Alcohol / Addiction / Illegal Drugs

What is opponent process theory and its relationship to addiction

The opponent process theory may explain the emotional and motivational factors behind addiction. It is also possible that better process understanding could lead to improved outcomes for substance abuse treatment.

The opponent process theory may explain why it is so difficult to break a drug addiction. Drug use initially brings out pleasant feelings. With time, however, the drug will lose its effect and require the person to use more of the drug to achieve the pleasurable sensations. 


An example of the opponent process theory in normal circumstances is being afraid of something. The opponent process theory states that the more a person experiences the fear, the less the fear will affect them. This decrease in fear may continue to the point where the situation is no longer scary. If the stimulus (the thing feared) is no longer a fear, then a second emotion (relief) takes over.





Fast facts on opponent process theory:

  • The opponent process theory may explain situations where something unpleasant can be rewarding.

  • The theory has been applied to understanding job satisfaction.

  • The theory links a person’s emotions to their motivation.

  • Research on the theory has shown relief from physical pain can bring about pleasant feelings and reduce negative ones.

  • Opponent process theory has also been used to explain the ability to see colors.



What is the opponent process theory?


Various addictive substances on a table, including alcohol, drugs, cigarette lighter, and a gambling card.
Opponent process theory has been used to explain the way addictions fail to provide pleasure after repetitive experiences.


Richard Solomon, a 20th-century psychologist, believed emotions acted in opposite pairs. For example, pleasure is an opposing emotion to pain.


When a person is repeatedly exposed to something that causes an emotional response, for example, fear, eventually an opposite emotion will be triggered. This may result in the first emotion getting weaker and the opposite one becoming stronger.


An important contribution of Solomon’s work is his theory on addiction.


He argued that drug addiction results from pairing the emotions of pleasure and withdrawal. 




How does it relate to addiction?


When a person is addicted to a drug, the drug’s pleasurable effects will decrease with time. Eventually, the person gets no pleasure from taking the drug, and the withdrawal (negative effect) response takes over. The person is likely to continue taking the drug to avoid withdrawal (or negative) symptoms.



Addiction treatment 


Group therapy at a support meeting.
Opponent process theory has been used in treatment scenarios to explore why addictive behaviours occur, and to support recovery.


The opponent process is one way to explain how and why individuals suffer negative implications from drug use. 


Emotions and motivation are a driving force in addiction. The longer a person uses drugs, the more negative effects there are. It is the desire to avoid these negative effects that make the person continue using drugs, affecting their ability to quit. 


Unfortunately, the opponent process theory does not focus enough on treatment outcomes.


The best way to control emotions and the need for an acquired motive is by maintaining control of the negative effects. 


Removing oneself from addictive behavior requires professional help and support. It is possible that the opponent process theory could be applied when trying to understand the process of addiction recovery based on successes and failures, and the reasons for them.



Why is opponent process theory so negative for some people?


When someone first starts to use a drug, there is a high level of enjoyment and low withdrawal. At this point, individuals may still have the ability to quit with less difficulty. However, because of the pleasure they are receiving from the drug, they may not be motivated to quit.


With time, however, the pleasure decreases and the symptoms of withdrawal increase. At this point, the motivation to take the drug is not about pleasure but about avoiding withdrawal symptoms.


According to Solomon, addiction can overpower other basic needs.


For example, a person who has an addiction may spend more time seeking out ways to satisfy their addiction than they do on other basic needs — such as love and social connections, food and drink, achievement, and other everyday human behaviors. 


This is because, according to Solomon, addiction is related to motive and it becomes as important as other needs are. Solomon further believes that addiction becomes an “acquired motive,” and acquired or learned motives, such as cravings, food preferences and desire for achievement or thrills, are major aspects of human behavior.






What do the studies say?


As explained by researchers from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA, Solomon analyzed the emotions of skydivers and found new skydivers had higher levels of fear than experienced skydivers and gained little enjoyment from the activity.


The experienced skydivers also experienced more pleasure with their landing. As newer skydivers continued jumping, they began to experience more pleasure and less fear. 


Another report from Frontiers in Psychology examined Solomon’s theory, by placing dogs into harnesses that administered 10-second shock treatments. Initially, the dogs were fearful and panicked. Once the shocks stopped, the dogs became wary and guarded. 


As the experiment continued, the dogs began to tolerate the shocks better. After the experiment finished, the dogs eventually returned to their previous state. The results showed how the dogs changed from fear to no fear, and with time, back to their original personalities. Researchers believe that this was mostly because the dogs got used to the shock treatments.




Opponent process in healthy situations


Doctor holding hand of patient on hospital bed in emergency room.
People with stressful jobs, such as emergency room doctors, may feel less stress from their work with time, and instead be motivated by stressful situations.


Stress can sometimes feed into the reward system. For example, most people who continually endure stressful situations tend to do better over time. 


Another example is people with highly stressful jobs, such as emergency room doctors. Initially, doctors experience high levels of stress and little rush. Over time, however, the rush drives them rather than stresses them. 


The opponent process theory can also be seen in new relationships, where two people who initially handle each other’s quirks, find these habits become less appealing after time. 


Another example of the opponent process in healthy situations concerns people who watch horror movies. Many people find them disturbing in the beginning, but after time, they enjoy watching them.


Relief from painful situations


The opponent process theory manifests itself in healing and pain relief. As pain reduces or healing continues, the negative feelings that people initially felt begin to subside, and they start to experience more pleasant feelings.


This theory has been explained with research on non-suicidal self-injury behaviors.


Researchers from the Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan, Hubei, China examined the link between non-suicidal self-injury and suicide attempts in Chinese adolescents and college students. 


They found that the method to enact suicide, based on the opponent process theory, suggested that repeated exposure to emotional triggers would shift over time.


The initial pleasure was short-lived, and as the opposite response became stronger, the people were unable to elicit the same reaction from the emotion as they had before.


In other words, the original reason for wanting to commit suicide — wishing to remove pain — is overshadowed by no longer fearing death. 



Job satisfaction and motivation


In the late 1970s, psychologist Frank Landy suggested that job attitudes result from how well one’s body works. Based on Landy’s approach, motivational factors, such as a pay increase, would be short-lived because time changes the strength of emotions. Therefore, every time salary increases, a person’s response is less favorable.


Other researchers disagree with some of Landy’s ideas. For example, newer studies have found daily stress affects job satisfaction and motivation and not factors that are instinctive or relate to the body’s functioning. 


While the opponent process theory may offer some insight on job satisfaction, there has not been enough research to indicate its effectiveness in professional and on-the-job settings.

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