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Reversal Theory of Motivation

Technical Details

Name(s): Reversal theory of motivation
Author: K.C.P. Smith and Michael Apter
Classification: Cognitive or Need-to-Know Motivation Theories
Year: Mid-1970s


  • The very method of dialectics - one idea is presented with the understanding that there is an opposite process that defines it.
  • The reversal theory does account for opposites, that whenever you identify one characteristic, there probably will be its opposite having an influence. It plays on one's expectation that life is balanced, that "the other shoe will drop" in presenting either a positive or negative aspect of an emotion.
  • While we noted that stating a person's behavior will be different in different contexts as a negative aspect of the reversal theory, as it simply states the obvious, we can say that it is a positive aspect in that it does not say the person's behavior is rigid in all circumstances.
  • Apter claims, "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."


  • As with any theory, one cannot say that this is "THE" explanation of how or why motivation or leadership occurs.
  • There is a black and white thinking in Apter's discussion of "refer to whether one is motivated by self interests (personal accountability and responsibility) or by the interests of others ". Why can't a person be motivated by both at the same time? One can argue this is the norm, anyway, that while there may be an altruistic motive, there is also the aspect of one thinking that being altruistic is socially responsible, that such constitutes accountability. Here is an indicator, a red flag, that should tell the reader to be aware of theories, lest they become the latest fad in pop psychology and leadership. You might find real value in the How to evaluate theories article.
  • There is a suspicious similarity with the opponent-process theory, and one can wonder whether the effort to make this reversal theory unique is simply an effort to make superficial distinctions.
  • How does one win out the distinction between the two states of "Telic" and "Paratelic" as real psychological states and a mild form of bi-polar, depressive, or manic disorder in motivation? Even if a brain mapping were to reveal the same areas of the brain being activated for both conditions, how is one to tell whether it is the disorder or the "normal" motivation?
  • Is the theory doing anything but belaboring the obvious in saying, "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." This is nothing but describing context, that one can expect a person's behavior to be different when exposed to different situations.


Apter sets forth the following [1]:

Means-Ends - 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 - 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 - 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.

Relationships - 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).

A dialectic is operative, in the reversal theory. Something is apprehended in terms of what it is not. If there is an action, it occurs in terms of there being an opposite action. Our apprehension of the world is in terms of distinctions, and if one does not think so, all they need to do is go into a room where there are no contrasts and see whether they can discern objects. So it is with all of our senses; there has to be perception of something in terms of what it isn't.

It is worthwhile quoting Apter at some length [2]:

  • ...behaviour can only be fully understood by reference to the subjective meaning assigned to it by the actor. - anti behaviourist.
  • 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.
  • ... emphasis of reversal theory is on cultural universals, and its assumption is that human nature is, everywhere and at all times, fundamentally the same.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • ... 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.) ... we can conceive of this type of change as a 'reversal.' In this sense, people are not only changeable over time but self-contradictory.
  • Apter gives an example of the Necker cube, where with one gaze, the cube appears to be extending toward the bottom, and at another time it appears to be extending towards the top, as in [3]:

    This optical illusion is in the same category of illusions that Escher presented, with staircases that appear to be ascending and descending at the same time.

    Apter says, "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 [4].

    The key question is whether motivations really work as proposed in the reversal theory of motivation? Is there a source of emotions that is stable within us? First, one has the problem defining what an emotion is. What is the standard of measurement? How does one quantify whether one is experiencing an emotional state? Second, how do we validate that one indeed is having such a state? We alluded to brain imaging, but we have to correlate the image to that which we KNOW is an emotional state, and that comes through and interpretation of behavior. Here we have self-reports and correlation of external observations such as with others.


    There exists in Western thinking a linearity, where phenomenon are apprehended in isolation and that they are objects. Also, there is a tendency to think a-contextually, totally regarding history, as well. One at least can point to the reversal theory as recognizing the context of opposites and process. Even properties are treated in an objective or static way, such as a color being standing as something to be observed. However, process is very much a part of this reversal theory, as in:

    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.

    • ... 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 [5].
    • Yet, we must be careful in thinking that this is a unique theory. For example, how different is this from opponent process theory, as in Solomon and Corbit's affective dynamics model [6].

    A Skydiver, for example experiences anxiety just before a parachute jump, when he or she hits the ground there is a sense of triumph and wanting to do it again. What really lies behind this behavior? Is Reversal theory, or Opponent process? One may point to the stimulus being removed, but precisely when does the person experience the opposite reaction? It should be asked whether physiological considerations need discussion in this Reversal theory.

    For example, if the Necker Cube or any other optical illusion is used to discuss reversal theory, then what of those with mono vision, let's say? Is there a "mono personality", perhaps couple with an obsessive-compulsive behavior? A person with mono vision, cannot focus both eyes on an object, often the result being that some 3-D effects, like stereoscopic vision is not present. In optical illusions involving apparent movement, for example, that movement is not detected.

    Apter seems to identify personality types based on sets of opposites, as in:

    The more stressor's 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).' and "... 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 [7]." So, it appears that Apter will assign something more "stable" as personality type to a person, rather than simply recording a behavior, as in Opponent Process theory.


    First, the reader should reference the Opponent Process theory and read it in conjunction with the reversal theory of motivation one. The striking similarities should cause the reader to pause and think about the nature of all these motivation "theories" in terms of what they contribute to the body of knowledge. Second, the word "theory" has a special place in investigatory research, in particular, the scientific world. A theory is an explanation based on observations obtained by testing hypotheses about how a phenomenon comes about. One should question the integrity of any theory on this basis. Is it merely a set of opinions culled from subjective observation of a number of individual cases, or is the information obtained after a series of controlled studies in which the observer can account for an effect by analyzing quantified information within the context of an appropriate experimental research instrument, or design. Apter claims the research, and one needs to evaluate it before strenuously applying this critique. What we say here can be largely applied to Opponent Process theory.

    As a general consideration, are we talking about knowledge after the fact in what motivates a person? Who really can say what actually motivates a person? Would it not take something not far short of reading one's mind to find out what leads a person to do something? Too, we ask how does the theory emerge? Are there surveys or studies that have an investigator ask questions of leaders about what really motivates them?

    We make the same comments are in the Opponent Process theory about brain imaging of motivations. We're finding out that certain areas of the brain are responsible for certain types of motivations, such as, in this case, one of reward [8]. Of course, we know that reward is not the only motivation. Many people will do things for other reasons when there is no anticipation of expectation, such as in altruism or impulse.

    As to uniqueness, we should compare this "reversal theory" with Opponent Process theory. Opponent-process states that a stimulus creates an opposite effect once the stimulus is removed, as in a stimulus creating an anxiety creates the feeling of relief once the stimulus is removed. Reversal theory states, somewhat in the fashion of Newton, "for every reaction, there is an opposite and equal reaction". The problem is what motivates it. In essence, it is useful to know the effect, and that is all behaviorist psychology can do, but it is quite another to know what produces it, or what the neuro correlates are. In the tradition of good scientific method, if we can produce the behaviorist response repeatedly and by different "laboratories" independently and under controlled conditions, then it is said we have found the cause-effect relationship. There can be little criticism of duly noting a phenomenon, providing it is done under appropriate conditions, and this is one scientific method - that of observation. If the observation is recorded as the same by different persons independently under the same conditions as good experimental methodologies, then we may say that, indeed, the observation is "real".

    Future of theory

    The reversal theory is partially based on what we know about reversal in such objects as the Necker Cube and Escher's drawings, where an object at one glance will appear to be acting in one direction, and upon further gaze will reverse that direction. That one can predict almost with certainty how people with normal vision will react makes this phenomenon a candidate for validation with brain mapping. Then, we can ask whether this "reversal" occurs in the events described by Apter. As with so many theories, the reversal theory is behaviorally-based, there is a crying need for such type of evaluation. Yet, the similarity with the reactions to optical illusions is a step toward establishing the groundwork for such validation.

    Share your thoughts

    Sharing your motivating thoughts or your motivational tips will benefit every leader. Motivation is what give them the energy to constantly seek to improve their self-motivation as well as motivating other. Consequently increase our leadership influence.

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