Motivation and emotion/Textbook/Emotion/Theories/Cognitive

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Cognitive theories of emotion[edit]

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Aristotle and Plato: both scholars proposed theories of emotion.

There are many theories which have been developed over time in order to explain the process of Emotion. Even scholars such as Aristotle and Plato were trying to figure out what made people feel the way that they do and experience specific emotions (Fortenbaugh, 1975). What makes some people happy and some people sad? Is it purely based on our facial expressions? Is it a chemical change in the body? Are emotions physically the same?

There are three key sets of theories revolving around the concept of emotion. These are biological theories of emotion, socio-cultural theories of emotion and cognitive theories of emotion (Johnson-Laird & Oatley, 1992). This chapter focuses specifically on cognitive theories of emotion.

Cognitive theories of emotion are theories which try to explain the concept of emotions by proving that they are based around a person’s perception, intuition and reasoning. Without an antecedent cognitive appraisal (an estimate of the personal significance) of a situation or event, emotions cannot occur (Hampson & Morris, 1996).

Psychologists interested in emotion have for some time been preoccupied with attempts to explain emotions in terms of cognitive processes. Relating emotions specifically to cognition seems to take something away from the concept of an emotion. This way of thinking means that emotions are just thoughts about situations we find ourselves in. However, cognitive theories appear to be the most recognised and accepted of the theories of emotion (LeDoux, 1996).

There are many key cognitive theories of emotion, but all theories centre around the same point, that it is the cognitive appraisal of a situation, not the event itself, that causes the emotion.

Schachter-Singer Cognitive Arousal theory[edit]

Schachter and Singer (1962) proposed that physiological arousal is necessary for an emotional response, but that similar patterns of arousal can occur for many different emotions (Rathus, 1989 and Woods, 1997). For example, our heart rate increases and we start to sweat when we are both afraid and angry. For this reason Schachter and Singer proposed that it is not the pattern of arousal that enables us to label an emotion, but our cognitive appraisal of the arousal and of the situation we are in (Schachter & Singer, 1962). Therefore, someone who experiences physiological arousal for no apparent reason will consider their surroundings and the situation they are in and then label the emotion using this cognitive appraisal (Rathus, 1989).

Schachter and Singer tested their theory in an experiment, the objective of which was to show that once the arousal is labelled as an emotion, the degree of a persons arousal determines the intensity of the emotion. The experiment consisted of four groups. Each participant was told that the purpose of the experiment was to assess the effects of vitamin injections on vision (Woods, 1997):

  • Group A was given an adrenaline injection and told of the side affects (such as increased heart rate and sweating)
  • Group B was given an adrenaline injection and told incorrect information about the side affects (such as itching)
  • Group C was given an adrenaline injection and told no information about the side effects
  • Group D was given a saline injection (acting as a placebo) and given no information about the side affects (Hassett, 1984 and Rathus, 1989).

Whilst waiting to go for their ‘vision test’ each participant was asked to wait in a room with a second person (a confederate). Half of the participants in each of the four conditions were placed with a happy person, who was laughing out loud and making paper aeroplanes, playing with a slingshot and building a fort out of manila folders. The other half were asked to fill out a questionnaire and placed in a room with an unhappy person, who was angry and irate and ended up ripping the questionnaire and storming out of the room (Hassett, 1984 and Rathus, 1989)

Researchers measured the participants' emotional responses according to the degree with which they participated in similar behaviour to the second person. The results showed that participants in groups B and C reflected the behaviour and mood of the confederate much more than the participants in groups A and D (Hassett, 1984).

Schachter and Singer’s explanation of the results is that group B and C participants could not explain the way that they were feeling physically, and so looked for alternative explanations. The cognitive appraisal of the participant’s environment meant that they associated their physical responses with the behaviour of the confederate and so felt either happy or angry, depending on which emotions the confederate was displaying (Schachter & Singer, 1962)

Later researchers have had trouble replicating the results of Schachter and Singer's experiment, and certain queries regarding the use of epinephrine injections and their elicited response have been raised. However, Schachter and Singers most important conclusion, that cognitive interpretations do affect emotional experience and behaviour, have been widely supported by further research (Woods, 1997).

For example, if Rachel was walking along and saw a snake, the snake (being the stimulus) would trigger a physical response such as increased heart rate and sweating. Rachel would subconsciously consider her surroundings and the situation she is in and then determine that she is afraid.

Stimulus → Arousal → Cognition → Emotion

Appraisal theories of Emotion[edit]

Mary Arnold

Mary Arnold The appraisal concept was originally developed by Mary Arnold in the early 1960’s as a way to combat the elements she saw as missing from the Schachter-Singer cognitive arousal theory. Arnold believed that although Schachter and Singer had managed to explain how we deal with emotional responses once they occur, they had failed to address what generates the response in the first place. (Arnold, 1960)

Arnold proposed that appraisal is the mental assessment of the potential harm or benefit of a situation. She stated that emotion is the felt tendency towards anything that is appraised as good or away from anything that is appraised as bad (Arnold, 1960). The appraisal process happens unconsciously, however the resulting response is registered in consciousness as an emotional feeling (Ledoux, 1996)

For example, if Rachel was walking along and saw a snake, she would subconsciously appraise the situation and want to run away from the snake (her action tendency, either to stay if the stimulus is appraised as good or to flee if the stimulus is appraised as bad). The action tendency would be consciously registered as an emotional feeling (fear).

Stimulus → Appraisal → Action Tendency → Emotion

Richard Lazarus

Richard Lazarus was a clinical psychologist who used the appraisal concept to understand the way people react to and cope with stressful situations. In the 1960’s Lazarus conducted an experiment aimed at highlighting the fact that interpretations of situations strongly influence the emotion experienced (LeDoux, 1996). In his experiment, Lazarus showed a gruesome film clip of a circumcision ritual involving teenage members of an aboriginal Australian tribe to three groups of participants. The film clip was accompanied by one of three soundtracks. The first soundtrack emphasised the gruesome details of the film clip, saying things like “ Several men hold the boy so that he cannot escape” (Hassett, 1984 ).The second soundtrack denied the painfulness and suffering with phrases such as “The words of encouragement offered by the older men have their effect” (Hassett, 1984). The third soundtrack was more detached and focused on the intellectual perspective of the film clip, such as the surgical technique (Hassett, 1984 ).

Lazarus suggested that different soundtracks caused the participants to appraise the films in different ways and this led to different feelings about the situation (Lazarus, 1991). He argued that emotions can be started automatically unconsciously or consciously, but emphasised the role of higher thought processes and consciousness in coping with emotional reactions once they exist. Lazarus stated that “cognition is both a necessary and sufficient condition of emotion” (Lazarus, 1991).

Natrix natrix (Marek Szczepanek).jpg

For example, If Rachel was walking along and saw a snake, she would cognitively appraise the situation as bad, her heart beat would increase and she would start sweating and she would then feel the emotion and decide how to act.

Stimulus → Cognitive Appraisal → Action Tendency → Emotion

Attribution Theory of Emotion[edit]

The first attribution theory was published by Fritz Heider in 1958. In his book, The Psychology of Interpersonal relations, Heider was concerned with they way that people use common sense to try and understand and explain events which occur, and the actions of other people and themselves (Hassett, 1984 ).

A Key element of Attribution theory is the concept of self perception, which is a term used to describe the ways in which people often draw conclusions from observations of their own behaviour. When people explain their own behaviour, they tend to overestimate the size of the effect of external factors (things which they have no control over) and underestimate the size of internal factors (personal responsibility) (Oatley & Johnson-Laird, 1987).


The concept of self perception has become one which is seemingly important in the study of emotions. It can be noted that in Schachter and Singer's cognitive theory of emotion, the concept of self- perception directly affects the emotions experienced by the participants in the study. Participants in Groups B and C who had received adrenaline injections, misattributed the cause of their physiological arousal to the happy or angry situation they were placed into. This has led to a series of studies on self-perception and the misattribution process, in which people are purposely given false information about internal states to see how they would interpret it and how it would affect their perceived emotions (Hassett, 1984 ).

One study conducted by Valins in 1966, male college students were asked to rate the attractiveness of women in sexually provocative pictures whilst they listened to what they were told was their heartbeat (Hammond, 2005). The sound they were listening to was a fake heart beat, which was controlled by the experimenter. Periodically the heartbeat rate was increased so that the participants believed that their own heart beats were increasing. Participants rated the women who they when they heard their heartbeat going faster as more attractive than those women whom which they did not hear their heart beat increasing for. The general assumption here is that on some unconscious level the men thought that since their heart rate was going faster, they must find the particular women more attractive (Oatley & Johnson-Laird, 1987).

The results of this experiment and the many others which have been conducted indicate that external information can lead people to draw conclusions about their own internal states. Peoples emotions can be affected by the factors which occur in their external environment (Hammond, 2005).

For example, Rachel is walking along with her friends when one of then hears a rustle in the bushes. Rachel’s heart beat increases and she starts to perspire. If her friends were to run away screaming, Rachel would interpret her physiological reaction to the environment as fear and her instinct would be to flee. However if her friends appeared excited and inquisitive about the rustle in the bushes, Rachel would interpret her physiological reaction as excitement.

Stimulus → Physiological Response → Cognitive Environmental Consideration → Emotion

Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion[edit]

Tutorial emotions.png

The cannon-Bard theory of emotion (also known as the Thalamic theory) was developed by physiologists Walter Cannon and Phillip Bard. It is a theory which combines both cognitive elements of emotion and biological elements of emotion(LeDoux, 1996).

The theory suggests that individuals experience emotions and have a physiological reaction to a stimulus at the same time. It was developed in order to contest the James- Lange Feedback theory of emotion, which stated that we physiologically respond to a stimulus first, and the feedback from this response then generates an emotion (Leahey, 1987). Cannon and Bard believed that this was incorrect, and that both a physiological response to a stimulus, and the experience of an emotion, occur at the same time. The concept behind the theory is that the thalamus is a central factor in generating emotional experience and behaviour(LeDoux, 1996).

The Cannon-Bard theory built up on the fact that the sensory systems that take in information from the outside world send the information to specialised regions of the cerebral cortex and onto specialised cortical areas. However, Cannon and Bard suggested that in their travels towards the specialised cortical areas the sensory messages make a stop in subcortical areas- in thalamic relay stations (Cannon, 1929). These thalamic relay stations are specialised for particular sensory processing (for example visual stimulus goes from the eyes to the visual thalamus and on to the visual cortex and auditory stimulus goes from the ears to the auditory thalamus and on to the auditory cortex). However some thalamic relay stations send the information to the hypothalamus, not to the cortical areas. This means that the hypothalamus receives sensory input at about the same time as the cortex, allowing the hypothalamus to activate the body to produce the automatic and behavioural responses characteristic of emotional reactions. Therefore, the emotional response is triggered by the hypothalamus at the same times as the physiological response to the stimulus is triggered by the cortex (Cannon, 1929).

Four temperament.PNG

For example, if Rachel was walking along and saw a snake she would immediately cognitively perceive the snake. The snake (being a visual stimulus) would trigger the thalamus to relay messages to both the visual cortex and to the hypothalamus. Rachel’s body would then start to feel the emotion fear at the same times as her body physically responds to the stimulus and starts to show the emotion fear (her heart beat accelerates and she starts to sweat).

Stimulus Perception → Physiological Response → Physiological Changes + Emotional Experience


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Stop and Think

Try imagining yourself as Rachel in each of the examples and think about the ways in which her body reacts differently to the snake in the different theories. Which example seems to be the most suitable? How do you think you would respond in her situation?

Although all of the theories listed above seem to have at least some element of reality to them it is hard to determione which theory, if any, defines the process of emotion exactly. Scholars from many disciplines are constantly challenging the cognitive theories of emotion (and the biological and socio-cultural theories as well). However there seems to be a consensus that cognition is a necessary part of the emotion forming process.




Arnold, M. (1960) Emotion and Personality. New York, Columbia University press.

Cannon, W. B. (1929) Bodily changes in pain, hunger, fear and rage (vol.2), New York, Appleton Publishers.

Fortenbaugh, W. W. (1975) Aristotle on Emotion. Great Britain, Gerald Duckworth & Company Limited.

Hammond, C. (2005) Emotional Rollercoaster. Great Britain, Fourth Estate Publishing. (336-339)

Hampson, P. J. and Morris, P. E. (1996) Understanding Cognition. Blackwell Publishers, United Kingdom.

Hassett, J. (1984) Psychology in Perspective. NewYork, harper & Row Publishers.

Johnson-Laird, P. N., & Oatley, K. (1992). Basic emotions: a cognitive science approach to function, folk theory and empirical study. Cognition and Emotion, 6, 201-223.

Lazarus, R. S. (1991) Cognition and motivation in emotion. American psychologist, 46(4), 352-67

Leahey, T. H. (1987) A History of Psychology. United States, Prentice Hall.

LeDoux, J. (1996) The Emotional Brain. New York, Simon & Schuster. (44-73)

Oatley, K. and Johnson- Laird, P. N. (1987) Towards a Cognitive Theory of Emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 1, 29-50.

Rathus, S. A. (1989) Essentials of Psychology. United States, Halt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. (266-271)

Reeve,J. (2009). Understanding Motivation and Emotion, Fifth Edition. Iowa; John Wiley & Sons.

Schachter, S. and Singer, J. E. (1962) Cognitive, social and physiological determinants of the emotional state. Psychological Review, 69, 379-99.

Woods, B. (1997) Discovering Psychology. Hodder & Stoughton, Great Britain.

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