Opponent Process Theory of Emotion and Motivational States

By Charlotte Nickerson, published April 29, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Definition

  • Opponent Process Theory (OPT) is a term coined in the field of psychology that explains how the primary or initial reaction to an emotional event will be subsequently followed by an opposite secondary emotional state.
  • The theory was initially coined by Richard L. Solomon and the theory is also commonly referred to as the opponent process theory of acquired motivation. What this basically amounts to is a process which sees a stimulus that initially inspires displeasure will eventually - with the passage of time - become a pleasurable emotional response and vice-versa.
  • Richard Solomon developed this motivational theory based on the manner in which he viewed and studied opponent processes. Every process that has an affective balance - that is to say, the process is either negative or positive - is subsequently followed by an immediate secondary, "opponent process".
  • This opponent process sets in only after the initial primary a-process has stopped eliciting the original emotional experience and the feelings that came with it. The most important thing to note is that with repeated exposure, the opponent process is strengthened while the initial primary process becomes weaker with the passage of time.

How it Works: A- and B-Processes

This opponent process theory bases itself on the following: a process (x) is directly activated by an emotional event, which triggers a response (y) which is directly related to the event that just took place.

For the purposes of simplification, the initial process will be referred to as process A while the triggering response will be referred to as process B.

This primary process A— which, again, is directly activated by the original event—is followed by what psychologists have deemed to be known as the opponent process, which is the B-process. This B-process is what gives rise to the opposite emotional state.

What will occur is that during the first few exposures to an emotion-eliciting event, the opponent process mechanism can act to return someone to a state of emotional homeostasis or neutrality after having gone through an emotionally intense experience or episode.

An important aspect of the opponent process theory that should be kept in mind is that once the experience or episode becomes frequently repeated, the A-process response weakens and the B-process response strengthens.

Motivation and Emotional States

One important aspect to note about OPT is how the negative emotional responses can somehow eventually turn into positive ones.

The emotional value that is provided by the initial primary A-process will always be in direct contrast to the opponent B-process.

The theory relays that after repeated exposure to the same emotional event, the initial A-process reaction (which was initially linked to positive emotional responses) will begin to weaken, whereas the B-process reaction will not only strengthen in intensity but it will also last longer (while the A-process becomes shorter).

This leads to the feeling that comes after an intense “negative event” (B-process) becoming the prevailing emotional experience associated with a particular stimulus event.

One of the most common examples for this is the thrill of riding a rollercoaster or flying on a plane.

The initial experience could seem mind-boggling and terrifying (which leads to the negative emotional response such as feelings of anxiety or fear) but once the actual event occurs, people tend to want to seek that thrill that comes with the culmination of these types of activities.

This is because these states can change as time goes on, as well as their lasting effects. For example, an initially pleasing experience such as falling in love can eventually give rise to negative responses and feelings, such as jealousy, withdrawal, or loneliness.

This happens because as time goes on, the stimulus that originally triggered those feelings associated with that experience can not only change, but the circumstances that surround them can as well.

It's a lot easier to love someone at first or to have someone catch your eye, but once you learn more about that person or encounter problems along the way then it becomes much more realistic to associate that same person with different appropriate responses.

This is in contrast to what occurs with an initially negative emotional experience - such as a life-threatening experience like parachuting or rock-climbing can eventually give way to a prevailing positive experience.

This is because the negative stimulus originally associated with the danger of the given activity becomes weaker and weaker with the more degree of success that is encountered upon the repeating of said activity.

In fact, the negative feelings are said to be replaced with positive emotional experiences - the relief and joy that comes with having survived such an ordeal replaces the original pre-conceived notions that were established.

As a result of this the way of viewing this theory has been commonly used to help explain the puzzling behavioral tendencies associated with not only addictive behavior, but also the withdrawal of said behavior and the experiences that come with that action.

Examples of OPT

The manner in which Solomon achieved support for his theory in the broader medical community was mainly due to him drawing on numerous examples of opponent process effects in the literature.

These examples not only gave credibility to the theory, they were also drawn from events that are common in life and thus easily relatable for whoever wants to understand the way the theory functions.

The important part to note once again is that the first two of these examples - love and drug use - represent events that give rise to initially positive emotional states; the others - parachuting and donating blood - are considered to (at least initially) create negative emotional states.

Another aspect that is evident is that if exposure to these processes is repeated, the same emotion-eliciting event will observe a weakening of the A-process while the B-process contrastingly will grow.

Falling in Love

When falling in love, the initial happiness elicited from a certain stimulus (either the person or the concept of being with a companion) will change over time.

Gabriele Jordan identified a woman with a functional four-cone system, which seemingly resulted in her seeing different colors in situations where most people would see just one color (Jordan, Deeb, Bosten, & Mollon, 2010).

This occurs for two reasons: firstly the person who elicited that response is subject to change in both appearance and in manner.

Secondly after time goes by and the initial “buzz” from falling in love is not as strong what tends to occur is that the emotional response changes despite the stimulus remaining the same.

An easier way to view this is by using the example of an older couple. While the love between these two individuals could very much be real, after experiencing life together with someone for so long it would be almost uncanny for the response elicited from the stimulus not to change.

From having children, to financial troubles, to even simply growing old; the way life changes ensures that even if some of the initial feelings held toward that person remain, the environment around that individual forces a change in the positive emotional response.

Another manner in which one can view the OPT as useful is by observing separation anxiety in interpersonal relationships.

Think of an infant with their mother; once the mother leaves the room or goes anywhere else, the infant is most likely to crave the initial emotional response that was elicited from being with their mother.

Drugs

According to OPT, what drug addiction basically amounts to is the direct result of an unwanted pairing between the actual “buzz” or high that is experienced from the drug use and the subsequent emotional symptoms associated with withdrawal that come with the conclusion of the experience.

The initial “high” experience - which is very strong - weakens over time with the continued usage of the drug.

Contrastingly, the feelings of withdrawal (wanting to use the drug again) increase with the more the drug is consumed.

During the initial stages of drug usage, the high or “buzz” experienced is much more pleasurable than the high that comes with regular usage of the drug.

Vice-versa, the withdrawal symptoms from not utilizing the drug are very low at the beginning, but once the drug usage becomes common the consequences from withdrawal become much more serious.

This explains why drug addiction is so hard to overcome - the initial buzz that came from the first usage of the drug will (with continued usage) decrease and thus require the user to consume more to achieve that original emotional positive response.

Not only that, but the negative effects of withdrawal grow along with the dependency of drug usage which leads to the issue of the drug becoming a necessity for the well-being or functioning of that person.

Parachuting

An experience that makes many tremble with fear before actually taking part in it.

What ends up happening is that - given the intense fear and anxiety experienced beforehand - the feeling of making it out alive becomes almost euphoric.

As a result, once the individual turns the activity into something that they do frequently, what occurs is that most jumpers cease to be terrified.

What ends up happening is actually quite the opposite; the resulting sensation felt after a successful parachute is meant to be emulated and makes people continue to thrill seek rather than keep associating the activity with negative emotional responses.

Donating Blood

At first, people report feeling anxious and nervous before beginning the process of donating blood.

Once the actual task is done, however, people report experiencing a sense of relief.

Amazingly, what the research has shown is that after a period of time (once the individual becomes accustomed to the experience of donating blood) people tend to not feel those same feelings when going to donate blood; rather they actually have a warm and positive emotional experience once the ordeal is over.

Implications of the Theory

The main implication of this theory is that there are different types of effects that are explained by a single, simple mechanism.

The utility of the theory itself is explained by this and from this theory, the conclusion drawn by psychologists is that a person’s initial emotional response elicited by a stimulus event might not necessarily remain as the explanation for why the behavior is unchanged.

The best example for this is marriage; think of a couple that fell in love very quickly. At first, the motivation for staying in that relationship was love, but after time chances are that the couple will choose to remain together for purposes of not separating the children or not being lonely.

The initial stimulus and the response elicited from it are not the same, despite the fact that the situation (the marriage, in this case) remains unchanged.

The opponent process theory suggests that over time people may become motivated to stay in a relationship like this or in a similar situation due to avoid a worse scenario. Another example of this would be an alcoholic.

At first, the initial allure of drinking alcohol might stem from the “buzz” or high experienced from it, but as resistance grows with more consumption of alcohol the buzz experienced becomes less.

The withdrawal from being drunk, however, remains - and in a similar manner that loneliness or other factors make a marriage last, the fear of having to deal with not being drunk and not having any sort of buzz becomes the motivator for drinking, rather than the original stimulus that was elicited from this activity.

Interestingly, the situation is flipped when it comes to feeling negative emotions.

Some of these negative emotional states - such as fear and anxiety - could be sought after in a half-hearted attempt to attain the subsequent positive emotional feelings after completing the stress inducing task.

It becomes ironic in a sense - initial pleasure gives rise to behavioral tendencies - which are then governed by avoidance motivation - and makes people pursue initial negative emotions such as fear in an effort to achieve approach motivation.

Opponents of OPT

While Solomon has made many strides with his research, some researchers in the field of psychology disagree with Solomon’s opponent process theory.

The main point of contention is that researchers don’t necessarily agree that there will be an increase in withdrawal response after repeated exposure to a stimulus.

These examples provide om drug usage or relationships showcase Solomon’s theory well, but they don’t account for external factors nor do they pose the question of multiple experiences eliciting multiple emotional responses.

What if a person or an experience elicit multiple responses - how could one determine the validity of OPT if the person themselves are not sure what is making them have these emotional responses.

The best way to observe this theory is as a good manner of explaining the way people behave, but remembering that multiple psychological responses are not easy to cover and therefore this theory should not be taken as absolute.

Different processes and emotional responses are at play; with the possibility of multiple factors influencing what occurs.

The best way to utilize the OPT is by remembering that emotion and motivation in psychology are ever-changing and hard to put into practice in terms of determining the origin of why people feel in this manner.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, April 29). Opponent Process Theory of Emotion and Motivational States. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/opponent-process-theory.html

APA Style References

Bresin, K., Gordon, K. H., Bender, T. W., Gordon, L. J., & Joiner, T. E. (2010). No pain, no change: Reductions in prior negative affect following physical pain. Motivation and Emotion, 34(3), 280-287

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.