Solomon's "Opponent Process" Theory

Common patterns underlie all addiction, indeed all hedonic or pleasure-seeking behavior. These patterns are described in Richard Solomon's opponent process theory of acquired motives. (Note that "acquired motives" could be a polite euphemism for "addictions.") We discussed Solomon's theory initially in Chapter 9, in the context of pleasure and pain as motivating forces. Here we elaborate on its relevance to addiction.

How are the A and B components different, in Solomon's theory?

Solomon discovered two components in every reaction to an emotional situation. The first component he called the A reaction. It is short-lived and intense. For example, while receiving an award, you may feel great joy at the moment when you are handed your medal or certificate. This response probably correlates with neural activity in the brain; it is quick and almost simultaneous with experience of the emotion-causing stimulus.

The B reaction is opposite from the A component in hedonic value. In other words, if the A reaction is a happy emotion, the B reaction is sad, and vice versa. The B response is slower to build and slower to decay. An hour after getting an award, you may feel a bit let down, but the feeling gradually disappears toward the end of the day.

Sometimes a B reaction can be rapid. Solomon points out that a small child who is in a good mood can be put into a bad mood by giving the child a lollipop then taking it away. Instead of returning to a neutral emotional state, the child reacts to sudden reinforcement, then removal of the reinforcer, by crying. That reaction is immediate. However, most of the time, a B reaction is slower. The slower B reaction is probably hormonal, involving chemical messengers that move in the bloodstream. An hour after a moment of great excitement, the body's response might be, "You've been under a lot of stress; time to get away from it all, rest, and recuperate."

The B response occurs with both pleasure and pain. Both lead to rebound reactions which Solomon called hedonic contrast. Feelings of joy are often followed by a let-down or irritability, a few hours later. Feelings of tension and anger may be followed by a more happy or mellow period. (See the examples in Chapter 9.)

What happens as an event is repeated?

They key to Solomon's theory of addiction is that as an event is repeated the B component becomes larger while the A component becomes smaller. The result, sometimes, is a complete reversal of emotion. An event that was initially fun becomes boring, or an event that was initially terrifying becomes fun.

Solomon uses the example of parachute jumping. A beginning parachutist feels a primary emotional response of fear at the prospect of jumping out of a plane. This is the A response: the quick, intense response to a situation. After making the jump, landing on the ground, and returning to the clubhouse, the beginner is typically talkative and excited, as if very happy. This is the B response, a rebound reaction to the earlier fear and a feeling of exhilaration at having conquered it.

During their first free-fall, before the parachute opens, military parachutists may experience terror: They may yell, pupils dilated, eyes bulging, bodies curled forward and stiff, heart racing and breathing irregular. After they land safely, they may walk around with a stunned and stony-faced expression for a few minutes, and then usually they smile, chatter, and gesticulate, being very socially active and appearing to be elated. (Solomon, 1980, p.693)

The A process (anxiety) diminishes as the jump is repeated and is increasingly regarded as a normal event. Meanwhile, the B response grows bigger. In the case of parachute jumping, the pleasant aftereffects grow more pronounced. An experienced jumper may experience a high lasting eight hours after a jump.

What is tolerance?

Eventually the body adjusts and no longer reacts strongly to the formerly emotional experience. A person requires a bigger dose or more extreme stimulus to get the same effect. For example, a gambler requires a bigger bet to get the same high feeling he once got with a small bet. A heroin addict requires larger doses of the drug. The parachute jumper gets bored with ordinary jumping. This is called tolerance. When tolerance builds up, the excitement of the addiction starts to disappear. It becomes routine. The addict may still enjoy the addicting event, yet at the same time it is no longer such a big deal. The thrill is gone.

How does Solomon's theory explain common phenomena of drug addiction?

Drug addiction phenomena can be explained with the opponent process theory. First an addictive event causes a large A reaction, for example, great feelings of joy, with possibly a mild depression as an aftereffect. (This is sometimes called the honeymoon period in an addiction.) But after repeated experiences, the joy is greatly reduced. Tolerance occurs; the body adjusts to the drug. The B reaction becomes stronger. In this case, that means the negative aftereffects of taking the drug, such as bad moods or craving, become stronger. Soon the addictive stimulus is badly needed, because the withdrawal period is intensely unpleasant, yet the drug experience itself is nothing special. That is the end of the honeymoon.

This does not always happen, so when does it not happen? When does the fun not go out of an activity? The short answer appears to be: When the "A reaction" (the immediate reaction to something) is not strong enough, or repeated often enough, to cause tolerance. Moderate drinking (defined as the equivalent of a glass or wine, a beer, or a shot of liquor per day) does not cause tolerance. A person does not cease to feel it because of the body's adaptation. It also does not "get old." People who are in the habit of drinking a glass of wine for dinner do not get bored with it or find that it no long produces a kick. In a sense, there is no "kick" in the first place, if that word is defined as pushing the hedonic control system to an extreme. There is no strong B reaction, either. A person who has a glass of wine for dinner does not get a hangover or feel sluggish the next day because of it.

Similarly, a couple with an established frequency of sex that is satisfactory to both parties does not become bored with that activity. They recover their appetite between encounters, and (research shows) sexual frequency stays about the same in happy couples from middle age to old age. However, a young and infatuated couple may indeed tire of each other. Pam, Plutchik and Conte (1975) found a negative correlation between intensity of love feelings and the likelihood a young couple would still be together, six months later. Maybe the ancient Greeks had the right idea with the famous all-purpose advice: moderation in all things.

What important paradox is explained by Solomon's theory?

Solomon's theory explains an important paradox about addictions. Greatest dependence (need for the drug) occurs after tolerance becomes strong, because the B reaction (which causes craving) increases in size at the same time the A reaction (which produces the thrill) is disappearing. Consequently, an addiction may be most powerful when the addictive behavior is no longer thrilling. Hardcore heroin addicts testify that they need the drug just to feel normal. Yet it is they who have the hardest time quitting.

Stanton Peele wrote Love and Addiction (1976) to explain why people stay in bad relationships despite misery. He described a combination of tolerance and dependence much like drug addiction. The analog to tolerance is the mutual boredom and lack of excitement that occurs in so many relationships, after the initial thrill of love wears off. In an effort to recapture the intense pleasures of the early honeymoon phase, dosages of the relationship may be increased. The couple may spend all their time together. They may find each other's company increasingly unsatisfying, but they cannot quit. They may start fighting all the time, but if they try to break up, they experience craving, miss each other, and get back together.

What pattern did Peele point out in Love and Addiction?

Luckily this destructive cycle is not inevitable. Better alternatives for love relationships are discussed in Chapter 16.

The opponent-process theory also helps explain why people can learn to enjoy some peculiar things. The appeal of monster movies and horror movies is an example. Horror movies are shocking at first, but after a while the shock is not so unpleasant and the aftereffect becomes more pleasant. Emergency Medical Service technicians can become addicted to the excitement of emergency runs, and some firemen admit to enjoying big fires. In each case, an event which is initially horrifying or traumatic comes to produce a B reaction which is enjoyable, even addictive.

How does the opponent process theory explain enjoyment of horror movies? Giving blood? Fighting fires?

The act of giving blood can be addicting. It is a classic example of opponent processes at work. Before giving blood, first-time donors described their feelings as "uptight, skeptical, suspicious, angry, and jittery." After the donation, they felt "relaxed, playful, carefree, kindly, and warmhearted." The more times a person gives blood, the less pronounced are the negative effects and the more pronounced are the positive aftereffects. "They unconsciously acquire a positive response to blood donation" (Brittain, 1983).

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