Michael Apter

REVERSAL THEORY: The Dynamics of Motivation, Emotion and Personality

Psychology: Five Boxes

There are many assumptions in modern mainstream psychology that go largely unchallenged. Reversal Theory (RT) questions some of these assumptions and jumps right out of the boxes that they represent. Let me list a few of these assumptions here.

1. Psychology has grown beyond the stage of needing ‘grand theories.’ According to this, legitimate research needs to be focused and modest, and should avoid the risk of being labelled ‘grandiose.’ On the contrary, RT embodies the notion that bold integrative theories are always needed in any science at any stage of development, provided they are testable. RT is a theory of motivation, personality and emotion and has involved research of many kinds, experimental, psychometric, physiological, clinical. It has also been applied in various areas: addiction, criminality, leadership, education, sport, aesthetics, and so on. Whatever else it might be, it is at least general, and this is its strength.

2. Motivation is all about drives, and their satisfaction or frustration. RT argues that this misses a whole level of analysis: there is not just motivation (the goals that people have), but metamotivation – the different ways in which the same goals are experienced, for example as serious or playful. Metamotivation colors the whole of experience at a given time, and these colors keep changing.

3. Personality is all about enduring traits. RT argues that, on the contrary, although there are some forms of consistency, personality is essentially dynamic and always on the move because it is in part an expression of metamotivation: We are dancers not statues. We alternate between being different people at different times. In this sense we zigzag through life. A given person might or course zig more than zag, but he or she will still switch backwards and forwards over time from one metamotivation to its opposite – i.e. reverse.

4. We respond to the same situations in the same way when we encounter them. But reversal theory claims that people often behave in different ways in the same situation at different times. It will depend in part on where they are in the innate alternation of relevant metamotivational states. It is not as simple as situationists would have us believe. To overlook this, is to commit the error known in RT as ‘chronotyping.’

5. Given emotions are always either good or bad. For example, anxiety is assumed by some to be always bad. But if this were the case, why do people watch horror films, engage in risky sports, have sex? RT suggests that bad emotions become good in the presence of a ‘protective frame’: they become ‘parapathic’ emotions. In this case anxiety becomes parapathic anxiety, i.e. excitement. More generally, emotions do not have a static position in affective space but move around depending on which metamotivational states are ongoing.

There is a lot more to RT than this, including the concepts of motivational intelligence, microclimate, and emotional structure. But I mainly wanted to get across the distinctive spirit of the theory, especially its general emphasis on process and change over even relatively short periods of time, and how this orientation contrasts with that of much of mainstream psychology.

If you want to find out more you might Google the “Journal of Motivation, Emotion and Personality (Reversal Theory Studies)” which is open access and dedicated to RT.

There are over five hundred papers and twenty books on the theory. But as an introduction I would like to recommend, no doubt immodestly, my recent book on the theory. Its title is “Zigzag: Reversal and Paradox in Human Personality” and it is published by Matador (Leicester, UK, 2018). It is available in paperback from Amazon.co.uk and in ebook form from all the usual sources including Amazon.


A Reversal Theory Perspective on Self Help

Self help books are no doubt useful in many ways. They give some order to our lives, some meaning , and some direction.  But they are also limiting – and in this respect may even do us more harm than good.  This is because they tend to take a single value and encourage us to organize our life around this value alone.

If we apply reversal theory to an analysis of such approaches, we see that they relate to the eight motivational values discerned by the theory. The problem is that each approach tends to fix on just one of the eight, whereas to live a full life, one rich and  varied in experience, we need as many of the eight as we can manage. Continue reading


Replication and Motivational State

One reason that replication of research results is so difficult in psychology may be that, as reversal theory research has shown, people are changing frequently between different motivational states, and the individual may be in different states even in the same situation at different times.


For example, a participant in a study may experience the study as a kind of game on one occasion (in the paratelic state) and as serious on another (in the telic state).Laboratory atmosphere, which is difficult to measure, may play a part in this. Likewise for the other three pairs of motivational states posited in the theory.

Continue reading


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