Opponent Process Theory (In Psychology)

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Newton’s Third Law states that for every action in nature, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In psychology, opponent process theory suggests a similar idea - at least, in terms of emotions. There is an opponent process theory in color theory but also an opponent process theory in psychology. On this page, we will cover the latter. Understanding opponent process theory helps us understand motivation, emotion, and why the hair of the dog can lead to a dangerous spiral. 

What Is Opponent Process Theory? 

Opponent process theory (OPT) suggests that initial reactions to emotional events or stimuli are followed by the opposite reaction over time or when that stimuli is removed. In other words, after feeling very high, you’re going to feel low. After feeling very sad, you will eventually feel very happy.

Or, we can just describe it the way Solomon and Corbit described OPT in 1974: “It assumes that many hedonic, affective, or emotional states are automatically opposed by CNS mechanisms which reduce the intensity of hedonic feelings, both pleasant and aversive. Opponent processes for most hedonic states are strengthened by use and weakened by disuse.” 

Who First Studied Opponent Process Theory? 

By the time Richard Solomon and J.D. Corbit started studying opponent process theory, it already had a name. Scientists had been studying the theory as a smaller piece of color theory, but Solomon and Corbit applied the processes named within opponent process theory to moviation and emotion.

Their first experiments regarding opponent process theory looked at the emotions of skydivers. If you’ve ever been skydiving, you know how much of an “emotional rollercoaster” it can be. It’s a rollercoaster because it contains high levels of anxiety and high levels of relief. The fear of jumping out of a plane is followed by equally intense feelings of elation once you hit the ground and the event is over.

Another observation that Solomon and Corbit made as they studied the emotions of skydivers is that the more novice skydivers experienced more fear and less joy during their first time skydiving. As the skydivers got used to the experience of skydiving, a shift took place: they experienced less fear and more joy during the event. 

How Opponent Process Theory Works

Researchers have identified the two opposing proesses as the A-process and the B-process. The A-process is the initial emotional response to the event. Let’s use an example from another concept in psychology to describe these processes.

The same year that Solomon and Corbit wrote about opponent process theory, researchers conducted an experiment on a suspension bridge. Men were told to walk across this terrifying suspension bridge. The A-process in this example is the nerves that the men felt as they walked across this bridge.

The B-process is the opposing emotion that occurs toward the end of the A-process. It may ramp up after the stimulus or event ends, but eventually tapers off naturally. In the example with the bridge, a woman stood at the other side of the bridge. After the men finished crossing the bridge, they talked with the woman. The B-process, unbeknowst to the men, was taking place: they were feeling joyous, relieved, and exhilarated. The results of the study were fascinating, as they misattributed these feelings to an attraction to the woman, not the relief of ending a scary experience. 

Examples of Opponent Process Theory 

You have probably experienced opponent process theory many times and not realized it was happening! Like many processes in the body, these examples are a way for the body to get back to a state of balance. So the best way to prevent high highs followed by low lows is to keep yourself in balance!

Post-Vacation Blues

Have you ever gotten back from a vacation or a music festival and felt depressed? Those post-vacation blues are a great example of opponent process theory! After experiencing a joyous, wild weekend or week, coming back to “reality” feels like you’re missing out. Post-vacation blues are normal. Mindfulness and patience are all you need to get you back to “normal!” 

A Health Scare 

Your doctor tells you that they have found a tumor that needs testing. You’re certainly going to have a reaction to this news! In the days before you get the test and get the results, you are likely on-edge and stressed. Then, you get the news that the tumor is benign. The stimulus, aka the mystery surrounding the tumor, is gone. You likely feel a lot of great joy or feeling of calm afterward. Nothing really has changed - that benign tumor always existed - but you experience that joy because you experienced that stress beforehand. 

Attachment And Separation Anxiety 

Do you have pets or children that experience separation anxiety? This is opponent process theory at work. When the stimulus is around the subject (like a parent around a child,) the subject feels great comfort and warmth. Upon the stimulus’s disappearance, the subject is distraught and nervous. Psychologists studied how imbalance and insecure relationships with parents made a significant impact on the child’s development and how they eventually understood relationships with others. That doesn’t mean that a parent has to be by the side of the child constantly for the relationship to be healthy. It just means that the most balanced relationships were the most secure. The more unstable, the more unhealthy the relationship. Opponent process theory is just an attempt to get back to a state of balance, or homeostasis. 

Opponent Process Theory and Addiction 

If you’re a college student (over the age of 21), you can probably relate to opponent process theory in terms of alcohol and hangovers. For every fun, wild night of drinking, there is an uncomfortable, anxiety-ridden day afterward of recovering. There are many reasons why we feel terrible after binge-drinking alcohol, but the ideas suggested in the opponent process theory are one of them. 

So what happens when you abstain from drugs and alcohol? You feel terrible. You feel anxious. Whether it’s ibuprofen, soda, or a heaping pile of fast food, you do whatever you can to remove those terrible feelings. In other words, you are searching for negative reinforcement. This sounds contradictory, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Negative reinforcement negates, or removes something from a situation after a behavior is performed and the subject is encouraged to perform that behavior again. “Hair of the dog,” or a drink at brunch, removes terrible hangover symptoms, and the drinker is encouraged to have more drinks at brunch after a big night out. 

You can see how this can create a cycle of high highs and low lows for the person who enjoys drinking, hates hangovers, and has experienced having the “hair of the dog” at brunch. At best, the person finds some non-alcoholic hangover remedies and suffers the consequences of a few nights of binge drinking. At worst, they develop an addiction that is hard to quit.

Opponent process theory is frequently used in discussions surrounding addiction and addiction treatment, but you can also think about it when assessing your emotions. Could your great sadness be a response to a period of great joy? Can you anticipate feeling low after feeling wonderful? Life is all about balance. Be mindful of this balance and you’ll have a better idea of what highs and lows come your way.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2022, November). Opponent Process Theory (In Psychology). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/opponent-process-theory-in-psychology/.

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