The Theory Of The Opponent Process: What It Is And What It Explains

Opponent process theory

The body tends to seek balance, both physiological and mental. When we take a drug, at first we feel happy, uninhibited. However, after a while, and after leaving it, negative emotions come, headaches, in short, aversive sensations.

The same thing happens when we are in the company of someone. At first everything is joy but, after spending time with that person, if we separate from them or lose them, we will feel terribly empty and sad.

The opponent process theory It tries to explain these phenomena, that is, how the presentation of a stimulus at first implies some emotions and, after a while, causes others. Let’s look at it a little more clearly below.

The opponent process theory

The theory of the opponent process, applied to emotions and motivations, It was developed by Richard Solomon and John D. Corbit in 1978. This model has its origins in the opponent processes of Ewald Hering, although Hering used this term to explain human visual perception.

Looking over it, Hering maintained that visual perception was based on the activation of rods and cones of the eye in an antagonistic manner.. Without going into much detail, his ideas would allow us to understand why when we look at an object of a specific color, let’s say green, when we look away after a long time and look at a white or black surface we see the opposite color, red.

Solomon and Corbit transferred this idea to the psychology of emotions and motivation. In the theory of the opponent process it tries to explain Why, when we are presented with a stimulus that awakens some type of emotion, over time an antagonistic emotion is awakened in us at first. That is, its objective is to explain the process that follows an affective response to a stimulus, which can be both aversive and pleasant, from its appearance to its disappearance.

Thus, according to the model, the presentation of a stimulus involves the activation of an opponent processing mechanism. At first, a stimulus awakens an affective response in us, let’s say positive. After a while, the body, in order to recover emotional homeostasis, activates a second responsewith the opposite symbol to the first.

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So that it is understood. Let’s imagine that we have a beer. Alcohol produces us, at first, a positive emotion: we are happy, uninhibited and we are more sociable. However, once the can is finished and a few minutes have passed, some sensations begin to occur that, although not very serious, are annoying, such as a slight headache or “the low.” With this example we can see that at first this positive emotion was awakened but, later, a negative one came, counteracting the first.

Model assumptions

The opponent process theory is based on the following three assumptions.

The first is that emotional responses have a biphasic pattern. That is to say, we find that, after these responses are given to the presentation of a stimulus, another emotional response is accompanied, but of a sign opposite to that of the primary reaction.

The second assumption is that the primary reaction, whether positive or negative, It loses strength as the time of contact with the stimulus that triggered this response passes..

The third assumption is that the loss of intensity of the first emotional response is compensated by the increase in the opposite reaction. That is, in the long term, the subject’s emotionality regains balance.

The primary reaction loses strength as the time of contact with the stimulus that triggered this response passes. The loss of intensity of the first response is compensated by the increase in the opposite reaction.

Process A and process B

When presented with a stimulus that elicits emotional responses, we have two different processes.

The first process, which is the one that makes the person move away from emotional neutrality, is process A or primary process, that is, the first emotional response. It is, in itself, the direct effect that awakens the emotional stimulus, be it a substance such as drugs or the presence of a loved one. Subsequently, the process that counteracts the action of the first occurs, called process B or opponent process.

If the strength of process B is subtracted from the strength of process A, we obtain, as a result, the visible emotional expression, that is, the emotional reaction externally observed by the individual. Although at the beginning of process B the opposing emotion tends to be weaker than that of process A, As exposure to the elicitor becomes more continuous, process B gains strengthbeing able to counteract the primary emotional reaction.

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Initial and brief presentation

When a stimulus is presented for the first time, process A arises independently, without being accompanied by process B. It is in this first phase that the first emotional reaction reaches its maximum intensity, given that there is nothing to neutralize it. After this, process B begins to emerge, opposing process A, although at first it does not have much strength.

If the stimulus that initiated the response is removed, process A stops, but process B does not, which remains for a while. That’s when the response of the opponent process, also called affective post-reaction, can be observed for the first time., entailing emotions opposite to those observed in the primary process. If the exposure to the stimulus has been brief, process B will occur with very little intensity, which will not allow said affective post-reaction to be too aversive.

To better understand this idea, let’s imagine a person who smokes a cigarette for the first time. It is possible that this first cigarette will trigger some positive sensations and, when you have finished it, it will cause minor discomfort such as a slight sore throat, a little nervousness and a bad taste in your mouth.

She is not yet a smoker, so giving up cigarettes does not awaken, neurologically speaking, the desire to consume. Process B is weak, involving very little “craving” or need to take another cigarette.

Prolonged exposure to the stimulus

As we have seen, process B gains strength as the time of contact with the stimulus passes. If the stimulus has been presented for a longer time, process B takes longer to decay..

That is, as the exposure time to the specific stimulus increases, the ability of the opponent process to compensate for the primary reaction also increases. As a consequence, the affective after-reaction will also be greater once we eliminate the eliciting stimulus.

Returning to the case of tobacco. Let’s imagine that, instead of smoking for the first time, he has been smoking a pack a day for years, but has decided to quit. Abruptly quitting smoking causes process A to disappear and give way to process B, with great intensity..

This is where the typical symptoms presented by smokers who are trying to quit would occur, such as irritability, nervousness, bad mood, lack of concentration… Having been exposed to the stimulus for so long, not being exposed to it activates this entire process..

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Practical applications of the theory

Once the theory is understood, it can be related to two cases widely studied in psychology.

1. Substance addiction

As we have already seen, the first time a drug is consumed, it induces a primary or A process that entails a series of varied effects, depending on the drug itself.

At this point, where the substance has just been consumed, the opposing process is not yet able to balance the organism by counteracting the primary processwith which the drug causes us the desired effects, the pleasurable effects.

If it is the first time you take the drug or you have not been exposed to it for too long, there will be no affective after-reaction or, at least, it will not be very intense.

But the opposite occurs when substance consumption is continued. By being exposed for longer, the opposing process has already taken on notable strength.enough to be able to bring the body to balance.

If at this moment we eliminate the eliciting stimulus, that is, the drug, the subject will be immersed in a series of unwanted symptoms, what we call withdrawal.

To avoid withdrawal in a habitual drug user, although it depends, of course, on the type of substance consumed, The simplest and most plausible solution is the administration of the substance, but in an increasingly reduced formabandon it gradually.

With this new administration, a pleasant A or primary process will be activated, which will be accompanied by a B or opposing process, less intense and aversive, an affective post-reaction that will not imply abstinence.

2. Duel

The theory of the opponent process can also be applied to grief. In this process, which It can occur both in the face of the death of a loved one and in a relationship breakup or the loss of any relationship.you can see the appearance of process B, missing the person who is gone.

From the first moment we meet a person who offers us something emotionally important, we feel positive emotions, such as joy, sexual satisfaction, warmth…

In this phase of the relationship, the affective post-reaction is weak, but also, having been exposed to that person, which is a stimulus that elicits emotions, The breakup of the relationship would not be so serious.

However, if the relationship continues over time, continued exposure to the person’s presence becomes like a drug. We are exposed to him or her and, if he or she suddenly leaves, process B is triggered, with negative emotions.

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