Apter, Michael J. - Reversal Theory

The Structure of Concern Project compares many theoretical models from many disciplines to the Adizes PAEI model, arguing that they must all be reflecting the same underlying phenomenon. One concern structure model is described below.

There are several ways to characterize Reversal Theory. Apter (2001a; 2001b) introduces it as a theory of motivational style, a “distinctive orientation to the world based on a fundamental psychological value – such as achievement, love or freedom”. These motivational styles (or metamotivational states) are what we refer to in everyday speech when we describe people as cheerful, affectionate, serious, challenging and so on. They are central for any account of our mental lives. Reversal Theory gives a structural-phenomenological account of them, describing them as structures of conscious experience.

At the conceptual centre of Reversal Theory one finds a two-level nested hierarchy that expresses concern structure values in different ways at each level. The base level describes a fairly straightforward particularistic clustering of those values. The second level, describing attitudes taken towards the first, describes a more nuanced combinatorial scattering of those values.

At the particularistic level, Reversal Theory founds itself on the observation that at a certain level of analysis, four domains of subjective experience are “universal and essential to the very nature of experience itself. These are an unavoidable part of everyone’s subjective experience at all times” (Apter, 2001a). The domains, in PAEI order, are:

P – Transactions: We are always involved in interactions with other things, including people, objects, machines, ideas, parts of our own bodies, mental images… Transactions are the concrete exchanges that make interactions tangible: exchanges of words, thoughts, gestures, money, attention, esteem and so on. Transactions are the doing aspect of interactions, and we are
always aware of how we are doing our interactions.

A – Rules: This describes the experience of pressure to behave in certain ways, stemming from the expectations of others, customs, habits, conventions and explicit laws, rules and regulations. Normalizing expectancies (actual or projected) factor into everything that we do, even when our awareness of them is minimal.

E – Means-Ends: Purposive action is a key domain of subjective experience, giving it direction and orientation at all times. We are always aware of goals and intentions, even if the awareness is only a vague and minimal sense of directionality (where one is going and how one is getting there).

I – Relationships: As we interact with other people or groups of people, we are aware of more than the transactions. We are also aware of a more direct relationship that can be structured in various ways, as open or closed, intimate or formal, personal or functional, etc. Distance is a crucial concept here; do we identify with our interaction partners or feel separate from them?

In Reversal Theory, each one of these four domains can be experienced in two opposing ways. The experiences in each pairing are mutually exclusive, so they cannot be experienced simultaneously, but reversals from one to the other are possible, particularly as hedonic tone, arousal and expectancies vary.

The attitudinal pairs for each domain are listed below in PAEI order:

P – Transactions (Mastery/Sympathy): A Mastery orientation to a transaction frames it in terms of contest, power and control, carrying values of hardiness and toughness. The Opposite: A Sympathy (I) orientation frames transactions in terms of affection, proximity, friendliness and graciousness, in the cooperative mode rather than the competitive one.

A – Rules (Conformist/Negativistic): Rules can be a source of selfconfidence, clarifying one’s social standing and role and making correct behaviour clear and unambiguous. Conformism can thus be experienced as a dutiful, virtuous, proper or normal/trustworthy state. The Opposite: Rules can also be seen as traps, restrictions and confinements, motivating a desperate bid for freedom and rebellion. This Negativistic (E) experience of rules can also express itself in mischief, or disruptive and disobedient behaviour.

E – Means-Ends (Telic/Paratelic): Means-ends thinking can be heavily goal oriented, planning-intensive, anxiety avoidant and serious (A). This is described as a Telic state (telos=goal) in Reversal Theory. The Opposite: However, in some goal-directed activity such as games or hobbies, the means themselves are the main source of gratification, and goals simply support the coordination of those means. This is seen as a playful, spontaneous and open mode in Reversal Theory, and called the Paratelic (E) state ( para=alongside, telos=goal).

I – Interactions (Alloic/Autic): In interactions, we can be very other-focused, yielding to the other and giving their feelings precedence. This is the Alloic state (allos=other). The Opposite: One can also be Autic in interactions (auto=self), asserting one’s separateness and assuring good outcomes for the self, giving one’s own feelings precedence, valuing individuality and personal responsibility (P).

The four domains of subjective experience are thus nested within this second layer of pairs of metamotivational states. At this second level, we can describe the PAEI styles as follows:

P: Autic Mastery
A: Telic Conformism
E: Paratelic Negativism
I: Alloic Sympathy

Individuals vary in terms of their key metamotivational states; the one that is currently dominant, the ones they experience frequently and focus upon, the salience of each state to the course of their lives, and also the ease with which they shift between the two states in any domain (i.e. their lability). The same situations will potentiate different metamotivational states for different individuals.

1. Apter, M. J. (2001a). “An Introduction to Reversal Theory.” In M. J. Apter (Editor),
Motivational Styles in Everyday Life: A Guide to Reversal Theory (pp. 3-36). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
2. Apter, M. J. (2001b). “Reversal Theory as a Set of Propositions.” In M. J. Apter (Editor), Motivational Styles in Everyday Life: A Guide to Reversal Theory (pp. 37-54). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
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