Motivational Richness: How Reversal Theory Can Help Advisers and Benefit Advisees
How often does a student walk into your office and appear to be unmotivated or resistant to advice? Why does an advisee make choices that seem to be contrary to his or her self-interest? Have you asked yourself what you can do to motivate this student or asked why the student does not change?
Frequently, we are tempted to label such students as unmotivated, underachieving, rebellious, or resistant. Personality theorists refer to such attributions of long-standing characteristics as traits. By definition, traits are supposed to be stable and unchanging. Personality characteristics are largely seen as permanent. Though we may be unaware of doing so, often we encapsulate people by our trait descriptions. When viewed this way, even unintentionally, both the adviser and advisee may feel that there is little that can be done to change things. The question then may become “Why can’t I motivate this student?” As McClellan (2006) insisted, “The issue of how to effectively motivate arises as a significant contributor to success” in advising.
An alternative way of looking at people is posited by reversal theory (RT) (Apter, 2007). This psychological theory of motivation focuses on change, noting “that we adopt different motivational states at different moments as we go through our daily lives” (Apter, 2005, p.1). RT asserts that in the course of everyday life, people move around between different states of mind, alternately experiencing the world one way and then another. Eight different states of mind have been identified, and they differ in terms of what we value, what we find motivating, the types of satisfaction each state affords us, and the emotions we experience in each one. The eight states are organized as four pairs of opposites. At any particular moment, one state within a pair will be active. Instead of fixed traits, reversal theory describes individuals in terms of the patterns with which they exhibit these eight states of mind. Sometimes it is helpful to think of different states of mind as different moods or perspectives.
The figure below provides details of the eight states identified in the theory and the psychological value on which each is based.
For an adviser, reframing the advisee’s attitude using reversal theory is not just an exercise in theoretical labeling; it can provide some distinct advantages. First and perhaps foremost, acting on the theory moves the adviser away from a mental state in which change is seen as difficult and requiring herculean effort. Adopting a reversal theory perspective requires that the adviser view the advisee’s current state of being or lack of motivation as transient and changeable. As a result, the situation becomes hopeful, and the adviser can be more effective and less discouraged. Second, reversal theory can offer alternatives for motivating the advisee and moving toward a more productive advising session and greater academic engagement. It provides the adviser and advisee with a greater range of options.
Motivational Issues Students Face
A reversal theory analysis suggests there are three basic kinds of problem that can arise regardless of the area of life we observe. This is true, too, of student life.
- The student may get “stuck” in one or more motivational states. The result is that other motivational states become unavailable, thus reducing the resources that the student has for dealing with the world. In other words, to be healthy there must be some degree of instability. If the student remains consistently in the mastery state, for example, the sympathy state becomes relatively unavailable, and the result may be impoverished relationships.
- The student may experience all the states on a regular basis but be unable to achieve satisfactions in any or all states. Often this situation arises from not having the abilities or best repertoire of skills to achieve satisfaction in that state. For example, students may want to achieve something significant (e.g., completing their degree programs) yet have difficulty, because they do not have the ability to plan ahead, envision the bigger picture or put aside distractions that get in the way of their ambitions.
- The student may experience all the states and have the skills to obtain satisfaction in each one, yet still not experience satisfaction. This can happen when he or she is in the wrong state at the wrong time. Mismatching or the misalignment between the state and the situation can often thwart students. For example, a student may be in the rebellious state at times when this is inappropriate—in a job interview or when meeting a new group of people.
Here are a few examples of these kinds of problems from student life:
The Student Who Feels Disaffected
This student is too often in the serious state, the joy of the subject itself has been lost, and studying becomes a chore. This is a type of “stuckness.” The adviser can help the student learn to forget goals (temporarily) when studying and enjoy the learning for its own sake. In more general terms, the adviser can encourage the student to develop a better work/play balance, so that the student does not spend too much time working and too little time engaging in recreation. Rather than initiating conversation by asking about grades, the academic adviser might first ask, “What did you do for fun this weekend?” Or, as advising progresses, the adviser might ask, “What’s the most interesting idea you have heard in your psychology course?”
The Student Who Is Distracted
Here we see someone who spends too much time at play—socializing, partying, and wasting time. This is another kind of “stuckness,” as the student has stalled in the playful state. The adviser in this case can sensitize this student to long-term consequences. Like Glasser and Wubbolding (1988), advisers can ask, “Is what you’re doing getting you what you want?” or more colloquially, “Is this working for you?”
The Student Who Feels Depressed
This scenario is similar to that of the disaffected student. For this student, however, the disaffection is attached to a wider variety of factors within the fixed mode. It extends beyond academic work perhaps to more areas of the student’s life, including relationships and recreation. The result is that this student feels there is nothing to get him or her out of bed in the morning. An academic adviser refers rather than engages in psychological counseling with students presenting these kinds of depression issues. Many emotional issues will be addressed by the psychological counselor. The academic adviser will focus on and support the educational aspects of the situation. Academic advising with a depressed student may be difficult because the student may be immobilized in more than one reversal theory domain. One strategy the advisor may employ is to encourage an external rather than internal focus on the part of the student, perhaps with something like a service-learning course.
The Student Who Is Demanding
Here the student frequently makes demands and seeks help or, emotional reassurance from advisers. He or she wants to be at the center of attention much of the time. In other words, there is “stuckness” in the self-oriented and sympathy states. Often this drives others away and becomes counter-productive. The adviser provides some reassurance but focuses on developing mastery and an agentic orientation (Bandura, 1997) in the student. The adviser can accomplish this by modeling coping skills and fostering independence in the advisee. Rather than contacting financial aid or the registrar on behalf of the student, for example, the adviser should provide students with the information they need to handle the matter themselves.
The Student Who Presents As A Rebel Or Displays Resistance
Some students express the rebellious state in counter-productive ways, due to either a lack of skill or a limited repertoire. Examples include disruption for its own sake leading nowhere, stubbornness against change, or irritation of others. A more adaptive and acceptable way to express the rebellious state would be to engage the student in critical analysis and evaluation. The adviser can help the student channel his rebellious motivations, perhaps by directing the student toward courses in which critical thinking and innovation are rewarded. Empowering students to make their own choices so there is less for them to rebel against is another viable strategy.
The Student Who Is Detached Or Alienated
In a situation when teamwork is required but the student is unable to enter into the spirit of things, he or she may experience isolation. There is a mismatch between the student’s state of mind and the situation. Instead of being in the other-oriented state, which would be appropriate to the situation and lead to the satisfactions that are there for the taking, the student is instead in the self-oriented state. He or she may participate in university clubs, interest groups, sports teams, or a church, but does so in the self-oriented state and is unable to reverse to the other-oriented state and enjoy being part of something larger than himself. The adviser’s role here is to help such students see the rewards that can be obtained by fully engaging in something beyond themselves. The adviser could ask what activities the student participated in during high school and introduce the student to sponsors of campus organizations in which they may have an interest.
A productive advising environment is one characterized by “motivational richness” (Apter, 2005, p. 37). Reversal theory characterizes motivational richness as an environment in which all eight reversal theory states and their satisfactions are available. An effective adviser encourages students to experience all eight states and helps them develop strategies to find satisfaction in whatever states of mind they happen to be experiencing (Apter, 2005). The RT model provides the adviser as well as the student with innovative strategies for change. When the adviser moves from a trait orientation to a reversal theory perspective, the adviser increases his or her repertoire of options for developing students.
Apter (2001) contains more details on this innovative theory, including research that supports it. Additionally, reversal theory as it applies in other areas appears in Kerr (2001) on coaching athletes, Mallows (2007) on classroom teaching, and Carter and Kourdi (2003) on management consultancy.
Apter, M. J. (Ed.). (2001). Motivational styles in everyday life: A guide to reversal theory. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Apter, M. J. (2005). Personality dynamics: Key concepts in reversal theory. Loughborough, UK: Apter International Ltd.
Apter, M. J. (2007). Reversal theory: The dynamics of motivation, emotion and personality. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications.
Apter International Ltd. (2003). Eight ways of being. Loughborough, UK: Apter International Ltd.
Bandura A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: Freeman.
Carter, S., & Kourdi, J. (2003). The road to audacity: Being adventurous in life and work. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Crookston, B. B. (1994). A developmental view of academic advising as teaching. National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) Journal, 14(2), 5–9. (Reprinted from Journal of College Student Personnel, 13, 12–17, 1972).
Kerr, J. H. (2001). Counseling athletes: Applying reversal theory. London, UK: Routledge.
Mallows, D. (2007). Switch to better behaviour management: Reversal theory in practice. Norfolk, U.K.: Peter Francis.
McClellan, J. L. (2006, November 29). Student motivation: How much can we really do? The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, 8(4). Retrieved from http://www.psu.edu/dus/mentor
Wubbolding, R. E. (1988). Using reality therapy. New York, NY: Harper & Row (Perennial Library).
About the Author(s)
Mitzi Desselles, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, LA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mary M. Livingston, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology in the Department of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, LA. She can be reached at email@example.com.