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Transforming the Mind ~ by Peter Shepherd


Telic and Paratelic States


The term 'state' in psychology is used to describe something about a person at a given moment in time. States can change quickly, can last for various durations of time (from seconds to days) and can be affected by environmental cues, interpersonal transactions, cognitive processes, biological changes and motivation. There are thousands of adjectives that may be used to characterize a person's current operative state, such as 'angry', 'fearful', 'bored', 'serious', 'excited', 'sensation-seeking' and many others. This is clearly impractical as a basis for the understanding of psychological processes; a better solution is to look for clusters of inter-related states or behaviors that are amenable either to direct observation or psychometric measurement. Such a model would need to explain why individuals do not remain in one constant state of arousal, but introvert or extrovert, withdraw or become involved, be thoughtful or be spontaneous.

Take the example of a person riding a bicycle: the behavior is cycling, the goal is arriving at a certain place. If the cyclist needs to get to work on time, his behavior is chosen to meet the goal (arrival) that is in the foreground; the means of doing this is secondary. This is a telic state - the person is serious-minded, planning oriented and seeks to avoid arousal.

The alternative experience is for the behavior to be in the foreground and the goal in the background - the person may simply like the feeling of the wind in his hair as he cycles down a hill; where he is going is secondary. This is a paratelic state - the person is playful, prefers to be spontaneous, is 'here and now' oriented (pursues goals only insofar as they add to the immediate pleasure of the situation) and prefers arousal to be high, since it is pleasurable.

A certain behavior (cycling) may then be associated with contrasting motivational states (ends: goal achievement versus means: behavioral satisfaction), and the cyclist may switch between these states on different occasions or even several times during one cycle ride. This helps to explain why individuals do not seek to remain at a 'safe' medium level of arousal all the time, but engage in exploration, curiosity, risk-taking, play, art, religion and humor, sometimes because they lead to the achievement of a goal and sometimes because they are pleasurable in themselves. Neurosis or distorted thinking will however reduce this range and flexibility of experience due to fears of consequences.

Contingent events, i.e. genuine setbacks, may trigger a reversal from a paratelic state of pleasurable excitement to a telic state of unpleasant arousal or anxiety; or the reverse may occur if things suddenly go well. Frustration in which the needs of the person are not being satisfied may cause such a reversal, and a person may become satiated with one mode and increasingly sensitive to cues that may trigger a reversal.

The distinction between telic and paratelic states relates to many features of the experience of motivation:

Means-Ends motivation: Essential goals

Imposed goals

Unavoidable goals




Not essential goals

Freely chosen goals

Avoidable goals


Behavior oriented


Time motivations: Wish to complete



Pleasure of anticipation

Wish to prolong



Pleasure of sensation

Intensity motivations: High rationality preferred

Low arousal preferred

Low rationality preferred

High arousal preferred

The psychological variables most central to the distinction between telic and paratelic states in respect of intensity, are felt arousal (the degree to which a person feels 'stirred up' or aroused) and hedonic tone (the degree of pleasure experienced). The following diagram illustrates this relationship:

felt arousal

High felt arousal may be experienced as unpleasant in the telic mode (anxiety) or pleasant in the paratelic (excitement). A climber may enjoy his climb and feel really excited at being near the summit and then remembering a sudden fall under similar circumstances, experience a panic-attack. Similarly a low felt arousal may reverse from pleasant relaxation (in the telic mode) to unpleasant boredom (in the paratelic), when the person has become satiated with that way of operating, and finds present circumstances inadequately stimulating. So a circumstance becomes stressful when it forces the person into a mode of operation that he would prefer not to be in.

An event or situation (such as a bank raid or an examination) that is associated with an increase in arousal (i.e. one that would typically be perceived as a 'stressful' event) is likely to be experienced as stressful only when one is in the telic state, and may be viewed as an exciting challenge in the paratelic state. Radically different responses to the same situation, in terms of affect, behavior and cognitions would be expected for individuals in these different states of mind. The one would involve anxiety, avoidance, resistance and a variety of defensive 'coping' strategies, while the other would be characterized by excitement, exhilaration, 'approach' strategies and a sense of challenge.

“A circumstance becomes stressful when it forces the person into a mode of operation that he would prefer not to be in.”
Thus paratelic dominant individuals have a higher threshold for high-arousal stress; on the other hand they are more susceptible to stress that results from under-stimulation, and may find boring, monotonous activities very stressful. These factors will be examined in greater depth later on.

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