Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/James-Lange theory of emotion

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The James-Lange theory of Emotion:
What is the James-Lange theory, what is the evidence, and what are the implications?

Overview[edit | edit source]

When an individual experiences emotions[grammar?] how are they interpreted? And why is it interpreted a certain way? This chapter will delve into the James-Lange theory of emotion as it explains the relationship between physiological reactions to stimuli and emotion. The history and support of this theory clearly show that it is more than a theory, however due to the important criticisms this theory has received, it does pose the question of whether bodily changes actually have any influence due to the lack of generalisable results from the present studies on the theory.

The James-Lange theory of Emotion[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Bird swooping cyclist (case study 1).

The James-Lange theory of emotion explains how the primary cause of an emotion is the physical reaction to a stimuli (Coleman & Snarey, 2011). An event causes a physiological arousal and then this arousal is interpreted in the mind as an emotion. Studies have shown that there could be a viable relationship between the physiological reactions and emotions[factual?]. A study found evident physiological reactions for the emotions, anger, fear, sadness and happiness (Schwartz, 1998)[Provide more detail][explain?]. These are some of the basic emotions that many individuals experience regularly. However, another study found that physiological changes were related to different varieties of emotions (Ax, 1953)[Provide more detail][explain?]. Therefore it shows that the theory does not just apply to the basic emotions, but even, for example that fear seemed to be connected to the physiological process of adrenaline, but anger was not found to connected to noradrenaline (Ax, 1953)[Provide more detail][explain?]. Another study further supports the theory by conducting a study by asking participants to make facial expressions for anger, fear, happiness, sadness, disgust and surprise, holding them for ten seconds (Levenson, 1990). The physiological reactions of the participants were then measured and they found differences in heart rate, skin temperature and other bodily reactions for the variety of emotions (Levenson, 1990)[Provide more detail][explain?]. Barrett explained a more scientific approach has also been found, when PET scans were completed and it showed how basic emotions actually have distinct and unique patterns of activity in the brain, in regards to the brain's somatosensory cortex (2012). This cortex translates and processes sensory information from the skin, organs and muscles (Barrett, 2012). These studies prove that there is somewhat of a connection between the physiological reactions that individuals experience and emotions that are associated with these reactions. The case studies below explain in further detail how exactly the process is, in regards to the theory.

Case study 1
A lady decided to ride her bicycle home from work on a warm Spring afternoon. She suddenly hears a bird squawking and she automatically begins to ride faster, quickly lowering her head and she experiences her heart beating faster.

These physiological and bodily changes are a reaction the fact that a bird may swoop her, interpreting these bodily changes, the body possibly prepares for a fearful circumstance. The emotion, "fear" is then experienced.

Case study 2
A lawyer decided to walk through an empty, dark and quiet parking garage, to get to their car, after a day of work. He suddenly saw a shadow behind him and his heart rate quickened. Feeling scared, he rushes to his car.

The James-Lange theory of emotion then suggests that the individual interprets the physical changes to the stimulus, as fear.

The case studies explain how the human psyche may interpret the bodily or physiological reactions to a stimuli, and how it could be translated into an emotion, such as fear in these two circumstances.

History of the James-Lange theory of Emotion[edit | edit source]

This theory was the first indication of a connection between physiological changes and emotional experiences. Developed by William James and Carl Lange (Coleman & Snarey, 2011). James explained that, "The bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact and that of feeling of the same changes as they occur in the emotion" (1899). Initially psychologists believed that the reaction to an event was entirely cognitive and the physiological changes that followed were a reaction to a thought in the mind (Coleman & Snarey, 2011).

However, the James-Lange theory explained how after the stimulus is interpreted, a physiological reaction occurs, which is then confirmed by an emotional response (James, 1892). Although it was a small change in the order of psychological processes, the implications of this theory, dramatically changed how psychologists interpreted and understood emotion. 

Test your knowledge (Part One)[edit | edit source]


1 Initially psychologists believed that the reaction to an event was entirely _____?


2 In the study by Ax (1953), was ___ and ____ connected?.

fear & crying
fear & adrenaline
happiness & smiling

Figure 2. The process of the James-Lange theory of emotion

What is Emotion?[edit | edit source]

What are emotions? Emotions are a concept that seek to explain the responses that occur after an event, recognised consciously or unconsciously, resulting in a manifestation in different components of an individual, such as cognitively, physically or bodily, physiologically and facial expressions (Fredrickson, 2001). These manifestations in different components may come as the universal seven emotions, anger, happiness, surprise, contempt, disgust, fear and sadness (Coleman & Snarey, 2011).

Case study 3
A baby doesn't like the food it is being given. As soon as it tastes it, it spits it out, starts to cry and has a tantrum. It is showing the emotions, disgust, anger and surprise.

Emotion and Physiology[edit | edit source]

These physiological or bodily responses include one of the most evident signs of emotional arousal includes autonomic system changes, such as changes in heart rate, sweating and blushing or turning pale (Purves, Augustine, Fitzpatrick, et al., 2001).

Responses of the autonomic nervous system can be quite specific, where every different pattern of arousal is characterised by different situations with linked emotional states (Purves, Augustine, Fitzpatrick, et al., 2001). Purves, Augustine, Fitzpatrick et. al. found that when facial expressions are made, the brain communicates with the motor cortex and areas of the brain that produce emotions (2001)[who?] . However, Williams explains how the variety of different emotions elicit many different physiological responses, some being more evident and some being more less present (William, 1899).

He [who?] explains how "softer" emotions, such as "moral and cognitive feelings" don’t have the same physiological response as "stronger" emotions such as anger, hate, shame, fear and love where the bodily arousal responses are a lot more evident and present (William, 1899). The James-Lange theory suggests that emotions must actually be felt or experienced, in a physiological or bodily sense, in order to have a true impact on the human psychological state. 

"What kind of an emotion of fear would be left if the feeling neither of quickened heart-beats nor of shallow breathing, neither of trembling lips nor of weakened limbs, neither of goose-flesh nor of visceral stirrings, were present, it is quite impossible for me to think ... I say that for us emotion dissociated from all bodily feeling is inconceivable" (William, 1899).

Support of the Theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Canon-Bard theory of emotion
  • Schwartz and others: found evident physiological reactions for the emotions, anger, fear, sadness and happiness (1998) 
  • Ax: physiological changes were related to different varieties of emotions (1953). For example, they found that fear seemed to be connected to the physiological process, adrenaline whilst anger was related to noradrenaline (1953).
  • Levenson and others: in their study, participants were asked to make facial expressions for anger, fear, happiness, sadness, disgust and surprise, holding them for approximately ten seconds (1990). They then measured the physiological reactions, finding differences in heart rate, skin temperature, and other bodily reactions for the variety of emotions (1990). 
  • PET scans have shown how some of the basic emotions actually have distinct and unique patterns of activity in the brain, in regards to the brain’s somatosensory cortex. This cortex translate and process sensory information from the skin, organs and muscles (Barrett, 2012).
Figure 4. The Schacter-Singer theory

Criticism of the theory[edit | edit source]

  • The Canon-Bard theory of emotion was founded by Walter Canon in the 1920s, explains that our physiological reactions are actually caused by our emotions[grammar?]. The physiological responses were not the sources of emotions. He believed that emotions are derived from certain parts of the brain (subcortical centres) (Cannon, 1987). 
  • Wilhelm Wundt suggested that feelings and emotions were primary, therefore a hard-wired’ sensation (Palencik, 2007).
  • Ferenczi argued that the James-Lange theory of emotion is only relevant for children, not for adults[factual?]. He agreed with [what?] theory but suggested that as we grow older, we develop new ways to control and regulate emotions (1949). 
  • The two-factor theory of emotion was created suggesting that we first have psychological arousal and then a behavioural response, then cognitive appraisal and then we finally feel the emotion/feeling (1962). The theory is very similar to the James-Lange theory, [grammar?] it explains an extra step, the cognitive appraisal step (1962). This is when you realise what is happening and then you connect it to an emotion. For example, in the first scenario, where you are riding your bicycle home, and you hear a squawking bird. You will start to ride faster, you quickly lower your head and your heart beat increases, and cognitively realise what is going on and you would feel fear.


Figure 5. The universal seven emotions

Implications[edit | edit source]

  • Childhood development: children's ability to control physiological representations of emotion, lacks the definition of a fully developed adult, which explains why children have less control over their feelings and emotions (William, 1899)[grammar?]
  • Evolution: based on the [what?] theory, it is assumed that emotions are based on the physiological reactions to events, thus suggesting it could be due to evolutionary origins (Coleman & Snarey, 2011). If this is true, then people across all cultures, backgrounds and ethnicities would have the same emotional experiences. This finding is helpful in facets of emotional psychology such as the expressions on the face. It explains why people around the world recognise seven basic emotions, fear, anger, happiness, sad, contempt, surprise and disgust (Coleman & Snarey, 2011). This recognises that these basic emotions are not culturally learnt but rather, psychologically universal in some manner. 
  • Conditioning: Understanding the processes which contribute to emotion play an important role in learned behaviour. As such, this theory of emotion could be used to assist in the development of conditioning behaviour modification plans. For example, if a person suffers from a phobia of birds, and this is stopping them from enjoying time outside, the understanding that this is a response to a physiological cue will help to formulate valid treatments. In this way, the study of this type of motivational cue can help to develop effective treatments for unfavourable behaviours.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Is there a relationship between the physiological reactions individuals experience in their response to a stimuli? The James-Lange theory provides the connection between the two factors, however emotions are solely not based on the sensing of these emotions and translating them to emotions. The research does provide support to the theory, but theories such as the two-factor theory of emotion, provide reasonable evidence suggesting otherwise. It is important to note that although this theory can provide answers for this relationship, there are limits as softer emotions tend to have less physiological reactions than more harsh emotions as well as the lack of empirical evidence in support of the theory. The implications of this theory provides great possible enhancements in psychology in today's modern world but further research needs to be considered in order to cater for the different personalities, cultures and identities in the world, as the theory lacks generalisability. In conclusion, there is a relationship between physiological reactions and emotions, however it is solely not depended on that factor, and there are many more factors that should be considered in the study of emotion.

A possible area of further research would be to look at how different personalities or different cultures would perceive different stimuli and how it brings on different physiological reactions. For example:

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  • A stressed student may be walking home at night and suddenly see a shadow and may experience physiological reactions, associated with fear. However, a trained martial arts trainer who suddenly sees a shadow at night, may experience physiological reactions, associated with anger, or the mental and physiological preparation to protect themselves.

This idea that the reaction to different stimuli may be subjective depending on the individual, their personality, culture and other factors, could help identify different ways of using this theory in treatment for different individuals. For instance, if this theory was cross checked with the 16 basic personality types using the Myer-Briggs Type Indicator then it could possibly help change the way treatment is applied for phobias and disorders associated with emotions.

Test your knowledge (Part Two)[edit | edit source]

1 What are the 6 basic emotions?

disdain, grief, happiness, surprise and disgust
sadness, fear, shame, love, calmness and hatred
anger, joyous, envy, surprise, trust and sadness
jealousy, anger, happiness, fear, disgust and proud
fear, anger, happiness, sadness, surprise and disgust

2 Who created the two-factor theory?.

Walter Cannon
Wilhelm Wundt
Carl Jung

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Ax, A. (1953). The Physiological Differentiation between Fear and Anger in Humans. Psychosomatic Medicine, 15(5), 433-442.

Barrett, L. (2012). Emotions are real. American Psychological Association, 12, 413–429.

Cannon, W. (1987). The James-Lange Theory of Emotions: A Critical Examination and an Alternative Theory. The American Journal Of Psychology, 100(3/4), 567.

Coleman, A., & Snarey, J. (2011). James-Lange Theory of Emotion. Encyclopedia Of Child Behavior And Development, 844-846.

Ferenczi, S. (1949). Notes and fragments. International Journal Of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 30, 231-242.

Fredrickson, B. (2001). Cultivating research on positive emotions: A response. Prevention & Treatment, 3(1).

Fredrickson, B. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226.

James, W. (1892). Psychology : briefer course. New York : H. Holt & Co.

James, W. (1911). Talks to teachers on psychology, and to students on some of life's ideals. New York: W.W. Norton.

Levenson, R., Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. (1990). Voluntary Facial Action Generates Emotion-Specific Autonomic Nervous System Activity. Psychophysiology, 27(4), 363-384.

Palencik, J. (2007). William James and the Psychology of Emotion: From 1884 to the Present. Transactions Of The Charles S. Peirce Society, 43(4), 769-786. Retrieved from

Purves, D., Augustine, G., Fitzpatrick, D., Hall, W., LaMantia, A., & White, L. (2001). Neuroscience (2nd ed.). Sinauer. [Article title?]

Schachter, S., & Singer, J. (1962). Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review, 69(5), 379-399.

Schwartz, G., Reiman, E., Axelrod, B., Yun, L., Holmes, A., & Lane, R. (1998). Neural Correlates of Levels of Emotional Awareness: Evidence of an Interaction between Emotion and Attention in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex. Journal Of Cognitive Neuroscience, 10(4), 525-535.

External links[edit | edit source]