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Learn about the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion and how it differs from two other founding theories of emotion. Then, test your understanding with a quiz.

The Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion

The Cannon-Bard theory of emotion explains how physiology influences emotions. It was actually a compilation of work from Walter Cannon (1871-1945) and Philip Bard (1898-1977). Their theory was that we simultaneously experience emotions and physiological reactions.

Physiological reactions are reactions of the body such as muscle tension, sweating, and trembling.Essentially, their hypothesis is that emotions result when brain systems such as the thalamus signals a response to a stimulus. Among other things, the thalamus influences motor control, auditory or visual signals, and the sending of sensory signals. The end result is the physiological reaction. For example, if you see a spider, you become afraid, and at the same time, you may scream or tremble.

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Development of the Theory

Walter Cannon criticized the James-Lange theory, which hypothesized that emotion is not directly caused by the perception of an event, but by the body’s response caused by the event. Through experimentation, Cannon discovered that emotion occurs even if the brain was not connected to information about body responses.

He also argued that body responses are similar. For example, your heart races whether you are excited or angry. Those are two different emotions, but the body’s reaction is the same.Philip Bard agreed with Cannon, and together they concluded that the experience of emotion does not depend on input from the body and how it responds. Again, the experience of emotions and physiological responses occur at the same time, but not because of physiological responses.

Three Theories

There are several theories to explain how emotions occur, but there are only three that are the foundation of research and discussion. The first and oldest is the James-Lange theory, which states that we first experience body responses that correspond with emotion.

The second is the Cannon-Bard theory. The third is the Schachter-Singer theory. The Schachter-Singer theory hypothesizes that experiencing an emotion requires both body responses and an interpretation of the body’s response by taking into consideration the situation the person is in at the time.

Theories of Emotion Stimulus Reaction Sequence
James-Lange HUGE spider A scream and the conscious feeling of fear
Cannon-Bard HUGE spider The conscious feeling of fear influences the feeling of fear and a simultaneous scream
Schachter-Singer HUGE spider A scream, followed by taking a second glance and realizing the spider is bigger than you thought, followed by conscious feeling of fear

But, It’s Complicated

It’s important to remember that each theory discusses the relationship between our subjective thoughts and feelings and the outward physiological or behavioral response to emotional stimuli. There are several other factors that need to be taken into consideration before we consider whether one is more accurate than another. Culture, social learning, and social modeling are just a few influences.

Basically, some people really do jump on chairs and scream because they see a mouse or bug. However, it may be a learned response. On the other hand, your friend may be startled because you sneak up behind her, not because she’s afraid of you.

Lesson Summary

The Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, developed by Walter Cannon and Philip Bard in the mid-20th century, posits that we simultaneously experience emotions and physiological reactions.

The theory differs from two other prominent theories that posit that the emotions and physical reactions are not simultaneous. There are also other factors that need to be taken into account when considering why people react the way they do to certain stimuli, such as cultural factors, social learning, and social modeling.

Learning Outcomes

Throughout the process of studying this lesson on the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, you’ll prepare to:

  • Summarize the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion
  • Remember important aspects of its development
  • Discuss the three theories that attempt to identify the source of emotion
  • List other factors to be considered when examining people’s reaction to stimuli

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