Opponent Process Theory of Motivation

The opponent process theory of motivation was first proposed by Richard Solomon [1918-1995] in 1965. In this theory, Solomon proposed that every process has a primary element called an affective valence (i.e., is it pleasant or unpleasant) and is followed by a secondary or opponent process. The secondary opponent process begins to take effect after the primary affective valence is quieted. As this sequence is repeated, the primary process tends to become weaker, while the opponent process becomes stronger.

The theory assumes that for some reason the brains of all mammals are organized to oppose or suppress many types of emotional arousals or hedonic processes, whether they are pleasurable or aversive, whether they have been generated by positive or by negative reinforcers. (Solomon, 1980, p. 698)

Solomon and his collaborator Corbit (1973, 1974) conducted experiments on work motivation and addictive behavior, showing (1) how the opponent process theory applies to drug addiction and is the result of a pairing of pleasure (affective) and the symptoms associated with withdrawal (opponent) and (2) how, over time, the level of pleasure from using addictive substances decreases, while the levels of withdrawal symptoms increase, providing motivation to continue using the addictive substance despite a decreasing lack of pleasure.

In summary, the opponent process theory of motivation may be generalized beyond addictions to understand why situations that are distasteful or unpleasant may still be treated as rewarding.

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