How does the opposing process theory work

Adversarial litigation theory: what is it, how to test it, and why is it important

What is the opposing process theory of color vision?

The opposing process theory assumes that the way people perceive colors is controlled by three opposing systems. We need four unique colors to characterize the perception of color: blue, yellow, red and green. According to this theory, there are three opposing channels in our eyesight. That's them:

  • Blue against yellow
  • red versus green
  • Black against white

We perceive a hue based on up to two colors at the same time, but we can only see one of the opposing colors at a time. The adversarial process theory suggests that one member of the color pair suppresses the other color. For example, we see yellowish-green and reddish-yellow, but we never see reddish-green or yellowish-blue hues.

The theory was first proposed in late 1800 by the German physiologist Ewald Hering. Hering contradicted the leading theory of his time, known as the triviariance of the vision theory or trichromatic theory, represented by Hermann von Helmholtz. This theory suggested that color vision is based on three primary colors: red, green, and blue. Instead, Hering believed that the way we see colors is based on a system of contrasting colors.

Opposing process theory versus trichromat theory

As mentioned earlier, Hering's opposing process theory collided with the trichromatic theory that dominated his time. In fact, Hering was known to strongly contradict Helmholtz's theory. So which one is correct?

It turns out that both of these theories are necessary to fully describe the intricacies of human color vision.

The trichromate theory helps explain how each type of cone receptor detects different wavelengths in light. On the other hand, counter-process theory helps explain how these cones connect to the nerve cells that determine how we actually perceive a color in our brain.

In other words, the trichromate theory explains how color vision takes place at the receptors, while the adversarial process theory interprets how color vision takes place at the neural level.

The opposing process theory and emotion

In the 1970s, psychologist Richard Solomon used Hering's theory to develop a theory of emotions and states of motivation.

Solomon's theory regards emotions as pairs of opposites. These include, for example, some pairs of emotional opposites:

  • Fear and relief
  • Pleasure and pain
  • Drowsiness and agitation
  • Depression and satisfaction

According to Solomon's theory of the adversarial process, we trigger an emotion by suppressing the opposite emotion.

For example, let's say you receive an award. The moment you are presented with the certificate, you may feel a lot of joy and pleasure. However, an hour after receiving the award, you might feel a little sad. This secondary reaction is often deeper and longer lasting than the first reaction, but it gradually disappears.

Another example: toddlers get irritated a few hours after opening gifts or cry at Christmas. Salomon understood it to be the nervous system that tries to return to normal equilibrium.

After repeated stimulation, the initial emotion eventually subsides and the secondary reaction intensifies. Over time, this “post-feeling” can become the dominant emotion associated with a certain stimulus or event.

The theory of the opposing process in action

You can test the opposing process theory with an experiment that creates a negative afterimage deception.

Stare at the picture below for 20 seconds, then look at the white area that follows the picture and blink. Notice the color of the afterimage that you see.

If you prefer to run the experiment offline, you can do the following:


  • a sheet of white paper
  • a blue, green, yellow, or red square
  • a square of white paper that is smaller than the colored square


  1. Place the small square of white paper in the center of the larger colored square.
  2. Look at the center of the white square for about 20 to 30 seconds.
  3. Immediately look at the plain piece of white paper and blink.
  4. Notice the color of the afterimage that you see.

The afterimage should be the opposite color of what you were just staring at because of a phenomenon known as cone fatigue. In the eye we have cells called cones that are receptors in the retina. These cells help us see color and detail. There are three different types of tenons:

  • short wavelength
  • mean wavelength
  • long wavelength

If you stare at a particular color for too long, the cone receptors responsible for recognizing that color will tire or fatigue. However, the cone receptors that recognize the contrasting colors are still fresh. They are no longer suppressed by the opposite cone receptors and are able to send out strong signals. Then when you look at a white room, your brain interprets these signals and you see the opposite colors instead.

The tired cones will recover in less than 30 seconds and the afterimage will soon go away.

The results of this experiment support the opposing process theory of color vision. Our perception of the color of the picture is controlled by Hering's opposing systems. We only see the opposite color when the receptors for the actual color get too tired to send out a signal.

Emotional states and the theory of the opposing process

Solomon's opposing litigation theory may explain why awkward situations can still be rewarding. It could be why people enjoy horror movies or exhilarating behaviors like skydiving. It could even explain phenomena like the "runner's high" and self-harming behaviors like cutting.

After Solomon developed his theory, he applied it to motivation and addiction. He suggested that drug addiction is the result of an emotional pairing of pleasure and withdrawal symptoms.

Drug users experience intense pleasure when they first start using a drug. However, over time, enjoyment decreases and withdrawal symptoms increase. Then they have to consume the drug more frequently and in larger quantities in order to experience pleasure and avoid the withdrawal pain. This leads to dependency. The consumer no longer takes the drug for its pleasant effects, but to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Why some researchers do not support Solomon's opposing process theory

Some researchers do not fully support Solomon's opposing process theory. In one study, researchers did not observe an increase in the withdrawal response after repeated exposure to a stimulus.

There are good examples to suggest that the adversary process theory is valid, but in other cases it does not apply. Nor does it fully explain what would happen in situations with multiple emotional stresses occurring at the same time.

Like many theories in psychology, Solomon's opposing process theory should not be viewed as the only process related to motivation and addiction. There are several theories about emotion and motivation, and the adversarial process theory is just one of them. Most likely, there are a number of different processes involved in the game.