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Opponent-Process Theory


Explanations > Theories > Opponent-Process Theory

Description | Research | Example | So What? | See also | References 



We have pairs of emotions that act in opposing pairs, such as happiness and sadness, fear and relief, pleasure and pain. When one of these is experienced, the other is temporarily suppressed. This opposite emotion, however, is likely to re-emerge strongly and may curtail or interact with the initial emotion.

Thus activating one emotion also activates its opposite and they interact as a linked pair.

To some extent, this can be used to explain drug use and other addictive behavior, as the pleasure of the high is used to suppress the pain of withdrawal.

Sometimes these two conflicting emotions may be felt at the same time as the second emotion intrudes before the first emotion wanes. The result is a confusing combined experience of two emotions being felt at the same time that normally are mutually exclusive. Thus we can feel happy-sad, scared-relieved, love-hate, etc. This can be unpleasant but as an experiential thrill it can also have a strangely enjoyable element (and seems to be a basis of excitement).


Solomon and Corbit (1974) analyzed the emotions of skydivers. Beginners experienced extreme fear in their initial jump, which turned into great relief when they landed. With repeated jumps, the fear of jumping decreased and the post-jump pleasure increased.


A person buys something to cheer themselves up but later feels guilty at having spent so much. So they buy something else to cheer up again.

A thrill seeker goes rafting. The excitement of the journey is a mix of fear of the next rapids and relief at having survived the last one.

So What?

Using it

To stop a person feeling one thing, stimulate the opposite emotion.

Tell people good and bad news in close succession. Then in the confusion get them to agree to your real request.


When you are stimulated to feel one emotion, pause and think about the future: will the opposite appear afterwards? Is this what you want?

When you feel conflicting emotions, take care not to agree to anything. Calm down first.

See also

Theories about emotion


Solomon and Corbit (1974)

Solomon (1980)




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