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As a psychology student, I was always interested in ‘alternative’ perspectives and at Edinburgh University there was plenty to explore. From ecological perception to social constructivism to parapsychology, I often found myself being drawn to these approaches and the the characters behind them. One, the late Professor Robert (Bob) Morris, encouraged me to pursue my interest in sport psychology and, (noting that this was in the early 90’s) introduced me to a fascinating concept called Flow.


Perhaps my psychological upbringing explains why, when I was introduced to a theory called Reversal Theory, I was intrigued. Perhaps, however, it was my conviction that as the pace and complexity of change increased, less and less of the psychology I saw being applied in business seemed to provide the answers that I was looking for.


What is Reversal Theory?

Reversal Theory (RT), developed by Michael Apter, is definitely different in the world of psychology. Depending on how you look at it, RT is a theory of human experience, a theory of personality, or both. It is, notably, a ‘general theory’ in that it attempts to explain human experience rather than just one element of it. However, it does this by focusing on the interplay of motivation and emotion.


Apter’s core propositions

Apter’s view is that people are fundamentally dynamic, inconsistent and even paradoxical. In this view, it is states of mind – or motivations – that are important as they drive our emotional experience and they do so in a structured way.

The fundamental proposition, therefore, is that in any situation we can change our emotional experience by changing the way that we see it (change our motivations). This is more likely to lead to satisfaction than trying to change our circumstances or directly manage our emotions.

This is not, in itself a unique point of view. However, RT’s emphasis on dynamic states promotes the view that we are fundamentally adaptable; and the structured relationship between motivations and emotions (or EMotivation) that it describes provides a map that helps us to make more deliberate and informed choices about how to adapt.

In an organisational setting, RT can be applied to performance, wellbeing stress, team dynamics, leadership, change, relationships and organisational climate or culture (by linking to values). It explains, in one framework, that many different kinds of strategic contribution come from encouraging people to experience the full diversity of motivations available to them: Creativity, inclusion, efficiency, collaboration, and accountability being just a sample.


A challenge to ‘mainstream’ psychology

Last year, Michael Apter (now 80) wrote that he believed there were five main assumptions in modern psychology that needed to be challenged:

  1. Psychology has grown beyond the stage of needing broad, integrative theories (and by implication its narrowness can be a weakness).
  2. Motivation is all about drives, and their satisfaction or frustration. RT is concerned not only with our motivation – our goals – but metamotivation – which is how we experience them.
  3. Personality is all about enduring traits. RT argues that although there are some forms of consistency, personality is essentially dynamic. We alternate between being different people at different times as our motivations change.
  4. We respond to the same situations in a consistent way over time. RT goes beyond situational perspectives, suggesting that people often behave in different ways in the same situation at different times.
  5. Specific emotions are always either good or bad. For example, anxiety is often assumed to be bad. But why do we choose to do, and take pleasure from, things that make us anxious (like watching horror movies)?


An integrative framework

Rather than simply competing with different approaches, however, much of Reversal Theory’s value lies in its compatibility with other ideas, like Emotional Intelligence, behaviour change theories, resilience, psychological flexibility and even other motivational constructs such as Self-Determination Theory. If you have tools and skills in your coaching or consulting toolkit like reframing, imagery, even mindfulness, there’s no need to throw them away!


My relationship the Apter Framework

Having developed an interest in RT I was first trained by, then worked for Apter International in 2007. After leaving, I was disappointed to learn that investment in such a promising framework had stopped. I was equally excited, therefore, to learn that Christophe Lunacek, another Apter trainee based in France, had picked up the mantle and was working with the support of Michael Apter with a new company, Apter Solutions.

The result of the last few years of investment in products and training is a comprehensive and evolving toolkit for coaches and development professionals, underpinned by Reversal Theory its fundamental proposition that by changing our motivations we can change our experiences of challenging situations and open up new solutions to problems.


The Apter Toolkit

The toolkit includes an EMotivations coaching card game and process; the Motivational Styles Inventory – an individual profile that highlights opportunities to make greater use of our full range of motivations; a real-time Climate tool that is used to understand shared motivations and emotions in groups; and a 360° tool that highlights the motivations of a leader, how they are perceived and how they are experienced by people around them.

Earlier this year I signed an agreement to be the partner for Apter Solutions in the UK, something that I’m proud and excited about, and I’ve been helping to get the toolkit ready to bring to the UK. Indeed, as I write this I’m just over 48 hours from starting my first training cohort.

Find out more

I will be at the ABP conference in October, but I would also like to to invite you to join me in an ABP webinar on the Apter Framework on 12th November where I will explain more about motivational styles and their relationship with emotions, their origins and applications.

About the author

Rob Robson is Principal Practitioner with the ABP and an Associate Fellow of the BPS. In addition to being the UK Partner for Apter Solutions his company, 8Connect Consulting, applies the principles of Reversal Theory to help organisations adapt to and enable change.

Further Reading

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

Apter, M.J. (2007). Reversal Theory: The Dynamics of Motivation, Emotion and Personality. Oneworld Publications

Apter, M.J. (2018). ZigZag. Reveral and Paradox in Human Personality. Troubador

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