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Interpersonal Theory

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Interpersonal theory deals with people's characteristic interaction patterns, which vary along the dimensions of dominance and friendliness. Interpersonal theory's two dimensions are part of the
Five-Factor Model, and its interpersonal focus is shared with Attachment Theory.


Interpersonal Theory: A Cord of Three Strands

The circumplex tradition in interpersonal psychology was inspired by the interpersonal theory of Harry Stack Sullivan (1953) and the sociological theory of George Herbert Mead (1934), and made more explicit and accessible to research by Timothy Leary (1957), who introduced the circular ordering of variables known as the interpersonal circumplex (see figure at left, a replica of Kiesler's 1983 circumplex taken from Gurtman, 1997). Interpersonal theory comprises three strands of leading ideas: the principle of complementarity, the principle of vector length, and the principle of circumplex structure.

The first strand of interpersonal theory is the principle of complementarity (Carson, 1969; Kiesler, 1983; Orford, 1986; Wiggins, 1982), which contends that people in dyadic interactions negotiate the definition of their relationship through verbal and nonverbal cues. This negotiation occurs along the following lines: dominant-friendliness invites submissive-friendliness, and vice versa, whereas dominant-hostility invites submissive-hostility, and vice versa.

The second strand of interpersonal theory is the principle of vector length, which contends that within diagnoses of personality type on the interpersonal circle, vector length (a measure of statistical deviance) is an index of psychopathology (psychiatric deviance; Wiggins, Phillips, & Trapnell, 1989). In general, people with rigid, inflexible personalities have more problems--even if such people are inflexible in a friendly direction--whereas people with flexible, adaptive personalities have fewer problems--even if such people are generally more hostile than friendly.

The third strand of interpersonal theory is the principle of circumplex structure, which contends that variables that measure interpersonal relations are arranged around a circle in two-dimensional space (Leary, 1957). A circumplex can be viewed in three successively more restrictive and testable ways. First, a circumplex can be viewed as merely a useful pictorial representation of a particular domain. Second, a circumplex can be viewed as implying circular order, such that variables that fall close together are more related than variables that fall further apart on the circle, with opposite variables being negatively related and variables at right angles being unrelated (orthogonal). Third, a circumplex can be viewed as implying exact circumplex structure, such that all variables are equally spaced around the circle (Wiggins & Trobst, 1997). Sophisticated psychometric and geometric tests can be applied to determine whether a circumplex meets the criteria for exact circumplex structure (Acton & Revelle, 1998).

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Acton, G. S., & Revelle, W. (1998). Interpersonal theory and circumplex structure. Manuscript in preparation, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.

Carson, R. C. (1969). Interaction concepts of personality. Chicago: Aldine.

Gurtman, M. B. (1997, February 1). The interpersonal circumplex [WWW document]. URL http://www.uwp.edu/academic/psychology/faculty/netcirc.htm

Kiesler, D. J. (1983). The 1982 interpersonal circle: A taxonomy for complementarity in human transactions. Psychological Review, 90, 185-214.

Leary, T. (1957). Interpersonal diagnosis of personality. New York: Ronald.

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sullivan, H. S. (1953). The interpersonal theory of psychiatry. New York: Norton.

Wiggins, J. S. (1982). Circumplex models of interpersonal behavior in clinical psychology. In P. C. Kendall & J. N. Butcher (Eds.), Handbook of research methods in clinical psychology (pp. 183-221). New York: Wiley.

Wiggins, J. S., Phillips, N., & Trapnell, P. (1989). Circular reasoning about interpersonal behavior: Evidence concerning some untested assumptions underlying diagnostic classification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 296-305.

Wiggins, J. S., & Trobst, K. K. (1997). When is a circumplex an "interpersonal circumplex"? The case of supportive actions. In R. Plutchik & H. R. Conte (Eds.), Circumplex models of personality and emotions (pp. 57-80). Washington, DC: American Psychological Assoication.

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Last modified July 1998

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