The opponent process theory and affective reactions


Sandvik, E., Diener, E., & Larsen, R. J. (1985). The opponent process theory and affective reactions. Motivation and Emotion, 9(4), 407-418.


Solomon (1980) proposed an opponent process theory to account for motivational and affective dynamics. This theory asserts that the brain avoids extremes of emotional experience by countering the stimulation it receives with an opposite or “opponent” reaction. Opponent processes are thought to be responsible for the characteristic changes in affective experience that occur over time, and to account for the dynamics of affective response to such stimuli as skydiving and sauna bathing, which have heretofore been difficult to explain. However, the relevance of this theory for affective experiences in general (beyond physical stimuli and addictions) has yet to be demonstrated. The present paper examines opponent process theory predictions in two settings, involving affective responses to situation-scenarios and emotion-provoking slides. In each study, significant habituation to both positive and negative affective stimuli was found, as the opponent process theory would predict. Subjects also showed a reversal of affect when the stimuli were reversed from positive to negative or vice versa. However, contrary to opponent process theory predictions, there was no evidence that withdrawal responses were greater after habituation to the affective stimulus. The only instance of a significant difference in withdrawal responses was actually in a direction opposite to that which the opponent process theory predicts. All other predicted differences were not significant. The opponent process theory, therefore, was not supported in these data and appears to need revision or qualification as to its domains of application.

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