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Opponent process theory

Author: Dr Simon Moss


A variety of studies show that mood states and satisfaction tend to be relatively stable across time. Furthermore, mood and satisfaction do not differ appreciably across contexts or cultures. To illustrate, many studies indicate that job satisfaction does not vary considerably over time. A meta-analysis showed that measures of job satisfaction at two distinct times, on average separated by three years, generated a correlation of .42 (see Dormann & Zapf, 2001).

A variety of explanations have been posited to explain the uniformity of mood or satisfaction across time or contexts. These theories explain that many attempts to enhance mood or increase job satisfaction, for example, typically fail. The opponent process theory was formulated to explain these patterns of observations (Landy, 1978& Solomon & Corbit, 1973, 1974).

Description of the model

According to opponent process theory (Bowling, Beehr, Wagner, & Libkuman, 2005& Solomon & Corbit, 1973, 1974), emotional events, such as criticisms or rewards, elicit two sets of processes. The first set is called primary processes, which evoke emotions that are consistent with the affective tone of the event. Threatening events, such as examinations, elicit processes that provoke anxiety. Relaxing events, such as meditation, evoke processes that foster composure.

The second set is opponent processes, which evoke emotions that counter these primary processes. Threatening events elicit opponent processes that promote composure. Relaxing events evoke opponent processes that provoke anxiety, and so forth.

Several properties differentiate primary and opponent processes. First, most emotional events will elicit primary processes. Only the more intense events will elicit opponent processes. Specifically, when the intensity or magnitude of the primary processes exceeds some threshold, opponent processes are evoked.

Second, the primary process is elicited rapidly but also declines quickly. The opponent process, in contrast, is evoked more slowly but also wanes gradually. As a consequence, in response to aversive events, individuals often experience unpleasant emotions initially that gradually decline. Indeed, at some point in the trajectory, the opponent processes often overrides the primary process, and a pleasant emotion is experienced--called an overshoot effect. Positive events can elicit the converse trajectory of emotions.

Third, frequent exposure to a specific event, such as examinations or meditation, does not significantly affect the magnitude or trajectory of primary processes. After regular exposure to these events, however, the opponent process is evoked more rapidly and diminishes more slowly.

Implications and evidence of opponent process theory

The emotional response of parachute jumpers, characterized by Epstein (1967), can be ascribed to opponent process theory (Bowling, Beehr, Wagner, & Libkuman, 2005). In particular, when novices jump, they initially experience intense negative emotions, representing primary processes, followed by negligible, if any, positive emotions, representing limited opponent processes. Experienced jumpers, however, experience less intense negative emotions followed by pronounced positive states. That is, with experience, the opponent processes, which foster positive states, are elicited rapidly and maintained appreciably.

Opponent processes theory has been substantiated in many domains. The theory has been tested in the context of opiate use, romantic love, and electric shocks (see Ettenberg, Raven, Danluck, & Necessary, 1999& Hoffman & Solomon, 1974& Ley, 1994& Myers & Siegel, 1985). In all of these instances, over time, aversive events eventually become more likely to elicit positive emotions. In addition, desirable events, over time, become more likely to evoke negative emotions.

Similarly, many studies have shown that emotional responses to changes in the work context are often transient, consistent with opponent process theory. As Williams, Suls, Alliger, Learner, and Wan (1991) showed, conflicting roles at work initially evoke negative emotions--emotions that gradually abate over weeks.

Mechanisms that underpin opponent processes

The mechanisms that underpin opponent processes have not been characterized definitively. Potentially, opponent processes evoked by adverse events and opponent processes evoked by positive event might correspond to distinct mechanisms. For example, opponent processes elicited by adverse events might represent forms of emotional regulation that become automatic over time (Bargh & Williams, 2007). After an adversity, such as a failure, individuals might attempt to focus on the positive implications of this episode. Repeated attempts to focus on positive implications might become automatic with time and thus might be elicited more rapidly and persist effortlessly (for another possible mechanism, see physiological toughness).

Opponent processes evoked by positive events, however, might evolve from other mechanisms. Individuals might learn that desirable events do not always culminate in persistent positive emotions, because other complexities often intervene (see Affective forecasting). Over time, they might associate positive events with negative consequences.

Associations with alternative theories

Disposition theories

To explain the stability of affect and satisfaction, many other theories or perspectives have been proposed. One explanation is that affect or satisfaction represents enduring traits, sometimes governed by genetics.

To illustrate, this explanation has often been applied to explain the stability of job satisfaction across times. Ilies and Judge (2003), for example, showed that genetics can accommodate variations in dispositions, such as personality, which in turn govern job satisfaction. Specifically, individuals who exhibit extraversion tend to experience positive affect (Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988& see Five factor model), which tends to be highly related to job satisfaction (Connolly & Viswesvaran, 2000). Individuals who exhibit neuroticism tend to experience negative affect (Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988), which in turn is associated with job dissatisfaction (Connolly & Viswesvaran, 2000).

Similarly, Judge and Bono (2001) reveal that job satisfaction is related to a broad trait called core self evaluations. Core self evaluations entail self esteem, generalized self efficacy, locus of control, and emotional stability--the converse of neuroticism (Bono & Judge, 2003& Erez & Judge, 2001). These four traits are highly related to each other and do not show discriminant validity (Judge, Erez, Bono, & Thoresen, 2002).

Nevertheless, according to Bowling, Beehr, Wagner, and Libkuman (2005), this perspective does not contradict opponent process theory. If individuals exhibit elevated levels of extraversion, the threshold to evoke opponent processes in response to positive events might be elevated, and these processes might dissipate rapidly. Similarly, if individuals exhibit neuroticism, the threshold to elicit opponent processes in response to negative events might be elevated. In other words, dispositions might affect thresholds or trajectories of opponent processes.

Set point theory

Set point theory, like dispositional theories and opponent process theory, also predicts that wellbeing tends to fluctuate around a stable level--a level that generally remains uniform over time (for a discussion, see Fujita & Diener, 2005). After individuals experience positive events, their wellbeing might rise transiently but then revert to this stable level or set point. Likewise, after individuals experience negative events, their wellbeing might decline momentarily, but will then regress to the previous level.

To some extent, set point theory emanated from seminal research, conducted by Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman (1978). This study compared the happiness of 22 people who had won lotteries with 29 people who had experienced paralysis as a consequence of accidents. After some delay, the happiness of these individuals did not differ significantly from the happiness of a control group of participants. The implication of this study is that, after a pivotal event, the happiness of individuals changes temporarily but then returns to the previous level.

To explain this stability of wellbeing over time, proponent of set point theory maintain that affective states are primarily dependent upon enduring dispositions (see Huppert, 2005). Personality traits, for example, are assumed to determine the emotional experiences and responses of individuals. A meta-analysis of 148 studies, conducted by DeNeve and Cooper (1998), showed that neuroticism is inversely related to subjective wellbeing--which represents a combination of positive affect, negative affect, and life satisfaction (see Diener, 2000)& the correlation was -.22. Furthermore, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and extraversion were positively related to subjective wellbeing, generating correlations of .21, .17, and .17 respectively. Overall, Steel, Schmidt, and Schulz (2008) showed that 39% to 63% of the variance in subjective wellbeing can be ascribed to personality.

Adaptation level theory

Another framework, which can explain the stability of mood and satisfaction, is adaptation level theory (Helson, 1948, 1964). According to this theory, over time, individuals form expectations of the future, called frames of reference. Events that are more favorable than such expectations evoke positive emotions, whereas events that are less favorable than such expectations evoke negative emotions.

These events, however, also shape the expectations or frames of reference. To illustrate, if individuals are assigned to a salubrious office--an office that exceeds their expectations--they will initially enjoy positive emotions. Over time, however, their frame of references changes and they expect these surroundings. Hence, after several weeks or months, the office no longer elicits positive affective states.

Several scholars, however, argue that adaptation level theory does not contradict opponent process theory and, indeed, these frameworks can be integrated (e.g., Bowling, Beehr, Wagner, & Libkuman, 2005& Oliver, 1981). Adaptation level theory emphasizes that previous experience can affect responses to emotional events. These previous experiences might primarily shape the opponent processes, which in turn determines the aggregate responses to emotional events.

Factors that moderate adaptation or satiation

Over time, the extent to which individuals enjoy a specific product, activity, or person, such as a song, a meal, or a friend, tends to dissipate upon repeated exposure--called satiation, and this satiation might partly underpin adaptation. After listening to a song once, individuals might enjoy the music considerably. After listening to the song many times, however, this enjoyment tends to wane. Many objects or activities that evoke pleasure might become less effective over time, limiting the mood and wellbeing of individuals.

Galak, Redden, and Kruger (2009), however, uncovered a mental exercise that curbs this diminution in enjoyment. In particular, individuals are merely instructed to reflect upon a broader variety of similar products, activities, or people to which they have been recently exposed. To illustrate, in a pilot study, individuals were asked to specify the person with whom they interacted most during the past two weeks, representing possible satiation. They were also asked to specify the extent to which they would enjoy interacting with this person again soon.

Interspersed between these two questions, some participants were then asked to list all the other friends to whom they interacted during this period. Other participants, assigned to the control conditions, were instructed either to list the celebrities they had observed on the news during this time or friends to whom they might interact in the next two weeks.

Relative to the other conditions, if participants had reflected upon other friends to whom they had interacted over the last two weeks, they were more willing to socialize with the friend to whom they interacted the most. Interactions with this friend did not seem as monotonous.

According to Galak, Redden, and Kruger (2009), after participants listed the other friends with whom they interacted during the previous fortnight, they perceived the variety of these interactions as acceptable. They did not, therefore, need to seek more variety in this domain. Satiation, which arguably reflects a need to seek variety, was thus curbed.

Additional studies confirm this argument. In one study, participants listened to the chorus of one song they like 20 times consecutively and the chorus of another song they like once. After each occasion, they rated the extent to which they enjoyed the song. Repeated exposure to one song elicited satiation: They become less inclined to like the song over time.

Three weeks later, some participants were asked to recall all the musicians they have heard in the last few weeks. Other participants, assigned to the control condition, were asked to recall all the TV shows they had watched during this time. Finally, participants heard the two songs again, evaluating the extent to which they enjoyed this music.

After individuals reflected upon all the musicians, rather than TV shows, to which they had been exposed, satiation diminished. That is, these individuals still enjoyed the chorus they had, three weeks earlier, listened to 20 times. Somehow, these reflections implied they had listened to a sufficient variety of music. They did not, thus, need to seek more variety. They were therefore willing to hear a song they had listened to repeatedly before.

One alternative explanation emerges from a key feature of the method: The music that had been presented repeatedly was one of the favorite songs of participants. The gamut of songs they heard over the last few weeks may not have been as desirable. The favorite song of participants might seem especially enjoyable after they reflect upon undesirable music, referred to as evaluative contrast.

The final study, conducted by Galak, Redden, and Kruger (2009), challenges this explanation. In this study, participants consumed one color of jelly beans many times. They then consumed a sample of different colors. The color that participants consumed many times was perceived as more enjoyable if these individuals were instructed to write a few sentences about the sample of different colors rather than write a few sentences about the one color. Even if participants did not especially like this color--and preferred the colors in the other sample--this pattern of observations was observed.

In short, as Galak, Redden, and Kruger (2009) emphasized, memories of previous variety reduce satiation. This effect does not emerge, however, if participants reflect upon an unrelated product or activity. Furthermore, this effect does not emerge if participants imagine they will be exposed to variety in the future.

One of the implications of this finding is that individuals should reflect upon the variety of activities they experience, curbing satiation and, thus, potentially improving wellbeing. In addition, advertisers should incorporate a variety of related products in the commercials, perhaps incidentally, to reduce satiation towards the target brand.

Practical implications

Opponent process theory generates many practical implications. To illustrate, when managers introduce initiatives, intended to evoke positive emotions, opponent processes might eventually prevail and negative feelings might ensue. To preclude these negative emotions, several measures should be considered. First, initiatives that evoke mild, rather than pronounced, positive emotions should be preferred--these initiatives are less likely to elicit opponent processes. Second, initiatives should be modified over time& initiatives that do not change are more likely to elicit opponent processes.


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