Introduction to Reversal Theory

Reversal Theory is a general theory based on over 30 years of research and application that explains the and indeed emphasizes the inconsistency and changeability of individuals. It has been applied in areas as diverse as management and leadership, psychotherapy, clinical psychology and counselling, smoking cessation, recovery from illness, politics, religion and sports.

The theory specifically focuses on motivational states (or styles, terms that are used interchangeably) –proposing that people regularly reverse between different psychological states, depending upon the meaning and motives felt by in individual in different situations at different times.

These reversals are 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.

Reversal Theory proposes that key emotions (such as anger and anxiety) are linked to eight motivational states, which are organised in four opposing pairs. Motivational states are also associated with values (such as achievement and control) which make it a powerful theory for exploring both personal experience and more complex organisational dynamics. As a practitioner I’ve used Reversal Theory with individuals, teams and to explore organisational issues.

I’ll come back to the eight motivational states and their meaning for organisational life, but in the meantime here’s a good introduction to them.

You may also find the Reversal Theory Society website a useful starting point.

Apter, M.J. (Ed.) (2001) Motivational Styles in Everyday Life: A Guide to Reversal Theory. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.


About Rob Robson
Change manager and organisational development professional with a special interest in employee engagement and motivation. Masters swimmer

3 Responses to Introduction to Reversal Theory

  1. Pingback: Welcome to Organisational Life « Organisational Life – Employee Engagement and Change

  2. Mark McCorquodale says:

    I hope you dont mind me asking a question, perhaps I’ve missed something, but what about if an action or the motive behind an action furfills both opposites in the pair? For example, if the motive fell under the category of both self and others as it benefits both the person doing the action and recipient,. Or strictly speaking would such an occurance not really happen and one of the states outweigh the other and therefore be counted as the over-riding one?

    • Rob Robson says:

      Good question, Mark, and one that often comes up. Research has shown the pairs to be mutually exclusive at any point in time. However, over a period of time – even quite a small period – one can flip-flop between states. When someone does ‘reverse’ frequently they will often claim to have been motivated by both states, but if you slow things down – as you can often do with the right interviewing techniques, you can identify the reversals that are going on even over a matter of seconds.

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