Opponent Process Theory Definition
Richard L. Solomon’s opponent process theory of emotions—also commonly referred to as the opponent process theory of acquired motivation—contends that the primary or initial reaction to an emotional event (State A) will be followed by an opposite secondary emotional state (State B). In other words, a stimulus that initially inspires displeasure will likely be followed by a pleasurable after-feeling and vice versa. The second important aspect of this theory is that after repeated exposure to the same emotional event, the State A reaction will begin to weaken, whereas the State B reaction will strengthen in intensity and duration. Thus, over time, the after-feeling can become the prevailing emotional experience associated with a particular stimulus event. One example of this phenomenon is how, for some people, an initial unpleasant fear aroused by a good roller-coaster ride becomes, over time, an enjoyable and much sought-after experience.
Opponent Process Theory Explanation
According to this theory, a primary a-process— directly activated by an emotional event—is followed by an opponent process, the secondary b-process, which gives rise to the opposite emotional state. In the first few exposures to an emotion-eliciting event, such an opponent process can act to return an organism to a state of emotional homeostasis or neutrality following an intensely emotional episode. After repeated exposures, however, the State A response weakens and the
State B response strengthens. Because these states change over time, the later acquired effects are often referred to as States A’ and B’ to indicate change over time. Thus, an initially positive emotional experience (e.g., love or interpersonal stimulation or drug use) can eventually give rise to a prevailing negative emotional experience (e.g., grief or withdrawal), whereas an initially negative emotional experience (e.g., giving blood or parachuting) can eventually give way to a prevailing positive experience (e.g., warm-glow effect or exhilaration). As such, this theory has been commonly used to help explain the somewhat puzzling behavioral tendencies associated with addictive behavior.
Background and Significance of Opponent Process Theory
Solomon supported his theory by drawing on numerous examples of opponent process effects in the literature. Four such examples are described in some detail: (1) love/interpersonal stimulation, (2) drug use, (3) parachuting, (4) donating blood. The first two of these represent events that give rise to initially positive emotional states; the others initially create negative emotional states. In each of these examples, two core aspects of the theory are evident: (1) The emotional value of the primary a-process and opponent b-process are always contrasting, and (2) repeated exposures to the same emotion-eliciting event lead the a-process to weaken and the b-process to strengthen.
In the first example, the initial happiness elicited by a loving relationship may eventually give rise to a negative emotional state. A common anecdote used to illustrate this point is that of a couple engaged in the height of sexual passion (highly positive), which is then abruptly interrupted, giving rise to contrasting irritability, loneliness, perhaps craving in its absence (highly negative). The opponent process has also been used to help explain more general separation anxiety in interpersonal relationships as well (e.g., in infant attachment when a parent leaves the room, and even in ducklings when the object of their imprinting is removed).
In the second example, the intense euphoria induced by a drug wears off over time leaving a user with a prevailing negative withdrawal reaction, making it difficult for him or her to ever return to the original high state first experienced. The acquired nature of this response may also help explain occurrences of accidental overdose. If the b-process becomes tied to environmental cues (e.g., when and where the drug is generally taken), and the drug is then taken in a different context, the acquired b-process may then not be powerful enough to counteract the initial a-process, resulting in a stronger drug reaction than anticipated.
In the third example, beginning parachuters often report experiencing absolute terror when jumping out of a plane and plummeting to the earth, and are reported to be in a stunned state once they land, gradually returning to neutrality. After many jumps (for those that dare try it again), however, most jumpers cease to be terrified. Instead, they often become expectant, eagerly anticipating the next jump, and feel a strong sense of exhilaration that can last for many hours after the jump is completed. This acquired and intensely positive experience causes some people to continue jumping to recapture the rewarding after-feeling.
The fourth example similarly shows how when people first give blood, they often report feeling anxious during the experience but relief once it is done. Over time, however, most people report experiencing reduced or no anxiety when giving blood but instead report an increasing warm-glow sensation that keeps them returning to donate more.
Opponent Process Theory Implications
Here very different types of effects are explained by a single, simple mechanism, thereby demonstrating the utility of this theory. From this theory, psychologists learn that the initial emotional response elicited by a stimulus event might not necessarily explain the subsequent long-term behavioral tendencies related to that event. In the case of love, for example, which produces intensely euphoric responses initially, the opponent process theory suggests that over time people may become motivated to stay in the love relationship perhaps more in an attempt to avoid feeling lonely or grief stricken than to sustain the loving feeling. Similarly, drug addicts may take drugs in increasingly large doses not to chase the initial high so much as to avoid the increasing feelings of withdrawal. On the other hand, the very events that initially give rise to negative emotional states (e.g., fear or anxiety), such as parachuting or giving blood, over time may be sought after in an attempt to attain the rewarding effects of the after-feelings associated with them. In this way, it becomes apparent how, eventually, initial pleasure can ironically give rise to behavioral tendencies governed by avoidance motivation, and initial negative emotions such as fear by approach motivation.
- Solomon, R. L. (1980). The opponent-process theory of acquired motivation: The costs of pleasure and benefits of pain. American Psychologist, 35, 691-712.
- Solomon, R. L., & Corbit, J. D. (1974). An opponent-process theory of motivation: I. Temporal dynamics of affect. Psychological Review, 81, 119-145.