Opponent-process theory

Opponent-process theory

Opponent-process theory is a universal psychological and neurological model proposed by Ewald Hering to account for a wide range of behaviors including color vision; this model was expanded by his co-worker at the University of Pennsylvania, Richard Solomon, to explain addictive and emotional behavior.



This theory is based on behaviors and temporary feelings rather than individual characteristics and asserts that emotions often surface in pairs which oppose each other; joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, fear and relief. Solomon discovered that there are two specific components to an emotional reaction in certain situations. The first is component is called A Reaction, and it is described as being quick and intense, like the feeling one gets when you receive an award (i.e., pleasure). The second component is called B Reaction and it is the opposite of the A reaction (i.e., pain). If one of these emotions is experienced, the other will be temporarily suppressed, and emerge strongly during or after the initial emotion. The B reaction takes more time to build and more time to decay. The B reaction can occasionally be quick, most commonly in children; though the B reaction is thought to be hormonal, involving chemical processes in the bloodstream – the body reacting to an extreme fluctuation in mood.

One of the main factors of Solomon's theory is that the more an event is experienced, the stronger the B component becomes, and the smaller A gets. This often results in a reversal of emotions; something that was once exhilarating is now boring, and something that was once terrifying is now fun.[1] Occasionally, the two emotions will overlap, if the second emotion begins before the first emotion has fully faded, creating a confusing mix of two emotions which are normally mutually exclusive. This emotional overload can be unwanted at first, but as a new experience and playing off of a basis of excitement, it can be peculiarly enjoyable, as in the example of skydiving below.


The most important contribution is Solomon's work on work motivation and addictive behavior, though it does not fit the "economist's standard model"[clarification needed] and how there are growing suspicions that addiction is a much broader phenomenon than it was first considered to be. The theory was supported in a study Solomon conducted along with J.D. Corbit in 1974, in which the researchers analyzed the emotions of skydivers. It was found that beginners have greater levels of fear than more experienced skydivers, but less pleasure upon landing. However as the skydivers kept on jumping there was an increase in pleasure and a decrease in fear. A similar experiment was done with dogs. Dogs were put into a so called Pavlov harness and were shocked with electricity for 10 seconds. This shock was the stimulus of the experiment. In the initial stage (consisting of the first few stimuli) the dogs experienced terror and panic. Then when they stopped the stimuli the dogs became stealthy and cautious. The experiment continued and after many stimuli the dogs went from unhappy to joyful and happy after the shocks stopped altogether[2] In the opponent process model, this is the result of a shift over time from fear to pleasure in the fear-pleasure emotion pair.

According to opponent-process theory, drug addiction is the result of an emotional pairing of pleasure and the emotional symptoms associated with withdrawal. At the beginning of drug or any substance use there are high levels of pleasure and low levels of withdrawal. Over time, however, as the levels of pleasure from using the drug decrease, the levels of withdrawal symptoms from not taking the drug increase, thus providing motivation to keep using the drug despite a lack of pleasure from it.

Hurvich & Jameson proposed a neurological model of a general theory of neurological opponent processing in 1974. This led to Ronald C. Blue and Wanda E. Blue’s general model of Correlational Holographic Opponent Processing. This model proposes that habituation is a neurological holographic wavelet interference of opponent processes that explains learning, vision, hearing, taste, balance, smell, motivation, and emotions.


  1. ^ Gregory A. Kimble "Behaviourism and Unity in Psychology". "Current Directions in Psychological Science", 2000, pg. 210–211.
  2. ^ Solomon and Corbit."An Opponent-Process Theory of Motivation". "The American Economic Review", 1978, pg.12-24.

Further reading

  • ERN Grigg, MD. Biological Relativity. Akaranth Books, 1967. (Extensive opponent-processes as a general model of biology and psychology)
  • Solomon, R.L. (1980). The Opponent-Process Theory of Acquired Motivation: The Costs of Pleasure and the Benefits of Pain. American Psychologist, 35, 8, pp. 691–712.
  • Solomon, R.L. and Corbit, J.D. (1973). An Opponent-Process Theory of Motivation: II. Cigarette Addiction. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 81, 2, pp. 158–171.
  • Solomon, R.L. and Corbit, J.D. (1974). An Opponent-Process Theory of Motivation: I. Temporal Dynamics of Affect. Psychological Review, 81, 2, pp. 119–145.
  • Solomon's "Opponent Process" Theory on PsyWWW.com.

See also

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