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Interpersonal Theory

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

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).

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

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.

Interpersonal Theory Links

Interpersonal Theory: Papers Elsewhere

"Interpersonal Personality Measures Show Circumplex Structure Based on New

Psychometric Criteria"

This is a preliminary version of an article in the Journal of Personality Assessment. By G.

Scott Acton and William Revelle.

"The Interpersonal Principle of Complementarity: A Meta-Analysis"

This paper presents a quantitative synthesis of the literature on interpersonal

complementarity. By G. Scott Acton.

"Testing for Circumplex Structure in the Interpersonal Circle and the Structural
Analysis of Social Behavior"

This paper presents a test of circumplex structure in the interpersonal circle and SASB. By G.
Scott Acton and William Revelle.

Interpersonal Theory: Links in This Website

Interpersonal Complementarity

This website describes the interpersonal principle of complementarity and includes a lengthy
bibliography of complementarity references. By G. Scott Acton.

Interpersonal Theory Outline

This outline links to an interactive learning tool on interpersonal theory called an ASK
system, in which links are based on questions that readers have asked or might ask. By G.
Scott Acton.

Interpersonal Theory: Websites Elsewhere

1982 Interpersonal Circle

This page features Kiesler's version of the 1982 interpersonal circle. By Donald J. Kiesler.

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931)

This is a discussion of the thought of a philosopher and psychologist whose ideas influenced
interpersonal theory. By George Cronk.

Interpersonal Circle Web Site

This website includes an overview of interpersonal theory and a discussion of measures

representing the interpersonal circle. By James A. Schmidt.

Interpersonal Circumplex

This website describes the nature of the interpersonal circumplex and includes links and a
lengthy bibliography of circumplex references. By Michael B. Gurtman.

Harry Stack Sullivan

This page features quotes from a psychiatrist whose thought heavily influenced
interpersonal theory. By Brent Dean Robbins.

Harry Stack Sullivan (1892-1949)

These course notes discuss Sullivan's theory of human development. By Douglas A. Davis.

Society for Interpersonal Theory and Research

This organization's website contains conference information and links to other interpersonal

Interpersonal Theory: Reference Sources

Interpersonal Theory References

This is a virtually complete list of references on interpersonal theory. By G. Scott Acton.

SITAR: Recent Publications by Members

This is a list of recent publications on interpersonal theory. By the Society for Interpersonal
Theory and Research.

Suggested Readings

A list of suggested readings on this topic is also available. By G. Scott Acton.