies the individual uses in each state to attempt to obtain the potential satisfactions of that state, and avoid the dissatisfactions.

The theory proposes that there are in fact three other metamotivational pairs, members of which can combine with members of other pairs in various ways. For the sake of completeness, let us look at these three pairs, at least briefly:

The conformist and negativistic states:

In the former state, the individual wishes to comply with whatever explicit rules or implicit expectations and conventions apply in the ongoing situation (e.g. at a dinner party) In the latter, the individual wishes to break free of such rules and feel independent (e.g. by swearing or telling risqué jokes at the dinner party).

The mastery and sympathy states:

In the mastery state the individual sees interpersonal transactions as to do with taking and yielding, in the sympathy state as to do with giving and being given. In the mastery state the world is construed as a struggle for power and control (e.g. in a business negotiation); in the sympathy state it is experienced as an opportunity for caring or being cared for (e.g. giving or receiving a gift).

The autic and alloic states:

In the autic state the individual is self-centred: it is what happens to him or her that counts at the time. In the alloic state the individual identifies with another person or group and it is what happens to this 'other' which is now of primary importance (e.g. identifying with a football team).

In each of these cases, 'cross-over' curves of the kind representing the telic and paratelic states (Figure 1) can be con structed. Between them, the complete set of such cross-over curves provide a structure of relationships for 16 primary emotions (Apter, 1989). As was the case for the telic and paratelic states' a number of measurement tools have been devised for these states, and for state dominance as it pertains to them, although at the present time far less research has been done on these states than on the telic and paratelic states.

Examples of areas of application

The theory has already been applied in a number of areas. Here are just three examples:

a) Coping with anxiety

An obvious practical implication of reversal theory is that anxiety can be overcome not only by reducing arousal (a need which is assumed in just about every type of therapy), but by inducing a reversal so that pleasant excitement is experienced instead of anxiety. One way in which such switching has been systematically accomplished, in the course of reversal theory counselling, is by means of humour (Murgatoyd, 1987) humour being an essentially paratelic type of experience (as evidenced by Wyer & Collins, 1992; Wicker, Thorelli, Barren & Willis, 1981). Another way is through appropriate role-playing (Fontana & Valente, 1993).

b) Dealing with hooliganism

Jones and Heskin (1988) have shown that problems in dealing with hooligans are compounded by a lack of understanding by police and others that hooligan acts are frequently performed in the paratelic state. Going further, John Kerr (1994) in his book Understanding Soccer Hooliganism has argued that reference must be made also to the negativistic and mastery metamotivational states in particular to gain a complete understanding of hooligan behaviour. (Incidentally, the book acts as a good illustration of how reversal theory works in its totality.)

c) Quitting smoking

Finding that traditional personality factors were poor predictors of the ability of people in health programs to quit smoking, a research team at the Midwest Research Institute in Kansas City decided that they would, through interview, focus in detail on the state of mind of the individual who is trying to quit, at such times as he or she was tempted to smoke. What they discovered, by means of a rigorous coding schedule which they applied to the interviews, was that the individual was significantly more likely to lapse if the temptation occurred when he or she was in the paratelic, negativistic and sympathy states than if they were in the opposite states of mind (e.g. see O'Connell, Cook, Gerkovidi, Potocky & Swan, 1990).

Reversal theory and mainstream psychology

There remains the question of why reversal theory has yet to be welcomed into the mainstream of psychology. Although the research which has been done, such as that described above, has thus far been generally supportive, many may feel that much more evidence is needed if it is to warrant serious attention. This feeling is perhaps understandable on three related grounds:

* Since the theory is unusually ambitious and general, more evidence is needed for its to be taken seriously than might be the case with a narrower theory.

* The supportive evidence, such as it is, is spread too thinly over too many different areas, and much of its requires replication.

* It is not really possible to take bits of the theory and incorporate them in ongoing research, rather, since the theory is in a sense a radical one, doing research on it, or with it, means re-thinking what one is doing and adopting a different conceptual 'set.' This would need specially strong justification.

* As well as all this, as noted at the beginning of the article, reversal theory bucks such current trends as 'cognitivism', and social constructionisrn. Dare one also add that the fact that it is British in origin means that it has an uphill fight to gain attention from American psychologists? I said at the beginning of this article that my aim was to draw readers'attention to reversal theory by providing a brief introduction to it - something which is intrinsically difficult for a theory which is rather complex. Nevertheless, I hope that I have accomplished this, albeit in a 'broad brush' kind of way. My own belief is that reversal theory has reached a point in its development that does merit the serious attention of researchers in a number of fields. Do others agree?


Apter, M.J. (1982). The Experience of Motivation: The Theory of Psychological Reversals. London and New York: Academic Press.

Apter, M.J. (1989). Reversal Theory: Motivation, Emotion and Personality. London: Routledge.

Apter, M.J. (1992). @ Dangerous Edge: @ Psychology of Excitement. New York: The Free Press.

Apter, Mj. & BatIer, R. (1997). Gratuitous risk-taking: a study of parachuting. In S. Svebak & M.J. Apter (Eds): Stress and Health:: A Reversal Theory Perspective. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis.

Fontana, D. & Valente, L. (1993). A reversal theory approach to the causes and treatment of stress in professional life. Patient Education and Counselling, 22, 81-89.

Kerr, J.H. (1994). Understanding Soccer Hooliganisii. Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Lafreniere, K, Cowles, M. & Apter, M.J. (1988). The reversal phenomenon: reflections on a laboratory study. In M.J. Apter, J.H. Kerr & M.P. Cowles (Eds): Progress in Reversal Theory. Amsterdam: Nordi-Holland.

Jones, R.S.P. & Heskin, K.J. (1988). Towards a functional analysis of delinquent behaviour: A pilot study. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 1, 35-42.

Martin, R.A., Kuiper, N.A., Olinger, L.J. & Dobbin, J. (1987). Is stress always bad? Telic versus paratelic dominance as a stress moderating variable. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 970-982.

Murgatroyd, S. (1987). Humour as a tool in counselling and psychotherapy: A reversal theory perspective. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 15, 225-236.

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Walters, J., Apter, M.J. & Svebak, S. (1982). Colour preference, arousal and the theory of psychological reversals. Motivation and Emotion, 6, 3, 193-215.

Wicker, EW., Thorelli, I.M., Barron, W.L. & Willis, A.C. (1981). Studies of humour and mood appreciation. Motivation and Emotion, 5, 47-59.

Wyer, R.S. & Collins, J.E. (1992). A theory of humour elicitation. Psychological Review, 99, 663-688.