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Have you ever wondered whether we have a bodily reaction or an emotional reaction to an event first? We will be looking at some theories from James-Lange, Cannon-Bard, and Schatchter-Singer that ask that same question.

Theories of Emotions

In this lesson, we will be learning about theories of emotions. So what are emotions? Emotion is a feeling that involves thoughts, physiological changes, and an outward expression of behavior, such as facial expressions. Okay, but which comes first – the thought (or the physiological arousal) or the behavior? That’s what scientists wanted to find out.

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The James-Lange Theory

The earliest studies into emotion were introduced simultaneously but independently by William James and Carl Lange. They came up with the same idea at the same time, around 1884-1887. The theory states that emotion is not directly caused by the perception of an event, but rather by the bodily response caused by the event.

In order to experience an emotion, we must first have a bodily response, and then we experience the emotion.So, for instance, if I see a poisonous snake, my heart would race and then I experience fear, and I run away. Only after our interpretation of the arousal can we experience the fear. If we do not experience arousal or it is not noticed, we will not experience emotion.Until the development of another theory – the Cannon-Bard theory – the James-Lange theory was one of the most predominant theories of emotion. While the theory is largely discounted by modern researchers, there are some instances where physiological responses do lead to the experience of emotions, such as in the development of panic disorders or some phobias.For instance, a person may trip and fall down in public, which leads to emotional reactions, such as feeling anxious.

If an association is formed between the situation and emotional states, the individual might begin avoiding anything that might trigger that particular emotion.

The Cannon-Bard Theory

Walter Cannon and his graduate student, Phillip Bard, thought the James-Lange Theory was flawed and challenged it in the 1920s. They disagreed with James-Lange and proposed three reasons why:

  1. People can experience physiological arousal without experiencing emotion, such as the response after running. If you have been running, your heart is racing, and you are breathing heavier, but you are not having an emotional reaction to it.


  2. Physiological reactions happen too slowly to cause experiences of emotion. If you are in the woods, a sudden sound usually creates an immediate response of fear, while the physical symptoms of fear generally follow that feeling, not precede it.
  3. People can experience very different emotions when they have the same pattern of physiological arousal. For instance, a person may have a racing heart and rapid breathing when angry or when afraid.

The Cannon-Bard Theory argues that we experience physiological arousal and emotion at the same time. The theory gives more attention to the role of thought or outward behavior than did James-Lange.Cannon performed experiments on cats.

He found that emotion occurs even if the brain was not connected to information about bodily responses, which are similar. He also found that the same bodily responses accompany many different emotions. When your heart is racing, you may be excited or angry or in love. This means our brain cannot just rely on our bodily responses to know which emotion they are experiencing.Cannon-Bard concluded that the experience of an emotion does not depend on input from the body and how it is responding.

The experience, the emotion, and the bodily response occur at the same time independent of each other but not because of physiological responses.

The Schachter-Singer Theory

In the 1960s, Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer hypothesized 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. They said that people’s experience of emotion depends on two factors: physiological arousal and cognitive interpretation of arousal.

The label people give an emotion depends on what they find in their environment. They agree with James-Lange that people infer emotions when they experience physiological arousal but also agree with Cannon-Bard that the same pattern of physiological arousal can give rise to different emotions. For instance, we have the same physiological response to an alligator chasing you or seeing the person you are in love with. The bodily response is the same; our interpretation of fear or excitement is the difference.

Lesson Review

Let’s review. So, what is emotion? Emotion is a feeling that involves thoughts, physiological changes, and an outward expression of behavior. Some of the first studies were designed to discover whether the physiological arousal or emotions happen first.James and Lange simultaneously both theorized that what actually happens is that we have a physiological response first and the emotion second.Cannon and Bard disagreed with James-Lange.

They conducted extensive research and concluded that the physiological response and emotion happen simultaneously and independent of each other.Schachter and Singer agreed with James and Lange that we infer emotions when we are physiologically aroused but also agreed with Cannon-Bard that the same physiological arousal can produce different emotions. They added the idea that it is the interpretation of the physiological arousal that determines the emotion produced.

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson is done, you should be able to:

  • Define emotion
  • Describe James-Lange’s theory of physiological reaction before emotion
  • Recall Cannon-Bard’s theory: emotion first, and list the reasons why they disagreed with James-Lange’s theory
  • Summarize Schachter-Singer’s theory that emotion depends on both physiological arousal and cognitive interpretation

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