What Is Opponent-Process Theory in Psychology?

Medically Reviewed on 12/27/2021
What Is Opponent Process Theory in Psychology
The opponent process theory is a theory of emotional and motivational states that may explain the psychological factors behind addiction

Opponent process theory is a theory of emotional and motivational states that is proposed by psychologist Richard Solomon.

According to this theory, emotions are paired as opposites such as

When you experience one emotion, the other is temporarily inhibited. With repeated stimulus, the initial emotion becomes weaker, and the opposing emotion intensifies. The second emotion is likely to suppress the first emotion. The theory has applications in psychology and addiction counseling.

6 Examples of opponent-process theory

  1. Example 1: You may be apprehensive about trying out an adventure sport, such as skydiving. However, after your first experience, you feel exhilarated. The more you engage in the sport, the more the initial fear gets suppressed to the opposing reaction of relief and exhilaration.
  2. Example 2: As pain alleviates, negative feelings start to subside, and positive feelings arise. This is associated with non-suicidal self-injury and suicide attempts in adolescents and college students. One study found that while initially, the participants attempted suicide to escape their pain, after repeatedly attempting suicide, their original reason for wanting to commit suicide (to remove pain) became overshadowed by being unafraid of death.
  3. Example 3: Emergency room doctors often experience extreme levels of stress and adrenaline. With time, however, the rush of adrenaline may drive them to perform better instead of being stressed out.
  4. Example 4: In a new relationship, a couple may initially embrace each other’s imperfections, but over time, they might find these imperfections less appealing.
  5. Example 5: People who find horror movies shocking and disturbing may start to enjoy them after watching them more and more.
  6. Example 6: People who donate blood for the first time often experience anxiety while donating but feel relieved once it is done. Over time, the anxiety reduces, and people experience a warm-glow sensation while donating blood, making them donate more.

How is opponent-process theory related to addiction?

Solomon’s opponent-process theory may explain the factors behind addiction. 

Initially, when a person takes drugs, they may experience pleasure followed by a negative experience. However, after taking drugs a few times, the positive effects of drugs may diminish, and withdrawal symptoms may increase. The person then takes drugs to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

What are the psychological implications of opponent-process theory?

Opponent process theory explains different emotions in a single, simple mechanism. The initial response to an event may not necessarily be long-term behavioral tendencies related to that event. For example, a drug addict may feel pleasure while taking drugs for the first time. However, with time, the person may experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking drugs. Hence, now they need to continue taking drugs to avoid withdrawal symptoms. However, the events that initially give rise to negative emotional states such as fear or anxiety (such as parachuting) or blood donation gradually may become addicting because the after-feeling associated with them may have a rewarding effect. Thus, the opponent-process theory can justify addiction tendencies in drug addicts and the inclination people have toward certain habits.


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Medically Reviewed on 12/27/2021
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